A bee hovered near the middle button of Father William Wipfler's black clerical suit as he stood on the Q Street sidewalk.
He looked down slowly, his body frozen. "I hate bees," he said. "I don't mind bullets. But bees, I hate."
Wipfler, 49, an Episcopal priest with a pleasant smile and intense hazel eyes, was standing on the sidewalk after a Sunday morning memorial service marking the fourth anniversary of the death of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier.
Wipfler, now director of the Human Rights Office for overseas ministries of the National Council of Churches, has pursued a ministry of risk. Last night he received one of the fourth annual Letelier-Moffitt Memorial Human Rights Awards in recognition of his work.
As a priest who works in the volatile arena of foreign governments and human rights, his ministry has taken strange turns and he says he was once targeted for death in the Dominican Republic. He has crept around Latin American towns in intricate routes to avoid being followed. He has hidden film of victims of violent government repression, and met secretly with informants. Many acquaintances and friends in his line of work have disappeared or died, he said.
"How do you alleviate -- even for one hour -- the suffering of one person, whether they're in jail or being tortured or whatever?" he asked. "I try to find the causes, and if it involves U.S. policy, I try to raise hell about it."
He is equally outspoken in the United States. Angry at U.S. policies toward various governments, he has walked out of meetings with high-ranking State Department officials. "Usually, I don't walk out on people who are talking to me," he said with an apologetic grin.
He has made a 25-year career out of working to uncover and protest human rights violations throughout Latin America and in some Asian and African countries.
He looks like a typical, urbane Episcopal priest in a parish where the biggest problem of the day is Modern-American-and-the-Church.
But in Wipfler's Latin American parishes, the problem was often torture by the government. And in place of the calm clerical demeanor, "I have 16 of the 20 characteristics of a type-A personality," he said, laughing. "Gesticulating, thinking of two things at once, workaholic . . ."
At home, Wipfler is an assistant priest at The Church of the Transfiguration in Freeport, N.Y., near Kennedy airport. Churchgoers there are used to having a newly released Uruguayan political prisoner or a Chilean activist from the Vicariate of Solidarity drop in.
His job with the National Council of Churches has two aspects. Abroad, he talks with people who say they have been victimized by their governments. He also talks with their families. In the U.S. he "storms the halls of Congress," talking to legislators and providing information. He confers with State Department officials about changing U.S. policy toward certain governments, and asks them to take more firm stands against violators of human rights.
His family tolerates all this with great patience and support. "My wife knows if I quit, I'd just go off in a corner and get moldy," he said. However, his wife would prefer he stay away from Paraguay for the moment. Wipfler and a lawyer named David Helfeld wrote a recently published book on Paraguay that was roundly denounced there, he said. "I think if I were to go to Paraguay now, she'd have a heart attack," Wipfler said.
In 1955, when he graduated from General Theological Seminary, he decided on missionary work -- as did a lot of his classmates. "I was into standard brands," he said off-handedly, " and it was one of the things I could have done. I just felt called."
He and his new wife went off to the Dominican Republic."There was a post open," he said. "I wanted to go there as much as anywhere else."
They stayed for 8 1/2 years, through two churches, through the final years of the rule of Gen. Raphael Trujillo, a regime marked by murder and torture. oWipfler says young people in his parish were often carted away to be tortured. w
"I went there thinking the Christian religion had a lot to offer people in suffering," he said, "only to learn that I got a lot more than they did -- a sense of hope, a sense of struggle and sharing. I learned what the word 'liberation' meant from my parish in the Dominican Republic."
By 1961, he says, he had made Trujillo's death list. Wipfler was Vicar of All Saints' Church in La Romana in the Dominican Republic at the time and, he says, not exactly well-liked by the government. For one thing, he let the people in his parish use the church mimeograph machine "for a variety of things that were handed out on the street," he said, fingering his glass of beer, a grin breaking across his face. "Things questioning the regime."
Wipfler had a good friend, a dentist, with whom he played billiards every Friday night. One night after their game, his friend was picked up by police, taken away and beaten. Wipfler went to his friend's family's aid, something one wasn't supposed to do, he says.
