“Inclusion” a Damper on Iraq Dissent Church Visit #14
By Nick Mottern
With Commentary by Debbie Kair
On Sunday, June 1, 2008, Martha Conte, Gayle Dunkelberger, Debbie Kair and I visited Bedford Presbyterian Church in Bedford, New York, in our bannering campaign to encourage clergy in Westchester County to speak out for an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
We found openness to our message from the Reverend Rachel Thompson, the church’s Minister for Congregational Life, who was in charge of the day’s service. But it was also apparent that she and the pastor of the church, the Reverend Dr. Paul Alcorn, have been reluctant to address the occupation from the pulpit, in part, as one parishioner said, in the interest of being “inclusive.”
The pastors got their fingers burned in the fall of 2007 when Reverend Thompson preached a sermon condemning torture. More on that later.
We arrived at the church on a beautiful, clear morning in which the ornate white wooden church, with its reaching spires, facing onto the Bedford village green, was particularly bright and welcoming. Inside, the light-colored walls and vaulted ceiling give a sense of space and freedom, in keeping with the church’s reputation for encouraging creative forms of religious expression.
The service this Sunday was devoted to “celebrating the special gifts of women”, and women were a large majority of about 80 people attending. There was one African-American, a woman, about a dozen elementary school aged children and a few young people in their teens.
The announcement period came early in the service after a hymn and several prayers.
We rose following Reverend Thompson’s welcome, holding high 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)
Reverend Thompson paused for some seconds. Then she told the congregation that we are a group that has been visiting churches in Westchester County, that we would be welcome to share our views with parishioners after the service, and: “Thank you for bracing us with your strong feelings about this war.”
She asked our names as a way of including us, and each of us gave our first name. We folded the banner and returned to our pews, participating in the remainder of the service, which included a period in which parishioners could ask for prayers for their concerns or could express joys. All the prayer requests were personal except for that of a woman who asked prayers for people suffering from the disasters in China and Myanmmar and that of a young man with close-cropped blond hair who asked prayers “for the safety of all our troops around the world and to express our gratitude to them.” After offering the requested prayers, Reverend Thompson concluded: “Bring peace and healing to all who need it.”
The “sermon” was comprised of presentations by six women, each taking several minutes to give her impression of her image of God.
After the service several women came over to where we were sitting to thank us for attending. I asked one, dark-haired and in her 40s, whether Reverend Thompson had ever preached a sermon on the Iraq War, and she said she thought that neither minister had preached a sermon on the war because they are trying to be “inclusive.” She said she thinks everyone in the church knows that their ministers are opposed to the war.
I walked back to the front door of the church to meet Reverend Thompson, who said that she had heard from other ministers that we have been visiting churches and that she had been “dreading” a visit from us because she was unsure how people in the congregation would react.
She said that she and Reverend Alcorn preached sermons before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, opposing the invasion, but that they had not preached specifically on the subject since, knowing that all people in the church did not share anti-war views. She said also that she was confused now about when the occupation should be ended because she has learned that some Iraqis want the U.S. to stay for security reasons. I responded that most Iraqis, including those in the Iraqi oil workers union, want an end to the occupation. Reverend Thompson did not seem persuaded, and she had to leave to join parishioners at the coffee hour.
We stayed in the church to visit with Betsy Palmieri, a parishioner who thanked us for attending and who said that she is working to establish a group in the church called Voices for Our Values. The group would provide information to parishioners on social issues and give them contact information for Congresspeople or others who have responsibility related to the specific concerns.
In the course of our conversations, I am not sure who brought it up, we learned that Reverend Thompson had been criticized by some parishioners for a sermon on torture that she gave on October 21, 2007 (It aappears on the church’s website along with many other sermons.) in which she said: “I am deeply troubled by human rights abuses by the United States, both on the issue of torture and on indefinite detainment of prisoners with no legal recourse.” Among her concluding words she said:
“I have a confession to make. I confess that though I have been shocked and appalled by the revelations about the use of torture by my country, and by the incarcerations without legal recourse, I haven’t done anything. I haven’t sent one email to a legislator or a letter to an editor. I did all those things several years ago, but I got discouraged and gave up. But beginning this very morning, I repent my discouragement, I repent my inaction. I believe God forgives me, and I’m going to start raising my voice again in all the ways I know how. I hope that if these issues resonate with you, you will join me.”
