A story of healing
Do the terms “Mennonite peace church” and “army ammunition plant” belong in the same sentence? The congregation was Madison (Wis.) Mennonite Church. The facility was the Badger Army Ammunition Plant, which provided powder and propellant for the rifles, machine guns, artillery and helicopter rockets of three international wars but was now considered surplus property by the government.
The question was whether our desire to maintain an authentic witness to God’s reign would call us to watch proceedings from a distance or to engage actively in decisions about future uses for this land. Getting involved felt like a risky endeavor. This article recounts our congregation’s seven-year-long engagement.
The large tract of plant land lies 30 miles northwest of Madison, just inside Sauk County, and includes much of the former Sauk Prairie stretching south from the base of the Baraboo Hills. Along with significant clusters of abandoned buildings, extensive sections of plant land remain open, including remnants of the original oak savannas.
Before European settlement, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Native Americans utilized the Sauk Prairie, as did the Sauk and Fox Nations. Europeans displaced the native people and transformed the ecologically diverse prairie into cropland and dairy farms. From the mid-1800s, the group of farm families near the base of the Baraboo Hills formed a coherent community with their own schools, churches, cemeteries and successful farms.
This farm community ended during World War II, when the federal government used eminent domain to evict some 80 farm families from their land. Rapid construction followed of Badger Ordinance Works, as it was first called. The forced eviction of so many farm families was a traumatic experience in Sauk County, still echoing today. The mother and grandparents of a member of Madison Mennonite Church were one of those displaced farm families.
Over the course of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, the plant produced 1.1 billion pounds of smokeless powder and cluttered the Sauk Prairie with 1,400 buildings. The amount of destruction manufactured here staggers the imagination.
Following the Vietnam War, the plant was downgraded to stand-by status. In 1997, the Army declared it “surplus property” and initiated a process to dispose of the land.
What should happen to 7,354 acres burdened with this sad history?
The initial, top-down plan of the federal government to sell the land for private and industrial development was halted by strong local opposition.
In contrast, the newly formed group, Community Conservation Coalition for the Sauk Prairie
(CCCSP), developed a comprehensive vision for the plant lands, containing these elements:
- Limit future land use to ecological restoration and conservation purposes, specifically excluding industrial development and private ownership;
- Decisions about the plant’s future should be made through a process of direct public involvement;
- The future owners should cooperatively manage the land as a single ecosystem, using conservation and public access criteria.
The CCCSP then set out to solicit endorsements for their audacious plan.
This was the history that Madison Mennonite Church contemplated joining. To gain information, members attended several events organized by the CCCSP. Particularly attractive in what we learned was the symbolism of moving a piece of land from gunpowder production all the way back to native prairie. Such a radical healing, a modern-day “swords into plowshares,” seemed to fit our peace church identity well.
How specifically could we help with this issue? Initial actions included staffing information tables at the farmer’s market in Madison, writing advocacy letters and attending numerous governmental meetings. Most satisfying, members of the congregation actually entered the land tract to help gather and replant native prairie seeds. Most spectacular was helping with prairie burns.
Though in hindsight these actions appear mundane, our involvement seemed risky at the time.
Most daunting was the decision, made at a lively congregational meeting, to publicly endorse the CCCSP proposal described above. Probably still lodged in the back of our minds were remnants of the centuries-long tradition of Mennonites’ “separation from the world,” of uninvolvement in governmental matters and avoidance of anything connected with the military.
Making a visible, public declaration was new and seemingly risky territory for us.
And then we went beyond endorsement. As our meeting neared its close, Jerry Shenk made the memorable suggestion that we not simply send the signed, “cookie-cutter” endorsement form back to the CCCSP but strengthen our public witness by adding a letter of theological explanation for our action.
The congregation responded enthusiastically. With the help of a subcommittee, our letter was carefully crafted and enclosed with the endorsement form.
The letter explained why a Mennonite church should get mixed up with an ammunition plant: the vision of a healed and reconciled world of peace involving all of creation. Helping heal the Sauk Prairie from injustice and gross misuse witnesses to the peaceable reign of God breaking into the world in Jesus. As our letter said, “The gospel of Jesus says that the possibility of healing and reconciliation is always available to us. … If people can work cooperatively in allowing this land once again to bloom as it did in former times, … an example of the restoration of harmony among people and between people and the land could be passed down to future generations.”
As encouragement for all peace efforts, particularly those contemplating the risk of engagement for the first time, I should describe how our letter’s subsequent life was beyond anything we had imagined. People in Sauk County made copies and passed it from hand to hand. Sauk County newspapers reprinted it. Perhaps most surprising, content from our letter had an impact on the official Badger Reuse Plan, the document that will guide the three new owners of the Badger lands in their management of the site (the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Ho-Chunk Nation and the Dairy Forage Research Center). Our letter’s phraseology and ideas are reflected in Value #4 of the document. It states:
“Uses and activity at the Badger property shall contribute to the reconciliation and resolution of past conflicts involving the loss and contamination of the natural environment, the displacement of Native Americans and Euro-American farmers and the effects of war.”
Comments from our letter are also reflected in a subsection of Value #4, concerning a proposed historical museum and memorials, where “[war] protesters, Badger Village residents, members of the Ho-Chunk Nation and displaced farmers” should be recognized “without glorifying the war experience.”
Our seven-year involvement with the transformation of the Badger Army Ammunition Plant is but one piece of a healing process that will take decades. Although our church’s efforts are only a tiny addition to the efforts of many others, it is important to know that such efforts can make a difference.
At the beginning, engagement seemed risky. But that risk bore fruit, and now not being involved seems incomprehensible. Our prayer is that God may bless all efforts to restore harmony among people, to heal the land and restore harmony between people and the land.
David Serafy-Cox is a computer art teacher living in Madison, Wis. The first version of this essay was a sermon at Madison Mennonite Church, where he is a longtime member.