Human rights activist to give the inaugural Zepp lecture

August 29, 2011

Human rights and peace activist Father Roy Bourgeois will discuss “The Struggle for Justice in Latin America,” at the inaugural Ira G. Zepp, Jr., Memorial Lecture at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22 in McDaniel Lounge. The lecture is free and open to the public.

Bourgeois, who has been excommunicated and was recently dismissed by his religious order (Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers) for supporting the ordination of women in the priesthood, will spend the day with students on campus teaching or participating in a class, meeting with students over lunch, or having small group discussions that will allow students and faculty to encounter new ideas and different opinions as well as encourage the exploration of issues beyond the classroom.

He became an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America after four church women, including two friends, were raped and killed by Salvadorian soldiers. In 1990, he founded the School of Americas Watch to do research on the U.S. Army School of the Americas – renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) – which trains soldiers from Latin America in combat skills near Fort Benning, Ga., and, since then, has advocated for the closing of WHINSEC.

The lecture and day-in-residence honors Ira Zepp, a devoted member of the McDaniel faculty for more than 40 years and a human rights activist in his own right who died in 2009. He advocated the acceptance of gays, civil rights and women's rights and marched with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Ala.

Mohamed Esa, professor of Foreign Languages, was a colleague and friend who Zepp invited to give a guest lecture in his class on Islam. So fascinated by Zepp’s teaching style, Esa attended the class for the remainder of the semester. Zepp’s guest lecture in Esa’s Arab World class was always the most popular because of Zepp’s ability to engage students, Esa says.

“Ira would stand in front of the students and ask them what they thought,” says Esa, who won the prestigious Zepp Teaching Award in 2007. “Then he would look deep into their eyes and wait for their answer. Most professors would give up after 10 seconds or so, but not Ira, he was sincerely interested in their answers.

“My favorite quote is his: ‘Questions unite. Answers divide.’ He was a social activist not by profession but by passion.”

The lecture and day-in-residence honoring Zepp will rotate among four academic departments, beginning with Sociology and continuing on every two years through Religious Studies (Zepp’s department), Environmental Studies and Political Science/International Relations.

“We think that Father Bourgeois is the perfect speaker for the inaugural Zepp lecture because his social activism best reflected Ira’s life’s work and devotion to human rights,” says Debra Lemke, Sociology professor and department chair and also a recipient of the Zepp Teaching Award.

Bourgeois served as a naval officer for four years before his ordination and received the Purple Heart. Ordained in 1972, he worked with the poor in Bolivia before being arrested and forced to leave the country. He helped produce several documentaries, including “Gods of Metal” in 1983 about the nuclear arms race and “School of Assassins” in 1995 about the U.S. Army School of the Americas. Both films received Academy Award nominations.