In May of 1961, Trujillo was assassinated. His family retained power for six months before a coup overturned them. The morning after the coup, Wipfler was stopped on his way to church by an anti-Trujillo group. They handed him a piece of paper.
"'Here's the list,' they said," Wipfler recalled. "I said, 'What list?' They said it was the list of people who were supposed to be killed. Apparently 20 of us were going to be done in that night before the coup."
Wipfler walked into church as if nothing had happened. But halfway through the service, it hit home. "My knees quaked so bad I could barely continue the service," he said. "Delayed reaction." He rolled his deepset hazel eyes, his face spreading into a smile.
When the Trujillo regime went out, labor lawyers came in to see the people -- mostly sugar plantation and factory workers. Wipfler helped them negotiate for better pay and conditions.
In 1978, he got his Ph.D. in missiology from Union Theological Seminary. The subject: "Power, Influence and Impotence: The Church as a Socio-Political Factor in the Dominican Republic."
For the past 13 years he had worked with the National Council of Churches, first in the Caribbean and Latin America Department as assistant director, then director. In 1977, he became director of the Human Rights Office.
"I'm not a hero," said Wipfler."I do this as part of work I feel has to be done. What I do is just a piece of the movement. And a lot of it is inspired by Archbishop Romero."
Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was slain last March as he was saying mass, was a popular figure and human-rights activist in El Salvador.Wipfler happened to be leading an ecumenical delegation in El Salvador at the time. He spoke with the archbishop the day before he died.
Wipfler travels several months each year, leaving behind his wife and four children (three in college, one just graduated). "Well, my wife works -- she teaches English as a second language," he said, explaining why he travels alone. But the more important reason is that "I'd never take them into some of the things I get into."
"The wildest time was in Iran," he said. For eight days in April before the fall of the shah, he took sound movie film of former victims of the shah's prisons. He hid the 40 film cartridges all around his hotel room -- behind the draperies, in the toilet tank. When it was time to leave, he went to the airport, abruptly changed his flight -- and put his film on a different flight. a"I had the manager of the airline hand carry it on the plane," he said, smiling. "I made a fuss -- like a big-mouth tourist. That's how I got by with the camera. I kept asking people where the monuments were."
In Guatemala, in 1973, he confronted the defense minister with information that Wipfler said connected numerous peasant deaths to the military police there. "We had signed affadavits from the families of victims," said Wipler. t"I told him all this. We were in his office. He got red-faced, fingering his pistol in his holster and said, 'What right do you have to come in here?' And for a while there, I thought, 'I'm gonna get it.' I really think my only visa was my collar."
Eventually the defense minister said his government would reply to Wipfler's charges. But Wipfler was so shaken that his route back to his hotel consisted of cutting through a cathedral, then a market, taking one taxi, getting out, then taking another. Before he got in to the hotel, he slipped off his collar -- "in case they put out the word they were looking for a guy in a clerical collar." He smiled and rolled his eyes. "A little nervous."
Shortly after Letelier was killed in 1976, Wipfler came across some information about DINA (Chilean secret police) agents coming into the country. He quietly forwarded the information to a congressman, whose staffer unwittingly released it along with Wipfler's name. In short order, a Chilean newspaper headline declared him an enemy of the people.
The next time Wipfler went to Chile, the immigration officer took one look at his passport and the name. "He gave me a very, very knowing smile," said Wipfler. As a safety precaution, whenever he wanted to leave the place where he was staying in Santigo, his hosts routinely took him out the back door, through the yard into another neighbor's yard and out that house.
He can be undiplomatic. At a recent briefing on El Salvador for a handful of people, Wipfler got up in the middle of remarks by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Bushnell -- now an ambassador -- and walked out.
At a meeting of Latin American ambassadors with President Carter at the United Nations, Wipfler stood in a receiving line that Carter was moving down. As the president came by, Wipfler unleashed a verbal critique of the Carter administration's manner of dealing with human rights violations. Before Wipfler could get most of it out, Carter was quickly shuttled away.
"Frustrating," he said.The eyes rolled again. "I dream about being far more agressive in my ministry. I dream about changing the style -- maybe stopping to teach for a year. But I never think about leaving."