Iraq War an Unpopular, Accepted Reality Church Visit #11
With a commentary by Gayle Dunkelberger
On Sunday March 9, 2008, Gayle Dunkelberger, Martha Conte, Margaret Eberle and I attended the Scarsdale Community Baptist Church in Westchester County, New York in our continuing bannering campaign to encourage clergy to speak out against the U.S. occupation in Iraq.
What we found was a cautiously friendly welcome from a number of parishioners and the pastor, the Rev. Everett C. Goodwin, who said that he believes that most of his parish agree with our message. But in our conversations with him and others, it seemed that the Iraq War has become for them a sad, distant reality about which they can do little.
This was typified for me in the comment of a man in his 40s who invited us to attend the coffee hour after church. I remarked to him that March 19th would be the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and he said: “Oh, has it been that long?”
A sense of protection, if not isolation, for the church’s parishioners seemed to me to come in part from the church building itself. It is a graceful stone structure in a “rural, English Gothic style”, as described in an article by Pastor Goodwin for the American Baptist Historical Society. It is extremely well cared for and blends harmoniously with the Tudor style architecture that marks affluent Scarsdale’s downtown.
The church was started in 1927 to engage people from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, a tradition it maintains today. It developed as a Baptist church in part, the pastor’s history reports, because this gave it “access to funds made available by John D. Rockefeller for the establishment of new Baptist churches.”
The church’s pleasant, comfortable look does not reveal that it, like many churches, is struggling to attract parishioners. A church report shows that it can maintain itself in significant part from its endowment and bequests and that it needs a larger congregation.
We arrived about 15 minutes early for the 10:30 a.m. service on a bright, sunny, chilly morning when the clocks had been advanced an hour. Bulbs were beginning to sprout. There were about 40 in the congregation, which included six African-Americans and several Asians. The congregation had a full range of ages, from small children to elders. Full, the church would hold about 100 to 150. Attendance may have been lower than usual because of the time change.
As we sat waiting for the service to begin, a man in his 40s with black hair came to greet us, asking where we were from. He presented himself as effusively friendly and welcoming. He asked if any of us liked to sing. As we saw later, the church has an eight-person choir, with an expert director. They sang beautifully, but clearly they would like to be joined by recruits.
We had decided to lift our banner during the announcements, which came quickly after the processional hymn, the invocation and Gloria Patria.
As Pastor Goodwin stepped forward with announcements we stood up with a banner that read:
3,800+ U.S. Soldiers Killed - Thousands Wounded
1 Million Iraqis Killed - Millions Displaced
Much of Iraq and Its Culture Have Been DESTROYED
The U.S. has spent $456 billion - $3 Billion from Westchester (County)
(Note: The official number of U.S. dead has risen by 175 since our first church visit on October 7, 2007, more than four times the number in the congregation on this Sunday’s visit.)
The pastor looked at the banner for a minute or two, partially because it was hard to read from where he was standing. He then said: “We have some visitors”, and “Join us for worship.” We sat down and folded the banner.
After announcements there was a time for the congregation to exchange greetings, and we shook hands with several people in the pews in front of and behind us. The people, women and men, were very pleasant, although one woman seemed a little bit uncomfortable. A man next to Margaret shook her hand in a firm way that she felt was a sign of friendship and encouragement.
In the pastoral prayers, Pastor Goodwin included prayers for people “in a place of violence and death” and prayed that people will work for peace in politics and as part of daily life. He did not mention Iraq specifically or any other war zone.
The sermon, which was entitled “When What You Have Is Not What You Want” urged that we look beyond amassing wealth and should be seeking “the love of God. The rest of it we don’t really want anyway.” The sermon was followed by a man and woman singing It is Well with My Soul. This was very moving, and several people said “Amen”.
After the service, a few people came to greet us, including a woman in her mid-70s and the man who had lost track of how long ago the war started. He invited us downstairs for refreshments after noting that one of us - Gayle and Martha were sitting behind him - had a good singing voice.
Heading for the social hour, we shook hands with Pastor Goodwin as he stood by the front door.
I asked him whether he had given any sermons on the Iraq War, and he said that he had not and that he didn’t know if that was necessary since most of his congregation seemed opposed to it. He said that he refers to the suffering of war in his prayers. I asked him whether the American Baptist Church USA, with which his church is affiliated, had made any statements about he war. He didn’t know and suggested that I call its headquarters. (I called the headquarters and was referred to someone who was not in. I left a message with my question and have not received a response.)
At the coffee hour, the man who had invited us asked whether we thought that leaving Iraq would lead to even greater violence between Shiites and Sunnis. I told him that a Iraqi friend of mine said that the U.S. occupation should be ended. He asked if that person was Shiite or Sunni. I said I was not sure but thought she is Shiite. He said my argument would have been more persuasive if she had been Sunni, as this is the minority group who has been removed from power and are subject to attack by Shiites.
In a few minutes, a black man in his 70s came over to greet me, saying that he is very upset by the war and wished it would end. As we talked, my colleagues came to join us as most at the coffee hour, including the man who greeted us when we first sat down, did not speak with them.
In the course of our conversation the man, who showed great good will and openness, told us that he and his twin brother had been born in New Rochelle when it was segregated and that they had to be born at home because black doctors did not have privileges to use the New Rochelle hospital. Segregation began to break down, he said, as black soldiers returned from World War II.
As Nick’s report suggests, this church’s clergy and laity seemed quite receptive, and I think they were relatively close to “our page”. I naturally always hope that we will be well received. Now, “Be careful what you wish for” echoes because I’m thinking that this visit may have netted fewer gains than some others we’ve made. By gains I mean, I could not imagine there would be any excited dialog at any Sunday dinners as a result of this visit. Often after the bannering visits, whether we get mixed or blatantly negative responses, we say we wish we could be flies on the walls in all the dining rooms.
I think our blundering forth all works.