From A Circle of Prayer
No power is greater than the power of people
who meet in love together.
In 1957 a small group of people, mostly Quakers, walked out into the Nevada desert and formed a circle. The vast silence of the place, its stark but intricate beauty – rocks, yucca, sagebrush – masked the destruction churning and poisoning the land. The group’s presence in the nuclear bomb test zone was both prayer and protest. It occurred at the height of Cold War hostilities. The nation was infatuated with tools of annihilation, which were hailed as the key to the country’s strength and global ascendancy.
This tiny group in the desert, by contrast, believed that such a course was a terrible evil against humanity – from the human guinea pigs exposed to the test detonations to the intended “enemies,” the women, men, and children of the Soviet Union and its allies.
Precisely twenty years later, in 1977, Sister Rosemary Lynch, a Catholic Franciscan religious, walked out alone into that desert. For five years she continued to walk that torn earth, usually on Hiroshima Day in August and sometimes accompanied by friends. She would feel its violation and pray for its healing.
Then in 1982 she organized a larger group for prayer and Mass at the test site. For more than a decade, the groups continued to come, continued to grow. Eventually it was named the Nevada Desert Experience. The test-site gatherings drew people from across the country and around the world. They were practitioners of peace. Their formal religious alliances were a source of sustenance rather than separation.
Sister Rosemary, a bright, gentle woman who lives in Las Vegas with other religious, says she is “absolutely convinced that, even looking at the tremendous power of this material world represented here by these bombs and weapons of destruction, no power is greater than the power of people who meet in love together.”
These desert gatherings are simultaneously prayer circle and witness. They are a quiet witness. They are a pilgrimage. The holy site of reverence is the land. The intercession is for all of humanity. According to Alain Richard, a French Franciscan friar also living in Las Vegas and also leading the desert pilgrims, the self-consciously nonviolent gatherings are intended as well to witness to those who work at the test site. At its peak in the 1980s there were some eight thousand employees; there are still some five thousand today.
One pilgrim confirmed their impact on those who make a living from the nuclear testing. In a moving report following her Nevada desert experience in 1987, this pilgrim described her bus trip to the women’s detainment area following mass arrests of nonviolent protesters at the test site. The security officer in charge of them on the bus, she said, was a cheery, talkative young woman whom she initially dismissed as unsympathetic and shallow. After chatting brightly with several of the women on the bus, the officer suddenly became serious.
“You know,” she said to the women on the bus, “it’s my job to arrest you because you trespassed. But personally I think what you’re doing is so important. I’ve lived downwind from the test site most of my life. I’m only twenty-seven, but I’ve been diagnosed with stomach cancer. I have a little boy. . . .” Her voice trailed off and she looked away. A moment later she concluded: “Anyway, thanks for what you’re doing.”
Sister Rosemary says that after a time the security personnel have come to know and respect the protesters. One time she was sitting in a circle praying with several others who had trespassed when a new officer approached them and abruptly began to handcuff them, one to another (an appropriately symbolic act!). His captain, more experienced with the pilgrims, ordered the officer to take off the handcuffs. “Let them pray,” he barked to the young officer. They were allowed time to finish.
One may choose to cross into the restricted zone by simply walking across a cattle guard. This leads to automatic arrest. Those who are prepared to be arrested have been thoroughly coached in what to expect and how to act when arrested. Most important, says Alain Richard, they have engaged in an hour of prayer and meditation beforehand. Some walk singly across the line into the restricted zone, others go in groups.
Brother Alain has accompanied dozens of first-timers and coached them in nonviolent protest and arrest “manners.” Many, he said, “shake and tremble like poplar leaves” when they cross the line. But physical and spiritual closeness sustains them. He cherishes one vivid mental picture of a pilgrim who had crossed the line and one who had chosen not to, holding hands across the barbwire fence. The prayer the pilgrims share, he is convinced, creates an energy and a support bond that sustains them through the risk-taking acts of civil disobedience.
Many activists for peace and justice become discouraged when the changes they long for don’t occur, or don’t occur within a certain time frame. With praying activists, however, the wait is somehow made more bearable. Their passion is girded by hope, by faith, by love.
“I look at the wounds of this country and want to do something,” said Sister Rosemary in her measured, quiet yet incandescent, voice. “We know that God’s timetable is not always ours. It takes patience.”
Sister Rosemary quotes the Desert Fathers, Christian recluses who dwelt in the Sinai desert centuries ago: “When one or two pray in the desert, it is as if four or five were praying. When four or five pray in the desert, it is as if four thousand or five thousand were praying.”
In a silent walk that pilgrims take in the Nevada desert, they become wrapped in a sense of unity – with each other, the land, and “with whatever we understand as the All,” affirms Sister Rosemary. Their circles are horizontal and vertical, they encompass those present and those absent, those who agree with them and those who don’t, humans and nature, battlements of destructive power and battlements of soul power. One can never underestimate the power of individual witness, acknowledges Sister Rosemary, who began as a solitary pilgrim in the desert. But the power of the collective, the power of a unified, passionate circle, can never be overestimated.