The Rev. John H. Thomas (left), Bernice Powell Jackson (center, in striped shirt) and other delegation members join in prayer with encampment protesters in Vieques. Sandra Sorensen photo
Thomas was part of a 12-person UCC delegation who traveled to Vieques to participate in the nonviolent protest against the continued presence of U.S. Navy military operations on the island. In addition to the UCC President, delegation members included Bernice Powell Jackson, Executive Minister-Elect of Justice and Witness Ministries and the Rev. Edward Rivera-Santiago, President of the UCC Council for Hispanic Ministries.
The U.S. Navy has used the island for nearly 60 years as a training ground for military exercises, causing widespread environmental damage and endangering the health and livelihood of the island's 9,000 residents. In addition, the U.S. Navy controls most of the island's 33,000 acres, including its most fertile land and fishing areas.
During its tour, the delegation met with residents and advocates who have established encampments within Navy-held territory. The encampments, part of the nonviolent witness against the military exercises, were set up following the death of David Sanes Rodríguez last April. Sanes Rodríguez, a civilian security guard working for the Navy, was killed by an errant Navy bomb.
The Navy suspended exercises after Sanes Rodríguez's death. Since then, the lush vegetation of the island has started to return. Tanks, jeeps and airplanes, riddled with artillery holes, stand in stark and disheartening dissonance with the beauty of the island.
"In our tour of the area, we were heartsick at the sight of the destruction we found, including poisoned lagoons, craters, and live and exploded bombs," Thomas said. "We were heartened, however, by the signs of life—birds, butterflies, flowers—which have begun to emerge as a result of the peace which has continued for the past 11 months."
As part of its agreement with the governor of Puerto Rico to resume military exercises later this year, the Clinton Administration has pledged $40 million to the island's residents. It was clear to those in the delegation that the $40 million proposed aid package will barely begin to address the island's public health, economic and environmental situation.
"We are not political. We are responding to a call from God," said Thomas in response to a question at the press conference in Rio Piedras. "The Navy is destroying God's work on Vieques."
"Our mission is to carry the word of what is going on in Vieques to all our churches in the United States to put more pressure on the Navy."
Sandra Sorensen, Associate for Communications and Resource Development for the UCC Office for Church in Society, was part of the delegation to Vieques.