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“People are Afraid” Church Visit #17

By Nick Mottern

On Sunday, September 21, 2008, Martha Conte, Gayle Dunkelberger, Margaret Eberle, Debby Kair and I visited Katonah United Methodist Church in Katonah, New York in our bannering campaign to encourage clergy and lay people to speak out for an end to the occupation of Iraq.

We found willingness in this small church, even eagerness, to pray for peace.  At the same time there seems to be support, however reluctant, for the occupation.  A woman in her 40s who has a nephew in Iraq on his second tour told me that there is a general understanding in the church that U.S. troops are in Iraq “to protect us.”

We also found in this congregation a lack of response that we have not encountered in nearly a year of visiting churches in Westchester County. 

We arrived about 10 minutes early for the 10 a.m. service on a clear, sharply sunlit, cool morning.  The church building is extremely charming and welcoming, with gently arched, intricate stained glass windows, a small bell tower and constructed of round gray stones such as one would find on a riverbed.

As we entered we were greeted by a man whom we learned later is 93 years old; he offered us the church program but because of Parkinson’s disease had a hard time reaching for the programs on an adjacent table. 

We took seats in a pew close to the right front of the church, behind the console of the organ, as what would become a gathering of about 30 parishioners dispersed among the pews.  This group filled about 20 percent of the seating capacity and was comprised of people of all ages, including young children.  All were white.

Jim Ingersoll, a lay leader, conducted the service, filling in for the Rev. Peggy Fabrizio.  Mr. Ingersoll explained that the pastor had been called away suddenly to be with her ailing father who seemed to be close to death.

At the portion of the service in which members of the congregation greet each other, we shook hands with several people in the pew behind us and then stood to the side of the church and lifted the banner that read:

4,155+ 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 with the banner for several minutes.  People in the congregation turned to read the message.  There was no utterance from anyone in the congregation or from Mr. Ingersoll.  We waited until it appeared that all had had time to read the banner then folded it and sat down.

After a scripture reading of the parable of the workers in the vineyard receiving the same compensation regardless of when they started work, Mr. Ingersoll gave a sermon explaining this apparent contradiction as illustrating that God’s grace is available to all people regardless of when in their life they may seek it.  He said he believes heaven is available to us as a place where we will have a “feeling of constant peace, joy and love.”
He concluded with: “What choice are you going to make?”

At the close of the service a woman in her 70s greeted us pleasantly and said she had wondered who we were, sitting as a group, thinking perhaps we were related to the organist.  She had not been able to read the banner from where she was sitting.  She asked us to stay for coffee.  Another woman shook Margaret’s hand.

Mr. Ingersoll came over to tell us that, had we held up the banner during the period in which people asked prays for their concerns, “I would have said a nice prayer” for peace. During this period, all the prayers were asked on behalf of family and friends of parishioners, with a mention of people in Texas struggling with the devastation of Hurricane Ike.

As people gathered for refreshments in the small hall at the back of the church the woman who had invited us to join the group suggested that several of us unfurl the banner so it could be available again for any who had not been able to read it during the service.

In our other visits, at least a few people have come up to talk with us, either in praise or objection, but in this case, no one came to talk save the woman who had invited us to stay.  Indeed, her fellow parishioners avoided looking at the banner or us, talking in small groups, well apart from where we were standing.

The woman expressed sympathy for our message but also expressed concern about terrorism.  She said that she didn’t think the US had gone into Iraq simply to control its oil.  Margaret told her that while the Soviet Union was trying to occupy Afghanistan, the US had supplied Osama bin Laden with arms, and Margaret said, “that really shook her up.”

I engaged the 93-year-old man in conversation, and he said that there had been prayers for peace in the church over the course of the war.  He said he felt each person should act on her or his beliefs, that this can make a difference.  He said he supported our “mission” and “do it well.”

I then went to talk with Mr. Ingersoll, asking whether the Iraq War had been addressed in the church.  He said that there had been numerous prayers for peace; I asked whether there had been prayers or statements calling for an end to the occupation, and he said no, there had been none.

At this point, the woman in her 40s, mentioned above, said her nephew was in Iraq.  She  seemed to be angry with our message and working to control her emotions.  She said there was an understanding within the church of why the US is in Iraq.  I asked what that understanding is, and she said simply the troops are there to protect the people of the US; she spoke in a measured way seeming to think her point about protection should be self-evident.  She said her nephew was reenlisting.

Mr. Ingersoll said he had heard that we had visited other churches in Westchester County over the last year, and that a former pastor had told him we might be visit his church.

Later, as we discussed our experience, Debby expressed the surprise we all felt at the almost total silence of the parishioners compared with other churches.  “There should have been,” she said, “ a visceral response” of some kind.  Her conclusion: “People are afraid.”