National Catholic Reporter
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Issue Date:  April 9, 2004

Immersed in the desert

From the craters of nuclear testing grounds to the Las Vegas Strip, students find the connections between peace, economic justice and care for the earth


Five students set out from Berkeley, Calif., March 21 on spring break. But they weren’t heading for the usual fun-in-the-sun hotspots. Instead they left for the Nevada Desert Experience “Immersion Program” that provides a firsthand experience of the connections between peace, economic justice and ecological balance.

“I was looking for an experience,” said Franciscan School of Theology student Kerstin Keber. “I didn’t want a passive, touristy break. I wanted something where I could grow spiritually, intellectually and in my general awareness.”

The trip was the first Immersion Program for college students sponsored by the faith-based Nevada Desert Experience. The new program aims to present “a holistic approach to understanding how the designing, building and testing of weapons of mass destruction are not separate from poverty, militarism, racism and environmental destruction,” according to the Web site for the group, which since 1982 has gathered activists in the desert for prayer and witness against nuclear weapons being tested there.

The Immersion Program started with a “Cosmic Walk” intended to give participants a sense of the scale of the universe and the incredibly short time that humans have been here. This was followed by an introduction to nuclear testing issues by Paul Colbert of the Nevada Desert Experience; and an introduction to the Franciscans’ Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service by Peter Ediger, manager of the group’s Las Vegas center, who spoke about the challenge of overcoming apathy in the face of the monumental violence and destruction that the world has witnessed. “I think the world is pregnant with nonviolence, yet there are lots of complications with the pregnancy,” said Ediger. “I think nonviolence wants to be born, more and more.”

Then students headed out of Las Vegas and stopped at the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. “God is such an artist,” said Chelsea Collonge after visiting Red Rock. The experience would later make for a stark counterpoint to the destruction students witnessed at the Nevada Test Site.

The highlight of the day was a visit to “Poo-Ha-Bah” or “Doctor Waters” healing center founded by Corbin Harney, spiritual leader of the Western Shoshone Nation.

After helping in a variety of chores, the students sat with Harney for dinner. He told them about the historical disputes over the Shoshone land the government used for the test site, about the dangers of the Yucca Mountain storage facility, and about his firsthand witness of the horrors experienced by children exposed to radiation from nuclear testing in Kazakhstan.

On March 23 the group attended the Department of Energy General Tour of the Nevada Test Site. The first destination was Frenchman Flat, site of above ground nuclear tests in the 1950s. Then, after passing hundreds of subsidence craters, large depressions that form after an underground nuclear blast, the bus arrived at the “Sedan Crater” which was created July 6, 1962, when a 104-kiloton nuclear bomb was detonated 635 feet under the desert surface. Intended as a demonstration of the peaceful uses of nuclear weapons, the blast blew over 12 million tons of radioactive earth into the atmosphere and surrounding areas.

“We were put on the earth as co-creators and I don’t see us living up to that expectation,” said Keber.

Many of the other tourists on the bus seemed fascinated by the test site and the visible effects of the nuclear bomb tests. “I really felt frustrated at the people on the bus,” said Collonge, after a series of questions about the technical nature of the blasts. “No one was asking what this really means. No one seemed to realize that this facility makes weapons to kill people.”

After reflecting upon their experiences, and sharing dinner, the group headed out for an alternative tour of the Las Vegas Strip as seen through the lens of social justice and ecology.

Karin Holsinger, who is working on a master’s in Christian spirituality at the Franciscan School of Theology, felt that she had been neglecting the nonviolence interests that she had cultivated as an undergraduate. For Holsinger the Immersion Program showed the interconnectedness of issues of peace, ecology and justice. “I had just seen the Nevada Test Site, and then as soon as we hit the strip, something clicked for me. It tore me up to see that the environmental damage of the strip due to energy use and growth was just a lighter shade of gray than the terrible damage done at the test site,” Holsinger said.

Sarah Harling, a peace and conflict studies major at the University of California, Berkeley, had been reading about Christian pacifism and had begun working on a paper about the Plowshares movement when her friend, Collonge, told her about the trip. “This is what I really care about and believe in,” said Harling. “I just need to do what God is calling me to do.”

On Wednesday the group met at the Catholic Worker community to help with the morning soup kitchen. The Las Vegas Catholic Worker community serves over 100 meals on a typical morning. A local mosque has provided the land for the soup kitchen since the city of Las Vegas enacted laws restricting the ability of groups to do charitable work in public parks.

Extreme contrasts were never hard to find throughout the week. After lunch the group proceeded to the entrance of the Nevada Test Site for a time of quiet reflection and to practice nonviolent protest. As they were engaged in meditation, several students felt the ground shake from conventional bombs being tested at the adjacent Nellis Air Force test range.

“I felt that this was a spirit-filled week and that these people were here for a reason,” said Amy Schultz, the Nevada Desert Experience outreach coordinator who recruited the participants from several Berkeley schools. “They were all extremely reflective, willing to take risks, and to share their thoughts and feelings.”

Zig Kungys, who is completing his master’s thesis on corporate social responsibility at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, is seeking to bring a contemplative, prayerful aspect to whatever life brings his way, and sees this experience as a way to further learn how to help other people on their spiritual journeys.

Keber, who is working on her master’s in liturgy, plans to write a liturgy of the desert for future groups to use.

The Nevada Desert Experience plans to continue to offer the Immersion Program, primarily as a spring break alternative for students, Schultz said. But she noted that the organization hopes to tailor the program for others, such as parish social justice groups or religious orders.

Meanwhile, the entrance to the Nevada Test Site continues to be a locus of peace activity. Several groups, including the Nevada Desert Experience, are sponsoring this year’s Holy Week Peace Walk, a 65-mile journey through the desert from Las Vegas to the test site. The week concludes with the “Nuclear Stations of the Cross” along the fence of the test site on Good Friday. Many protesters this year are again likely to “cross the line” and face arrest as a demonstration of nonviolent protest against nuclear programs.

In August 2004 the Nevada Desert Experience will sponsor the August Desert Witness, which will feature Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, author of “Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety.” And in August 2005 special events will mark the 60th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Greg Tarczynski is a photojournalist specializing in spiritual and social photography.

Related Web Sites
Nevada Desert Experience
Nevada Test Site

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 2004

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