She witnessed the atrocities, the killings, the abject poverty, the helplessness and hopelessness of millions of Latin Americans—victims of U.S. policies unraveled. If all that was ever to change, she knew she'd need to recruit many more witnesses from the United States to tell the story back home.
That was two decades and 12,000 witnesses ago.
Gail Phares, 63, a former Maryknoll missioner to Central America, is still recruiting volunteers and challenging them "to do hard things." She is still forming "beloved communities" out of like-minded strangers. She is still leading Witness for Peace delegations into war zones and returning to the United States to demonstrate and lobby for change.
They know Phares around Washington's political circles. They know her in the campos and in the capitals of Nicaragua, Guatemala, Cuba, and Colombia. They have seen what witnesses can do.
It all started back in spring 1983. Phares, who had seen too much violence during her missionary days in Nicaragua and Guatemala, formed an interfaith task force in her community of Raleigh, North Carolina. She convinced others to travel to Nicaragua on a fact-finding mission to learn firsthand of the fallout from the U.S.-funded contra war. The group visited El Porvenir on the Honduran border in the wake of a contra mortar attack that had destroyed numerous peasant huts.
"We went to one shack. The mother was standing in shock," Phares recalled. "The tiny house had been hit by mortars and her daughter had just been taken to Jalapa by ambulance." But while the group was there, no shells fell. They could see the contra encampment. But the guns were silent. One of the members of the group said, "If all it takes to stop the killing is to have Americans here, let's call for a vigil."