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United Methodist enters prison after civil disobedience arrest

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A photo by Ginny Moore Kruse

Fred Brancel (center) prays with supporters April 11 before entering Oxford Federal Penitentiary. The Rev. Cecil Findley (right) organized the prayer service.
April 26, 2006

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

A United Methodist layman, arrested for civil disobedience last fall, is spending three months at Oxford Federal Penitentiary in Wisconsin.

Fred Brancel, 79, of Madison, Wis., was one of 29 people who reported to federal prisons April 11 to begin serving sentences for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience at Fort Benning military base in Georgia.

Since 1990, human rights advocates have called for the closing of the School of the Americas there — now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation — because of documented abuses connected to soldiers from Latin American countries who are trained at the school. According to SOA Watch, a grass-roots, faith-based organization, the school continues to support “known human rights abusers.”

Four others already are serving prison time for the November protest, which drew an estimated 19,000 demonstrators, according to SOA Watch. Those sentenced ranged in age from 19 to 81.

The Rev. Cecil Findley, a retired United Methodist pastor and friend of Brancel’s, is active in Madison’s SOA Watch group and helped organize “farewell sendoffs” for him with Sister Maureen McDonnell. The sendoff services, one in Madison and one outside the prison, also saluted fellow protesters Buddy Bell, 23, and Delmar Schwaller, 81, who entered Oxford that day. “We honored them for going to prison,” Findley said.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A photo by Ginny Moore Kruse

The back of Fred Brancel's shirt conveys his message to close the School of the Americas.

As of April 25, Findley reported, Brancel was being treated well by prison officials. His wife, Mary Ann, told Findley that Brancel is able to call home nearly every day. Because he is a “notoriously slow eater” and was having trouble with the 30 minutes allotted for standing in line and eating meals, Brancel has been allowed to eat with the kitchen crew before each meal period, Findley said.

A Wisconsin native, Brancel served from 1951 to 1971 as a Methodist missionary in the African countries of Angola, Zimbabwe and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). In 1961, he was imprisoned for three months as an alleged “instigator” in the Angolan independence movement.

After returning to the United States, Brancel became a lay associate at the University United Methodist Church in Madison and later served as director-manager of a church camp in Northwest Wisconsin for 11 years until retirement. As a retiree, he traveled extensively and participated in numerous Volunteer in Mission trips. He went to Iraq in 2004 with a Christian Peacemakers Team.

In a statement about his actions last fall, Brancel said, “Inspired by a book study at church and remembering President Eisenhower’s cautioning about the impact of our military-industrial complex, I decided to commit civil-disobedience at Fort Benning because of the growing deficit, growing disparity, growing distrust and growing discord/animosity and the need I see to ?change the direction of the wind’.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Linda Panetta

Demonstrators protest at the site of the former School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., on Nov. 21.

Brancel is not the only United Methodist to serve time in prison for a School of the Americas protest. In 2000, the Rev. Charles Butler, then 73, spent several months at the federal prison in Waseca, Minn., after being found guilty of trespassing on School of the Americas property.

Legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., would suspend activities at the school and calls for a review of foreign military training in Latin America. It could come to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives for a vote as early as May, according to SOA Watch. The bill currently has 128 bipartisan cosponsors.

Findley, who has been involved in SOA Watch for about five years, is optimistic about the bill, and said the demonstrations at Fort Benning have made a difference.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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