WASHINGTON, D.C. — Entering a military base without authorization in the dark of night to symbolically dismantle nuclear warheads is not an act most people ever consider.
Yet seven Catholics who said they were motivated by the Gospel’s call to nonviolence took the extraordinary step to cut their way into Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in St. Marys, Georgia, the night of April 4-5. They poured their own blood on base property, hammered on equipment and issued an “indictment” saying the United States was violating international agreements that limit nuclear weapon proliferation.
The base is the East Coast home of the Navy’s Trident submarine, each of which can carry up to 24 ballistic missiles that each have up to eight independently targetable re-entry vehicles.
The seven, who call themselves the Kings Bay Plowshares, said the capacity of just one Trident submarine to destroy the world is beyond comprehension.
The fleet includes 14 such submarines outfitted to carry nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.
“The Trident is essentially the end of the world. There’s no other words to describe it but diabolical,” said Patrick O’Neill, a Catholic Worker from Garner, North Carolina, one of the seven.
The symbolic action was the most recent in a line of more than 100 Plowshares actions by Christian pacifists worldwide that began in Pennsylvania in 1980. Those involved have said they are motivated by the biblical call in Isaiah 2:4 to beat swords into plowshares.
For O’Neill, 61, the action on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination was his second. The date was chosen to highlight “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism” that King addressed, according to a statement released by the group before they acted.
Others participating include longtime activists connected with the Catholic Worker Movement. All said they felt called by God to witness their Catholic faith.
The group includes Mark Colville, 55, of New Haven, Connecticut; Clare Grady, 50, of Ithaca, New York; Martha Hennessy, 62, granddaughter of Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day; Jesuit Father Steve Kelly, 69, of the Bay Area in California; Elizabeth McAlister, 78, of Jonah House in Baltimore; and Carmen Trotta, 55, of New York City.
They have been charged with conspiracy, destruction of property on a naval base, depredation of government property and trespass.
Hennessy, O’Neill and Trotta are released on bond. They contacted Catholic News Service to discuss why they joined together in “nonviolent direct action.” Each must wear an ankle bracelet; their movement is limited to their home communities and select locales to tend to family responsibilities.
The other four remain in the Glynn County Detention Facility in Brunswick, Georgia. Colville, Grady and McAlister decided not to bond out. Kelly was not offered bond because of a pending case stemming from an action at a Washington state submarine base.
Hennessy said she felt “a great sense of liberty in having to participate in this.”
The Kings Bay Plowshares community discerned for two years the witness to take, she said by telephone from St. Joseph House at the Catholic Worker in New York City.
“It was a very, very rich time of sharing the daily readings, examining our own faith, examining our roles within different communities and families, and just really digging deep about how we were going to express our faith,” Hennessy said. “What does it look like to put ourselves in the hands of God?”
While Hennessy said she has written the government to express her concerns and practiced her First Amendment rights to protest and speak against the country’s nuclear weapons policy, she concluded that they were “rather ineffectual.”
In addition, she explained, President Donald Trump’s nuclear war threats worried her.
“I had trepidation about it because of the time that we’re in now. We’re really moving toward fascism. Being the granddaughter of Dorothy, that made me nervous,” Hennessy said.
For Trotta, it was the encouragement of participants in earlier Plowshares’ actions that motivated him to act. He said he has long been concerned about the “ongoing disintegration of the land” and the “permanent state of war” in the U.S.
“All the people I knew over the years who’ve done Plowshares’ actions, they were whole and so many of them said in one way or another to me and sometimes directly, ‘Do it,'” Trotta told CNS. “It (such action) was a giving over of themselves that the other actions might also have meaning.”
Trotta said the entry onto the base was the first phase of their action. Next comes the court proceedings in which the seven individuals will attempt to present their motivations, rooted in the Bible and international treaties. The final phase is an expected jail sentence.
O’Neill spent time in prison following his conviction for his role in the Pershing Plowshares at a weapons plant in Orlando, Florida, in 1984. He said the April action was taken for his teenage children and two soon-to-be-born grandchildren.
“It’s not the kind of thing I want to do, but it’s the kind of thing I feel I need to do to lead my life with some purpose,” he said. “I want to be a role model for my children. They’ve seen my wife and I carted off to jail before. I wanted them to know that being faithful has consequences.”
O’Neill, an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist at the North Carolina State University Catholic campus ministry, also expressed concern that the group’s action has gained little interest, unlike previous Plowshares’ actions.
“As novel and unusual as this is for seven out-of-towners to show up at the base, break in there and disrupt the property, it’s a shocking thing to do. I thought for sure it would generate interest, even negative interest. I’ve never been involved in a Plowshares’ action that has been so inconsequential,” O’Neill said.
“It’s not even on the radar. When I think about it, it’s that people just don’t care. That’s really worse,” he said June 19 from St. Marys, where he joined supporters in a five-day, liquids-only fast.
“I’m disheartened by the fact that people down here and people all over the country and people all over the world don’t seem to realize the treacherous place we are at as a human family,” he added.
“All the nuclear powers basically sell the story to their citizens that all the nuclear weapons are essentially props that are never going to be used. It’s mutual assured destruction. We’re supposed to be assured that this kind of stalemate is going to last into perpetuity.”
The Kings Bay Plowshares are next due in court in early August. A pretrial hearing will examine whether they can introduce a defense built on their necessity to act on their faith and under international treaties. They said they don’t expect their arguments to prevail, just as they haven’t in previous Plowshares’ trials.
None of the three are concerned about losing their freedom for a time in prison, however.
“I’m utilizing my freedom. I’m not giving up my freedom,” Trotta said. “They (the government) said they put up a barrier before our freedom (around the weapons). And we broke the barrier. We’re not giving them our souls. We’re not giving up our freedom.”
“Our anchor is Christ.”