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Applause for an Iraq War Church Protest  Church Visit #7

By Nick Mottern

With commentaries by Gayle Dunkelberger, Margaret Eberle and Debbie Kair


On Sunday, December 9, Gayle Dunkelberger, Margaret Eberle, Debbie Kair and I attended the 10 a.m. service of the First Congregational Church in Chappaqua, New York, continuing our banner campaign in Westchester County churches to encourage clergy to begin to speak out publically for an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.


 For the first time in our series of visits members of a congregation applauded us, some standing. 


We came to First Congregational on a chilly morning covered by high, mackerel clouds. There was a light covering of snow on the ground and the church walk, which had a few icy spots. The brick church, which was built in 1955, is a mixture of architectural styles; the basic structure a traditional New England design, with a high steeple, combined with more modern details such as the abstract-patterned stain glass windows.


We were welcomed by an usher and by Reverend Tom Lenhart., the pastor, as we entered the church vestibule. We took seats in a pew well to the front of the church, which is quite large and has a high vaulted ceiling . There was considerable talking among the congregants that was amplified by the acoustics of the space. 


 To start the service, Reverend Lenhart went to the front of the church to get people’s attention and asked everyone to shake hands with, and greet, their neighbors. We exchanged handshakes and smiles with the several people near us; the atmosphere in the church was relaxed and friendly.    


 The church was half full, with about 150 in the all-white congregation.


The service began with a call to worship and a hymn “One Candle is Lit”, which contains the line “Our spirits are restless until sin and war cease.” There was then a lighting of the Advent Candle by the Colby family with one of the candles signifying the “dream of peace in our world.” This portion of the service concluded with the congregation reading : “O God, come walk with us through Advent. Give us courage to spread peace in the world.”


The service continued with another hymn “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee”, a Psalm, responsive reading, the prayer of confession, the Lord’s Prayer and then announcements, which were made by the man who had accompanied Reverend Lenhart in greeting us as we entered the church.


At the conclusion of his announcements, the man asked if anyone else had announcements, and we stood, moved to the aisle on the right wall, lined up and unfolded 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)


For almost a minute there was total silence in the church, and then there was applause. I was holding the banner up high in front of me and was not able to see how many people were clapping, but it sounded as though it might have been at least 15 or 20. Margaret was able to see some of the congregation from her position and said some of the people were standing to applaud.


I shifted the banner so that I could see Reverence Lenhart, standing on the platform at the front of the church.   He was silent for a few more moments, but his face seemed to be reddening, and he looked angry. He said: “Take it Out.”


We began to fold the banner, and I hesitated in leaving, thinking perhaps Reverend Lenhart just intended for us to sit down. But my companions said, no, he intended for us to leave, and that we should go.   It appeared that they were correct, as he said nothing to stop us. 


As we walked down the aisle, at least one parishioner thanked us for coming.


As we entered the vestibule, we were met by another parishioner, a man in his 40s, who had rushed out to tell us that we were “very rude.” At virtually the same moment, another man, quite tall and in his 50s or early 60s, who had also rushed out, gave us a big smile and said that what we had done was “teriffic.”


The younger man was sufficiently agitated that the older man stood aside, allowing him to carry forward with his criticism,. The younger man said that what we did was counter-productive because it didn’t “leave room for the moderates.”   He said again that we had been “rude”.


The older man countered this point, telling us “You did it the right way” in that we were silent and respectful.   He shook hands with each of us and said “Thank you.” He remarked to his fellow parishioner that it is alright to have different opinions.


We departed from the church and the church grounds. In other visits, we have waited with the banner to meet people leaving church, but here we felt that we had held the banner aloft for long enough for all to see it clearly and that we had made our point. In addition, we felt we had been directed to leave completely.


As we discussed our experience, we concluded that there was a remarkable level of enthusiasm in the congregation for our message. I heard a comment from a parishioner, “it’s about time”, and it seemed that some parishioners, possibly many, had been waiting and hoping for an opportunity to speak up.


