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“Pro-Life” – YES; Pro-Peace – NO!  Church Visit #8

By Nick Mottern

With commentary by Gayle Dunkelberger


On Sunday, January 6, Martha Conte, Gayle Dunkelberger, Margaret Eberle and I attended the 10:30 a.m. service at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in White Plains, N.Y., in our continuing bannering campaign to encourage clergy in Westchester County to speak out for an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.


The pastor, the Rev. Eric A. Mathsen, included a strong statement against abortion in his sermon; but he said of our witness: “You do not have the right to disrupt Christian liturgy.”


We came to St. Matthew’s, a stone church in the downtown, on a cloudy, unseasonably warm morning. People filed into church and sat quietly waiting for the service to begin, advised by bold-face type in the morning bulletin: “PLEASE HELP US TO KEEP PRAYFUL SILENCE BEFORE THE LITURGY BEGINS, THANK YOU.”


The service was attended by about 90 people, including some dozen African-Americans. It marked the Feast of the Epiphany, the last official day of Christmas on the church calendar, and featured a procession by “The Three Kings”. After the organ prelude, prayers of confession and foregiveness and a processional hymn, three men costumed as kings walked down the center aisle of the church and into the sanctuary where they knelt before a Nativity scene and presented gold, incense and myrrh.


 The pastor then gave the Apostolic Greeting: “Alleluia! Christ is born for us.”


The service then moved into readings of scripture interspersed with singing. After the proclamation of the date for Easter, Pastor Mathsen gave a sermon that used the image of the Christmas star that guided the three kings as representing Jesus. The star, he said, is

 “the star of hope, hope that the world cannot give.” 


This is the kind of hope, he continued, that sustained a Chinese Christian clergyman who was imprisoned for 13 years in China, nine of these years in solitary confinement. 


And then, Pastor Mathsen mentioned another clergyman who is fighting against abortion and his dependence on hope in ending what Pastor Mathsen called “this silent holocaust.”


After more discussion of Christ as an answer to hopelessness and the way to changing one’s life, he concluded the sermon: “He is the light of our life and the star or our life.”


At the time for “sharing of the peace” in which members of the congregation greet each other, we stood up along the right hand wall of the church, nearly at the front of the church, holding 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 Matheson was well into the sanctuary at that moment, preparing for communion, and it was not clear that he saw the banner. We had greeted a man in the pew in front of us before we unfolded the banner. A woman in her 40s who was sitting several rows ahead came back to us as we held the banner high in front of us, shaking each of our hands. In the case of Gayle and Martha, she had to bend and lift the edge of the banner in front of them to shake their hands.


We continued to hold the banner aloft for almost five minutes - during the offering and prayers and music that preceded the communion. The ushers passed the collection plate to us as well as the other parishioners, and we contributed.


Finally, a man in his late 60s or early 70s, who appeared to be the head usher, came up to Margaret and said words to the effect “We’ve seen your message now…you know how to get out don’t you?” Margaret asked him if he wanted us to leave, and he hesitated then said no, that we could sit down if we folded up the banner. Margaret had trouble folding the banner because the usher and a man accompanying him were so close to her in the aisle, and the head usher said: “I want it (folding the banner) done now.” To which Margaret responded: “I can ‘t fold it while your’re in the way.” As we were sitting down the head usher passed by me and said somewhat apologetically: “We were not notified.”


Shortly, congregants came down the center isle for communion, and we watched carefully for any hint of a reaction to us. People looked straight ahead.


After the post-communion prayer, Pastor Mathsen read announcements then asked if anyone in the congregation had an announcement. It was not clear to me that the pastor was aware that we had held up the banner, and I thought it important to let him know this and to tell the congregation why we had come.


I raised my hand, and the pastor recognized me. I rose and faced the congregation and began to say that I wanted to explain that we had come to witness about the war because we are concerned that it is becoming a commonplace, accepted thing in our society.  


But before I could go beyond the word “explain”, a balding man in his late 50s or early 60s stood up toward the back of the church and shouted up at me that I had no business protesting there. Almost instantly, Reverend Mathsen joined him saying: “This is not the format for that.”


I sat down, and the service concluded. After the recessional hymn during which the choir walked down the center aisle from the sanctuary, as we all rose to leave the church, a woman in her 70s sitting directly behind us thanked us for coming and said many in the church shared our views.


Two other women, who appeared to be in their 60s, came forward to greet us and thank us for coming. One said she did not believe what the pastor had said in the sermon about abortion. A woman in her late teens or early 20s, who was a choir member and who had carried the cross during the recession, made a point of coming over and thanking us.


As we moved toward the rear of the church and the door, Pastor Mathsen, finished with bidding goodbye to departing congregants, came over to us. He began, calmly, instructing us that our protest had no place in the service, as noted above. He repeated this point several times, saying that the church was no place for “partisan politics.” One of us asked him whether his comments against abortion were not, in fact, political comments, and he answered that abortion is about “the slaughter of innocents.”


Martha, who grew up in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, said that Americans do not understand the impact of war, and Pastor Mathsen became more agitated, raising his voice and declaring again that politics has no place in the church service, continuing that the service should have “nothing to do with the just war theory.”  


He said that some people think the war is just and some people think it is unjust, but that this discussion has no place in church. I asked him whether he personally felt that the Iraq war is justified, and he said he would not answer that.


We then left the church, and as we walked out onto the front steps we were verbally assaulted by the man who rose to object to my explaining our presence. He was furious, loudly berating us for bringing protest into the church. He then shouted that he would see to it that every church in the city is notified of what we are doing and that if we go to other churches he would ensure that “your asses are thrown out.”


He then marched back into the church, waving off any attempt from us to discuss our reasoning, laughing derisively. We had considered attending the social hour after church but decided that this would only further enflame hostility.


When Reverend Mathsen started speaking to us, he said we should come to talk with him later. But because of the degree of his anger and his comments on “just war” and “partisan politics” we felt that such a meeting would likely be fruitless. We will discuss this possibility further.                            ___________

Commentary by Gayle Dunkelberger:
As Nick mentioned, the pastor used the term “just war theory” and also said that a discussion of “just war theory” had no place in church. I might actually agree, but for a different reason. To put this war and the word “just” together is difficult to even characterize, and it is even more difficult to process a spiritual leader saying it. I find this profoundly sad.

Our hope in visiting churches is to perhaps awaken sleeping consciences that already basically embrace attaining high moral and spiritual will. Our American environment anesthetizes us to the horrors of war. Martha Conte is correct to observe that most Americans do not understand the impact of war. 


I need to say that many congregants have courageously shown us that they feel as we do about the need to end the occupation. I appreciated the woman, mentioned in Nick’s report, who came to shake our hands right after we stood up with the banner. The gesture of bending down close to the floor to reach way under and behind the banner to blindly reach for my hand and for Martha’s was truly touching. Some clergy have shown this courage too.


I mention this courage recognizing that sometimes pastors have certain consequences if they make a stand. There are some pastors who make these stands fully knowing the risks they take. My hat is off to these pastors…big time.