Bill Clinton was impeached, and pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura became Governor of Minnesota. Michael Jordan retired from basketball, and the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO. The Euro was born, and the first space shuttle docked with the International Space Station.
It was 1999.
Columbine happened. Amadou Diallo was murdered by police in New York City. The US Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
And OREPA members gathered on the grassy area outside the main entrance to the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex (then it was the Nuclear Weapons Plant) to hold a vigil on the first Sunday in Advent—the last Sunday in November. We thought we would gather each Sunday during Advent.
By the third vigil, we were talking about continuing beyond Christmas. A poll of those present suggested that, while no one was committing to coming every week, people did think they might come once or twice a month if there were regular vigils. We felt if we had five or six people each week, a persistent presence for peace, it would be a success. Our vision was to have a nonconfrontational (no crossing the line, no arrests) presence that witnesses to life in the face of the work of Y12, where preparations for the destruction of the planet continue.
Since then, week after week, month after month, year after year, people have gathered. For the first several months, the typical attendance was 10-14; it has dipped sometimes to 6-8 the last few years. Once or twice there was only one person in attendance.
But always someone. A persistent presence for peace. Sometimes, when there were special events, hundreds came. In 2013, the government put up a fence to put a stop to our gatherings. We protested, and moved across the street, carving out a space among the weeds and claiming it—and the vigils continued.
Of course, more than 900 Sundays means that many people have stories to tell of their most memorable Sunday vigil. The time we painted “Peace on Earth” on the brick wall with fake snow. The police were summoned. On their radios, they communicated with security personnel in the bomb plant who demanded we remove the words. We declined. Then they asked that we remove it “in the interest of good community relations.” The police officer relayed the message with an eye-roll. We declined, in the interest of good community relations.
There was the New Year’s Day vigil when we built a fire inside a 9 x 12 cake pan to burn away our regrets from the previous year—and were surprised to hear sirens. “They’re probably coming to put out this blaze,” laughed Jim Ullrich. We stopped laughing when the truck stopped across the street. The watch commander came in a separate truck and walked over. “Where’s the fire?” he asked. We pointed to the cake pan which was now just a smolder of ashes. He was dumbstruck. Then, after he waved the truck back to the stationhouse, he chatted with us. An Air Force veteran he said he saw no use for nuclear weapons. “It’s crazy,” he said.
Over the years, the cast of regular attendees has varied. There were fifteen people for the Anniversary vigil this year, including one first-timer. Friends came from Pleasant Hill. Two of the vigilers were there for the first one. We read a message from the first vigil leader, Erik Johnson, now living in Durham with Libby. “You soak us through and through with hope through your ongoing, faithful presence at the gates,” he wrote. Just two days earlier, Libby had laid herself on the asphalt to block an ICE van that was attempting to transport an immigrant who had been in sanctuary at a church in Durham, some of us had seen her arrest, along with 26 others, on Facebook live—acts of hope go both ways.
We recalled friends no longer with us, who were often with us at the gates—Bev Hoyt and Anne Hablas and Vicki Quatmann and Larry Coleman were among those gathered at the first vigil, and our list included nearly two dozen others, most recently Tom Egan. They are still present with us in spirit.
Kim Bergier, from Detroit, and Thomas Nephew, from Washington, DC, reminded us that we have often enjoyed the company of friends from far-off places who know they can always find OREPA folks at the front gate of the nuclear weapons plant at 5:00pm on Sunday afternoon.
As the darkness fell people around the circle spoke of the power of community and connection, the forces that draw us to come together to stand—and sit—for peace, week after week, month after month, Sunday after Sunday, year after year. We wiped away the crumbs of the birthday cake—OREPA vigils, 19, the icing said on one side. On the other, Jim Ullrich, 83. We lit the LED lanterns and were reminded of the power of light to vanquish darkness. We stood in a circle, joined hands as we sang, “The only chain that we can stand, is the chain of hand in hand. Keep your eyes on the prize—hold on.”
And if you’re counting, January 13, 2019 will mark the 1,000th Sunday vigil. What better way to celebrate a milestone than to come join us? Bring a chair or blanket and a hopeful heart—and dress warmly.
You can find a couple other photos on our facebook page.