United Methodist Delegates Visit Marshall Island

May 23, 2003 11:54 AM EDT

MARSHALL ISLANDS -- Delegation members from the California Pacific Annual Conference joined with Marshall Islands residents in calling for the U.S. government to apologize for the nuclear testing that it performed on the islands 49 years ago and in emphasizing the need for the government to provide better health care for the residents affected by the testing. The United Methodist Conference members traveled to the Western Pacific including Majuro in the Marshall Islands, Saipan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam, May 2 – 10, to discuss peace and justice issues.

"I have some health problems that I believe are related to the (nuclear radiation) exposure," said Ruthann Mathew, a 53-year-old survivor from the island of Utrik. She described what she remembered when the "big bad explosion" happened. "When we looked up, the sky was all red."

While in the Marshall Islands, the delegation experienced a two-day "immersion" organized by survivors of the 1954 nuclear tests. The survivors have formed a group called ERUB, which is named for the islands Enewetak, Rongelap, Utrik and Bikini. The new group will explore the current situation of people affected by the nuclear testing on their islands.

The conference complimented the resolution adopted by the United Methodist Church’s top legislative assembly, the General Conference, in 2000. The statement, No. 267 in the denomination’s 2000 Book of Resolutions,, namely, “Atomic Testing in the Marshall Islands – A Legacy," was sponsored by the Hawaii District and the Asian-American caucus.

The resolution calls for "more just compensation and expansion of medical care" than what has been provided. It notes that the U.S. government provided full compensation to the U.S. citizens who lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site, but Marshall Islanders have received less, even though their islands were subjected to a greater tonnage of bombs detonated.

Residents had received some health care through the Compact of Free Association, which expired in 2001. In 1999, the Republic of the Marshall Islands submitted a petition to the U.S. government, saying the cost of health care was underestimated when the compact was negotiated. The petition was resubmitted in March 2000 but has not been acted upon, according to a group of islanders who visited Washington last fall.

Mathew and seven other survivors gave testimonies and recalled the testing that occurred 49 years ago. They all spoke of the need for the United States government to apologize and to provide adequate health care.

"We request that you advocate for further assistance with health care that the survivors would benefit from," Mathew said. She described how the testing contaminated the water on their island. She, her mother, two sisters and brother experienced thyroid problems and other related illnesses believed to have been related to the testing, she said.

ERUB is planning an event of remembrance to mark next year’s 50th anniversary of the nuclear testing.

"For me, going to the Marshall Islands was a very moving experience," Winkler said. "These are people who are survivors of nuclear tests who have suffered at the hands of our government," he said. "They viewed us not as representatives of a nation that has destroyed their lives, but as sisters and brothers in Christ; they gave us gifts and poured out their hearts to us.

"I feel shame for what our country did to the people of the Marshall Islands," Winkler said. "Now, I think its time for us to make it right and provide first class health care."

While in Saipan, the delegation met with the Catholic Bishop Tomas A. Camacho, as well as with Gov. Juan N. Babauta regarding delegate status for the Washington, D.C., representative from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The representative currently does not have voice or vote in Congress. Last year, the California-Pacific Conference adopted a resolution calling for "Due Representation of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to the United State Congress."

Ripple, Winkler and Fukumoto were panelists for a community-wide discussion on "How Faith Informs My Social Action." The panel included community leaders.

"Faith gives me a vision for social action," Fukumoto said. "Social action ministry is the heartbeat of the Christian faith."

Ripple recalled how her parents would drop her off at Sunday school when she was little but would not stay. "When things got rough at home, I could go to the church and feel safe," Ripple said. When she was 8 years old, she put an altar in her closet.

"As peoples of faith, we reach out with our good works to support one another in a network of loving care and generous giving," she said. "And through our good works (our actions), the testimony of our faith is made evident."

The delegation also visited with members of Immanuel United Methodist Church in Saipan and saw several of its outreach ministries.

Ripple and Ellis then traveled to Guam to meet with members of the Guam United Methodist Church to assess recovery efforts from typhoons Chata’an and Pongsona. In addition, they visited church outreach ministries that included several Habitat for Humanity houses that the church has helped build.

Delegation members from the California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference included the Rev. Barbara Grace Ripple, Hawaii District superintendent, representing Bishop Mary Ann Swenson; JoAnn Yoon Fukumoto, Peace With Justice educator for the conference; and Ken Ellis, Santa Barbara District lay leader. The group also included Jim Winkler, top staff executive of the denomination’s Board of Church and Society; and the Rev. B. David Williams, a consultant and retired missionary from the churchwide Board of Global Ministries.

By Pauline J.