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Group marks Lent with protest at nuclear test site

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Jan Snider

The Peace with Justice Committee of the California-Pacific Conference is an organizer of the annual protest against nuclear weapons testing.

April 12, 2006

A UMNS Report
By Lilla Marigza*

Fifty years ago, tourists traveled to Las Vegas to watch mushroom clouds rise in the distance.

Between 1951 and 1991, more than 900 nuclear tests were conducted at a site 65 miles northwest of the city. Science would not know until decades later the environmental and health fallout from experiments at the Nevada test site. It has been called the "most bombed place on earth."

For the last 25 years, the site has been a draw not for tourists, but for anti-war and pro-environment demonstrators.

Margaret Fuller-Lindgren of Palm City, Calif., goes there every year with a group of United Methodists. "When I come here it's very humbling, but it's also very empowering," she says.

On this day, a group of about 20 United Methodists walks down an otherwise empty stretch of paved road in the desert toward the test site. They carry a banner with the cross and flame logo and the words "May Peace Prevail on Earth." They are singing, "Walk With Me."

"It's a really moving experience, it really is," says Sarah Wright of Crescent Heights United Methodist Church in West Hollywood, Calif.

On the road, lined by miles of sand and spotty desert vegetation, they come to a white line on the pavement that marks the place where the desert becomes restricted property. No one without an escort may cross the line. The group crosses it.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Jan Snider

The Rev. Lily Villamin, Long Beach (Calif.) District superintendent, leads a communion service for protesters at the Nevada test site.

The United Methodists are met by uniformed federal guards who lead them to holding pens just inside the property line. It is here, in these wire cages large enough for hundreds of people, that the group holds a vigil. They are here to pray for peace and bring attention to what nuclear testing can do to the environment.

The prayers are led by Joanne Yoon Fukumoto a peace and justice educator for the United Methodist Church. "Our voices are heard, and we have to continue until all weapons of mass destruction are no longer," she says.

The brief service inside the holding pen includes quiet reflection and a blessing of the land. Demonstrators hope for a peace in the world like the peace they find here in the desert.

"The group experience that we had with prayer and meditation was very powerful, and I'm a grandmother and I can't not be here for my children and my grandchildren," says Joyce Georgieff, a peace and justice coordinator for the denomination and member of Spurgeon United Methodist Church in Santa Anna, Calif.

Corbin Harney is among the group. "I've been here since '85 trying my best to put a stop to this nonsense of testing a nuclear bomb," Harney says. He is a Native American, a member of the Shoshone tribe. He says his people lived with a communal spirit on this land for hundreds of years as caretakers of "Mother Earth."

"Everything on this Mother Earth enjoys the earth," he says. "We enjoy it but somehow we've been taught differently. When we start putting poison on our mother, everything is going to disappear from us."

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Jan Snider

United Methodists walk toward the Nevada desert test site in protest of nuclear weapons testing.

Wearing a simple wooden cross around his neck, the Rev. Paul Kim, pastor of First United Methodist in Santa Paula, Calif., is also among the group on this mission. Kim knows firsthand the impact of large-scale weapons. He grew up in South Korea in the 1950s following the Korean War. He remembers, he says, "the poverty after the war ? destruction. ? When I was living in the village, our town was destroyed."

Kim would like to see an end to the escalating arms race among countries today. "So many people are dying by the military weapons today. All people are God's children, so we need to love each other."

The group makes its annual trip to the Nevada test site during the Lenten season. The Rev. Diana L. Johnson, pastor of Martin Luther King United Methodist in Los Angeles, reflects on the significance of holding the protest during Lent. "It's time to give up ignorance. It's time to give up laziness. It's time to be on the move," she says. "Give that up in the name of Jesus Christ and do something not just for yourself but for your brothers and sisters all over the world."

Johnson has taken time to reflect on how nuclear testing here has an impact on life everywhere. "We're looking at land that looks beautiful on the surface, but there is so much damage underneath the surface," she says. "Why are we concerned about that? When it rains and snows and the wind blows, all of this shifts and comes not only to this beautiful land but it goes all over the world."

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Jan Snider

Protesters face arrest once they cross this line marking the boundary of the restricted weapons testing area.

Twenty-five years ago, when protest began at the Nevada test site, the group numbered in the hundreds for the annual pilgrimage into the desert. This year, it's dwindled to less than two dozen.

"In the '80s, it was a little easier because there were thousands of people coming, so it was sad to me that it kind of fell off. We don't have as many people. So then I think it's all the more important that we come," Fuller-Lindgren says.

Her fellow missionaries on this delegation agree. "This year is small, but I don't think the numbers matter," Wright says.

Fukumoto says she and others will continue to visit the site to pray, remembering Christ's promise that where people are gathered in his name, he is with them. "We know that God is really present in the desert, that God looks down upon us and finds favor with peacemakers, and that's what we are, peacemakers."

*Marigza is a freelance producer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or

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