Anti-War Welcome in Investments Bank Ground Zero Church Visit #18
By Nick Mottern with a commentary by Debbie Kair
On Sunday, November 22, 2009, Martha Conte, Margaret Eberle, Nora Freeman, Debbie Kair and I visited Christ’s (Episcopal) Church in Rye, New York, in our bannering campaign to encourage clergy and lay people to speak out for an end to the occupation of Iraq.
We received the most genuinely friendly welcome from parishioners of any church we have visited in the year of our campaign. The Iraq War is not the first thing on the minds of the parish, however. The primary concern, said the church’s pastor, the Reverend Susan Harriss, who lead her parish in greeting us, is the layoffs in the top ranks of investment banking that have hit some in her parish and may hit more.
Rye is among several wealthy communities in Westchester County that have attracted well-paid professional people wanting an easy commute to Manhattan. The cost of living in Rye is nearly twice the national average, and the median dwelling value in 2007 was about $1.13 million, compared to $311,000 for the state of New York.
Christ’s Church, which was founded in 1695, is in a grey stone, English Gothic-style building in Rye’s downtown, next to a branch of Citibank.
We arrived just before the start of the 10 a.m. service on a cold, bright morning. We sat near the right front of the church, a location that would offer a good display point for our banner. The church, which has beautiful stained glass windows and dark wood columns and rafters, filled quickly, and fully, with about 200 parishioners, all white, from infant to elderly.
We were told that the congregation is growing, an unusual phenomenon among the churches we have visited. This was reflected in the size of the choir, which numbered about 40 youth and adults, also the largest we have seen.
After the opening hymn, a parishioner rose to address the theme of the morning’s service, pledging support for the annual fund-raising drive. After acknowledging that “everyone is struggling” with the financial downturn, he said that in making adjustments to save money he and his wife had decided to focus their charitable giving not on SOB – symphony, orchestra and ballet – but on giving money “where it can change lives.” He said he would hold his pledge constant to Christ’s Church because: “This place does change lives.”
When he had completed his statement, we rose from our seats and stepped to the side wall of the church holding up the banner, that read:
4,205+ U.S. Soldiers Killed - Thousands Wounded
Over One Million Iraqi Civilians Killed - Millions Displaced
Much of Iraq and Its Culture Have Been DESTROYED
The U.S. has spent Two Trillion - $4 Billion from Westchester (County)
We stood for nearly five minutes, through the reading of responsive prayers and into the liturgical singing. For much of this period, Pastor Harriss did not see us, standing with her back toward us, continuing to face the lectern where the parishioner had been speaking. Eventually, apparently seeing people looking in our direction, she turned and saw the banner, then turned back, then looked at it again.
As the choir began singing a psalm, 100, an usher came up to us and asked if we intended to stay standing throughout the service. I said that we would if we could, and he said he thought that we had made our point, that the banner was a “distraction”, and he would appreciate it if we would sit. We folded the banner and sat down.
In her sermon, Reverend Harriss spoke of an encounter with an African-American woman who was panhandling in New York City, of how the woman had given her a blessing and how, in that moment, Reverend Harriss thought: “It’s true…the Gospel is true.”
Reverend Harris said that as “Jesus identifies himself with the poor, afflicted, he is winning.” “The moment when Jesus succeeds,” she continued, “is the moment when he is giving his last breath…and he is winning.”
She concluded her sermon: “Give and see and know.”
After the sermon, Reverend Harriss welcomed all to the church and then welcomed us, who “brought a banner” to “remember Iraq” and the need to stop the war there. This was only the second time that we had been recognized by a pastor during a service; the first occasion was in our visit to the Community Methodist Church in Pound Ridge on Oct. 21, 2007 (At that time our banner listed 3,800 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.)* Reverend Harriss invited us to join the congregation for coffee after church in the parish hall.
The parish hall was packed and churning with people, and we sought and received permission to hold up the banner near the entrance to the hall so that people would see us and come to talk. Over the course of the next half hour, at least a ten people came over, and all, with one exception, thanked us for coming and for our message. The exception was a woman who said that we had invaded the privacy of her worship.
Another woman, perhaps in her early 40s, came over, saying that she was an emissary from a group of friends who wondered why we brought the banner. I explained to her that we would like to see churches speaking out to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the same way that a number of church leaders spoke out to end the Viet Nam War. She thanked me for the information and went back to her group.
A woman who appeared to be in her late 30s stopped mostly because her daughter, who we learned was eight years old, was curious about the message on the banner. I said that the war has been going on for nearly six years. The woman said: “Has it been that long?” Then she said to her daughter, “you were a baby” when the war began.
Another woman, in her sixties, said she related to the suffering of the Iraq war because she had a relative who had had two sons killed in World War II. She wanted the war to end immediately.
I asked Reverend Harriss whether the war is a major concern in the parish, and she said that it is a concern but that the thing most on the minds of people is the collapse on Wall Street. There have been job losses within the parish, she said, and there is fear of more to come.
Commentary by Debbie Kair
This was the most welcoming church we have been to. Because of the openness of some members of the congregation to approach us, we were able to engage in several conversations. We were able to hear their ideas about the war and to express our belief not only that the war should be ended but that it ought to remain on our list of worries alongside our concern about the US economy and recent job losses. Our continued presence in Iraq not only wastes a lot of lives and money but makes us more and more enemies among the Iraqi people. Their economy has been shattered. Daily life has no peace but only constant worries about food, safety, water, schooling, electricity and the dim prospect of earning a bit extra to buy necessities on the black market. As important as our concerns are, they pale when compared with theirs. As we bring our concerns and needs to the ears of the God who loves us, we must recognize our God's longing to answer the needs and concerns of the Iraqi people. However, to accomplish this God needs the hearts, will, minds and hands of the people of the US to stop the war.
- We also were welcomed during a service at Memorial Methodist Church in White Plains, NY, but in this case we had been invited by the church’s pastors to attend the service.