In a sermon the following Sunday, Reverend Alcorn, spoke to controversy generated by his colleague’s sermon.
“A majority of you,” he said, “were grateful that she raised the question. For many of you, her words gave voice to what you are thinking and feeling. But we are concerned because…
- Some of you were caught off guard and left the service last Sunday wondering whether or not it was appropriate to talk about a subject like that in church;
- Some of you were angry because you thought other perspectives were not fairly represented;
- Some of you were hurt by the spontaneous applause after the sermon feeling if you did not stand or did not applaud you were being singled out and isolated in what they thought was your community of faith.
“Whatever your position or response, Rachel’s sermon prompted discussion and soul searching as we grappled with the questions she raised. As a staff we talked about it. We talked about it at Tuesday’s session meeting. There have been phone calls and emails exchanged and conversations…some of which we are aware of and a part of, but I am sure there have been many more ‘out there’ where you live and work and go to school.”
Among the points he made defending Reverend Thompson’s sermon, Reverend Alcorn offered:
“I believe preachers and pastors are to walk into the pulpit on Sunday morning with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. For the news without the Bible is despair. The Bible without the news is empty piety.”
GOD IS NOT AMERICAN
By Debbie Kair
There was so much to love about the Bedford Presbyterian Church service: we were welcomed!; it seemed that nearly all the members were involved in getting the service together; the presiding minister set a very open and welcoming feeling from the beginning to the end of the service; the lesson for the children focused on the lesser known women of the bible such as Esther and Hagar in the Old Testament and Phoebe and Anna in the New Testament; and in the homily given by several women (!) they shared their personal journeys in discovering how their image of God has changed over their life time and how that imaging has affected their understanding of who God is for them.
There were scripture readings, exchanges of peace, prayers for the needs of the members and lively music and songs. This is the first church I have been to where the minister and ushers, although surprised by the display of our banner, acknowledged our strong beliefs and invited us to stay for the service and talk afterward at coffee. (We are usually thrown out.) What more could one want?
Talking with the presiding minister after the service, I could sense her desire to be a minister to all of the members of her church, regardless of anyone’s belief on any issue.
At our challenge that she should speak out from the pulpit in opposition to the war in Iraq, she was genuinely in a quandary. Although I understand was she is feeling, I do not believe that Jesus would accept that as a reason to be silent. Why is it that church has not been a place to learn, discuss, debate, reflect, re-think, decide and have our beliefs on important issues formed by the Spirit of God? Why do we come to church expecting to walk out the door the same person we were when we walked in the door?
The presiding minister thought our action (display of our banner during the service) tarnished the sacredness of the service. To that I say: as one looks through the gospels it is plain to see that Jesus never missed an opportunity to bring the needs of his people before the crowds (as they were often unable to speak openly even with each other), whether the tenor of the gathering was friendly or not. Likewise Jesus brought the needs of his people before the religious leaders and even before the Roman occupiers. Jesus never reacted to those who mistreated him, but was forthright in his criticism of those who ignored, demeaned or mistreated others.
As much as I loved hearing about the feminine side of God, the God I met at the service was one dimensional: focused and intent on the positive, attentive to the concerns of the members and understanding and forgiving of our failings. In short a God we can feel secure in approaching when seeking strength for our weariness, comfort for our needs and solidarity in our beliefs.
However, I did not meet the God who, while firmly believing in us, challenges our faith, refuses to accept our rationalizations and pushes our boundaries to include the many others who are outside our consciousness. As the reflections shared during the homily showed God is not male; we need to also realize God is not American, not white, not old or young; God is the creator of all life even the life of those we look at as enemies.