We also noted that in only one other instance of our seven church visits were we asked to leave the church service. But even in that case, we did not have the impression that we were being directed to leave the church altogether. That was at St. Augstine’s in Ossining, where the pastor simply asked us to take the banner outside. We were permitted to hold it up in the vestibule of the church and then outside the entrance. At White Plains Presbyterian Church we held the banner up until the end of the service, and in all other instances we have been asked to fold the banner and be seated.



Comment by Gayle Dunkelberger:

A Bit More

After showing our banner, getting that wonderful applause (some standing!) and beginning to exit (upon the abrupt direction from the minister) something else happened that was quite pleasant. One man sitting by the aisle looked straight into our faces as we passed and said quite audibly “Thank you for coming.” We had already been given a powerful show of support, but this man seemed to want to give us a bit more.

I take my hat off to Margaret and Nick who truly stay up nights thinking of how to do a bit more and a bit more and…

Comment by Margaret Eberle:
 “Let the mountains and hills bring a message of peace for the people.”

                                                                                Psalm 72-Jerusalem Bible

“…teach us how to love each other.”


“Our spirits are restless until…war ceases.”


These are some of the thoughts from the Psalms, readings and songs of our Sunday church visit. And this one: “Oh God, come walk with us through Advent. Give us courage to spread peace in the world.”


Well, I’m not sure it took courage, but during the period of the service set aside for announcements, we stood up and displayed our announcement , not verbally, not genrally but very specifically on our banner - the actual cost in innocent human life – our soldiers and the Iraqi people and their destroyed country. The result of lies, arrogance and greed on the part of our despotic, illegal government.

One gentleman told us we were rude. We were not. We left quietly when asked. We were gratified when about half of the congregation thanked us for coming with applause.


We were also told we had offended “moderates” - for the life of me I can’t figure where the word “moderate” fits with the acceptance of murder, desecration and bombing of a country into oblivion in advancing our empire of greed.   The quest for peace should be very much at home in a religious sanctuary.


WORDS ARE NOT ENOUGH – we are taking action hoping to inspire others to do the same – our conscience, hearts and spirits demand it. Only WE can end this conflagration!

Comment by Debbie Kair:
On Sunday we went to the First Congregational Church in Chappaqua. We stood up displaying our banner at the announcement time (before the Scripture readings and sermon). When we arrived at the church we were welcomed warmly and given the bulletin with the order of the service. I thought that we had chosen a most fitting Sunday to do this action: the second Sunday of Advent when Christians renew their anticipation and desire for the Messiah to appear and fundamentally transform their lives. The prayer spoken while the lighting of the Advent wreath candles occurred included: “We also light this candle and name it Peace. This candle (the second candle lit) reminds us of our dreams for peace in our world.”

I have been involved in various actions to prevent and to stop the U.S. war on Iraq. Recently, I have felt discouraged at the seeming lack of care, attention and empathy displayed for the people of Iraq by the people of the U.S., especially Christians, Christian churches and organizations. Christian faith is based on the belief that the boundaries we experience (us, them; Iraqi, American) are removed by the presence in our lives of the God who creates all. At weekly anti-war vigils there are only 5, 10, 15 people. It seems that people go through their daily lives without running into examples of the ways we are destroying the lives of the people of Iraq. I thought that it was time to bring the people of Iraq to the people of the U.S.


When we stood up with our banner there was a lot of spontaneous applause from members in the congregation. The pastor did not share the enthusiasm of this part of his congregation, and he told us to go out. We complied with this as soon as it was requested. I was dismayed that we were asked to leave a Christian congregation. After all, Jesus was known to have all sorts among his followers, even those such as Judas and Matthew who disagreed with him politically. The only other negative reaction we received was from a member of the church who said that our action was disruptive. I commiserated with this person as I know how unsettling it is having the ordinary and expected routine disrupted. I tried to remind this person that Jesus continually brought the needs of his followers to both religious and political authorities , and they were none too pleased either. One other person thanked us for our action and commented that “it was about time this issue came to our doorstep.”


We accomplished what I desired to do: get people’s attention and get them talking about the war in the midst of their daily life and routine.