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Father Louis Vitale of St. boniface Church in San Francisco spoke at the Declaration of Peace event at the Transfiguration Episcopal Church in San Mateo.
The Rev. Louis Vitale has spent his career as a Franciscan priest fighting for the poor, for the homeless, for migrant laborers, for African-Americans, for Muslims, and, through the decades, against war.

In the '60s and '70s, he battled the Vietnam War; in the '80s, he attacked U.S.-sponsored wars in Central America; in the '90s and beyond, he has struggled against the threat of nuclear war.

At San Mateo's Transfiguration Episcopal Church on Monday night, he explained to an audience of about 80 why we must withdraw our troops from Iraq.

"Our God-given task in this world is to make peace," he told the crowd, which included Catholics, Episcopalians and even Muslims.

"Father Louie," as he likes to be called, told the assembled that he had just spent five months in a Georgia county jail.

"Not exactly your first choice for a summer vacation," he joked.

Vitale, who estimates that he has been arrested more than 200 times, was booked this time around on trespassing charges while joining thousands in a protest at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Ga. The school, Vitale believes, has taught torture tactics to death squads in Latin America.

Getting arrested, Vitale said Monday night, is a "dangerous act of selflessness," a spiritual opportunity to put your safety — even your life — on the line to speak out for what you believe is right.


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"These kinds of acts of spiritual energy," he said, "can create the same kind of energy as an atomic weapon, but positive."

Vitale, 74, did not implore the Transfiguration Episcopal Church crowd to go to jail or to risk their lives. Instead, the assembled — many, like Vitale, silver-haired — were encouraged to take the Declaration of Peace Pledge.

The pledge, written by a coalition of religious and activist organizations, offers a variety of personal commitment options to help end the war. While participants can engage, like Vitale, in nonviolent civil disobedience, there are also options such as writing to President Bush and Congress or participating in legal marches and demonstrations.

Anne Carey, who attends services at Transfiguration, organized Vitale's speech with the San Mateo-based Network of Spiritual Progressives.

Carey's increased activism against the Iraq war, she said, has been fueled by attending memorial services in San Mateo Central Park nearly every Saturday. There, she joins others in reciting the names of the victims of the war, from American soldiers to Iraqi civilians to coalition forces from Bulgaria and Thailand.

"Just that experience of hearing those names read, and reflecting on the loss of each individual, it's so soul-searing," she said after the meeting.

Although San Mateo resident Beverly Vaughn Hock goes to church at St. Paul's in Burlingame, she found out about Monday's event through a friend. An Episcopalian, she also opposes the war in Iraq.

Vaughn Hock is among 62 percent of Americans who, according to a survey released last month by the Washington Post believe that the war in Iraq is not worth fighting.

After hearing Vitale speak, she said that she felt encouraged and hopeful.

"Whether you're going to pray or talk or write a letter or contribute money, there are many paths," she said. "You don't have to go around burning flags."

For more information, contact the Network of Spiritual Progressives-San Mateo County at nspsmc@hotmail.com. For more information about the Declaration of Peace Pledge, check out declarationofpeace.org.

Staff writer Michael Manekin can be reached at (650) 348-4337.

or mmanekin@sanmateocountytimes.com.