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Cautious Acceptance of an Anti-War Message Church Visit #1

By Nick Mottern

This morning, Sunday, Oct. 7, Margaret Eberle and I visited the White Plains Presbyterian Church in downtown White Plains, NY, and during the 10 a.m. service, immediately before the sermon, we stood up at the right side of the church, well toward the front, with a banner that said:


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)


The pastor, Rev. C. Carter Via, started the sermon head bowed, with a prayer, and when he raised his head, he saw the banner. He launched his sermon without mentioning our presence and proceeded through the sermon as prepared, without acknowledging that anything in unusual was happening.

The sermon was entitled: "Re-discoveriing Thankfulness between Abundance and Scarcity". Reverend Via advised us to be extremely thankful for what we have and to think about people who are impoverished. But he did not offer specific steps that the congregation might take to alleviate poverty. During the sermon most of the congregation looked straight ahead or glanced briefly at the banner.

I should note here that earlier in the service there was a more pointed talk by Will Smith, a young man who had gone to Nicaraqua on a church-sponsored trip to assist in building housing. He said he came back from the trip realizing he needed to depart from consumerism and specifically that he got a new start in his thinking and had decided not to buy the $2,500 computer with "all the goodies" that he had been wanting. His aunt, LaSheila Brown, who also went on the trip, she said learned the same things.

After Reverend Via's sermon there was an opportunity for announcements. We decided to make none, and nothing was mentioned about us. Then the collection was passed, and Margaret and I each put in a dollar, still holding the banner, as our usher went by. The pastor gave a long prayer in preparation for the communion. Today was "World Communion Sunday". In the prayer which touched on global suffering, he specifically mentioned those dying in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We stayed standing during communion so that people from the back of the church who might have had a hard time reading the banner would be able to see it when they waited in line for communion and on their way back to their seats. During this time, a man who had been playing the flute for the service came back to where we were standing so he could read the banner; he winked and then gave a thumbs up. We remained standing through a flute postlude and then returned to our seats, folded the banner and sang the closing hymn: "Draw Us in the Spirit's Tether".

To close the service, the congregation was asked to line the church walls and stand across the front of the church so that all could link hands in a great "circle" and sing "Jesus, Remember Me, When You Come Into Your Kingdom". We joined hands with other congregants and sang, although a man who had been sitting in front of us with his wife and two daughters moved away from Margaret so he wouldn't have to hold her hand.

Quickly counting the people lined up, I would estimate that there were about 130 attending, with about 25 percent African-American and the rest white.

After the service was over we walked down the center aisle of the church to say hello to the pastor.

Before I got to him, a woman in choir robes came up to me and shook my hand, thanked me for coming and asked if I knew anything about the church. I said I knew a little bit, and she said that the pastor had spoken about the war from the pulpit. I said I was thankful for that, but that what we are hoping is that clergy can join together and begin to speak out publiclly, and often, against the war, such as was done by Clergy and Laity Concerned during the Viet Nam War. She agreed that more needs to be done by clergy to take a public stand against the war.

I asked her if she was assistant pastor or co-pastor, and she said no, that she was the pastor's wife.

At about the same time, a woman whom I would guess is from Jamaica, also a choir member, thanked me (us) for coming. She said that she had worked for an aid organization in Afghanistan during 2004-2005. Meanwhile several other people were thanking Margaret for displaying the banner.

Then we got to the pastor. He was very pleasant and said that he had incorporated concerns expressed by the banner into his prayer. He said there had been a lot of subject matter to pack into the service to explain why he had not said anything specifically about our presence or our message. He said further that he felt that about two-thirds of the church was fairly progressive and that he has not wanted to say things that would lose him credibility with the remainder, hoping to bring them more toward a progressive position.

We pressed the point about hoping for a stronger public witness on the war from clergy, but he seemed to wish to move on, and we decided to accept his invitation to go to the parish hall for refreshments.

Margaret wanted to go primarily to show that we were not afraid to talk with people and to see what people might say. Several more people thanked us for coming, and we felt well-received.

It is interesting to note that, to the best of our recollection, all those who thanked us for coming were women, except for the flute player.

A closing note, I was quite nervous about today's bannering, and I told Margaret as we were going into the church that I hoped I wouldn't faint. I realized later in the day that my level of anxiety might well relate to my experience as a boy sitting in Presbyterian church with my mother while my father sang in the choir, with her firmly advising me to stop squirming and to stop talking. I hope she could take some satisfaction today, looking down, that at least I was not talking, during the service that is.