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Pastors for Peace Caravan Stops in Tallahassee

By James Call


Tallahassee, FL – A Resolution ending an economic blockade of Cuba is expected to make it to the floor of the U.S. House by the end of the month. Opponents like Florida Senator George Lemieux say House Resolution 4645 is inconsistent with America's role as a beacon of freedom. Supporters say the blockade of Cuba is illegal and immoral. In the middle is a coalition of religious groups.

Every summer for the past twenty-one years, a group called Pastors for Peace has sponsored a school bus caravan to Cuba. Volunteers drive buses across the United States collecting donations and then, in an act of civil disobedience, they defy the blockade by delivering medicine, tools and crayons to the island. James Call caught up with one of the buses when it stopped in Tallahassee.

Nathaniel Turner pulls a school bus into a Quaker's Meeting House driveway and jumps out with a smile and an outstretched hand. He doesn't know anyone here but was told he would find a dinner.

Turner is a one-time social science teacher from New York who opened a school for at-risk teens in New Orleans after Katrina. In the summer, he drives a bus collecting donations for the Interreligious Foundation's Pastors for Peace caravan to Cuba. He said people need help there, and he is compelled to help. He explains James Madison was clear in the Federalist Papers that the government can't tell him who he can and cannot help. Debate the issue, and he gives a short answer repeating Martin Luther King about the long arc of the moral universe. Persist, and Turner plays what he clearly considers a trump card.

"The longer version, of course, is Micah chapter six verse eight, where he asked Jesus, What does your Father require of us? What does your father want us to do?' He says, Well, He doesn't want a thousand jars of oil. He doesn't want a thousand head of sheep, or something like that. He doesn't want you to lay prostrate before Him. He wants you to walk humbly by His side, forgive other people as He has forgiven you, and fight for justice. It's my favorite passage from the Bible."

July 11th in Fort Pierce, Turner picked up a bus whose odometer read 135-thousand miles. Five stops and three days later, he was in Tallahassee and the bus was loaded down with wheel chairs, crutches, art supplies and food. Turner will place himself in the middle of a 50-year old fight between Washington and Havana when his busload of goods crosses the border into Mexico on its way to Cuba. He will violate a U.S. law intended to persuade the island to take steps towards democracy. The blockade was imposed in 1962.

"I watched as the communist government took over businesses. My father's was one of the first because he was a journalist. Because he was outspoken, he was immediately silenced."

Marie Jimenez was five-years-old when a Fidel Castro-led revolution overthrew the Cuban government of Fulgencio Batista.

"I saw soldiers come into my home and everybody else's home with rifles, and they removed everything except for a very specific list of items."

Washington ended relationships with Cuba in 1961, and a year later prohibited U.S. citizens from traveling to or doing business, spending money, there. When the U.S. won't trade with Cuba, 11-million Cubans go without. The two governments remain at a stalemate. President Obama said unless Cuba releases political prisoners and institutes a free press, he won't lift the embargo. Cuba's foreign minister said the U.S. must lift it without wanting anything in return.

Jimenez appreciates the fine line Nat Turner is trying to walk. She supports the embargo. Yet she applauds the Pastors for Peace efforts to deliver aid to the Cuban people because the goods are distributed by the island's Council of Churches and not by the government.

"One of the tools that Castro has used throughout his regime is to tell the people of Cuba who are still there two things. One, that the United States is their enemy and the other thing is to tell them that the Cubans who left Cuba which are characterized as worms, that is what we are called, are bad. So any action that contradicts the party line is a good action in my opinion."

Pastors for Peace spokespeople insist it is a ministry to help people and Turner professes little interest in the geo-political considerations. He teaches the social sciences but for the time being, he's leaving the discussions about why Cuba is impoverished to the economists. Turner's focus is on a yellow school bus filled with biohazard bags for nurses, wheel chairs for the crippled, and art supplies for children.

"I don't think you can go wrong when people can shake each other's hand and look each other in the eye and embrace each other as fellow human beings who have legitimate wants and needs, who have children who need to eat, and who need medical care."

Turner will rendezvous with bus drivers of twelve other routes in southern Texas. The group will have collected donations in more than 130 U-S cities and intends to cross into Mexico July 21st. Then it's on to Cuba. It's the caravan's 21st year. A Pastors for Peace spokesperson says in the past, the FBI has visited with some of drivers, but no one has ever been arrested.