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“Coffin…That’s Not What This Church is.” Church Visit #4

by Nick Mottern and Margaret Eberle

On Sunday, November 4, 2007, we visited St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Bedford, New York in our local campaign to urge clergy to speak out publically for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and against attacking Iran.


This visit, of the four such visits to date, was unique in the angry response of the pastor, Reverend Terence L. “Terry” Elsberry.


By way of background, Bedford is a wealthy community in rolling, rural northern Westchester County. Residents have included Donald Trump, Ralph Lauren, George Soros, Martha Stewart and Chevy Chase.


St. Matthew’s is an antique colonial church situated on beautiful, broad grounds with large, old trees; the church’s origins go back to 1704. A plaque inside announces that it was the church of John Jay, who became the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1789.     


As we entered the church, we found that the pews are stalls with low doors and latches that give a feeling of security, and possibly greater warmth against drafts in a time before central heating.


We opened the morning bulletin to be faced by an insert announcing that the St. Matthew’s Distinquished Speaker Series was presenting on Monday, November 5, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer (2000-2003) to give “a unique perspective on presidential politics, world news and current affairs.”   Mr. Fleischer grew up in nearby Pound Ridge and attended high school in Bedford.


On this All Saints Sunday, the church, which is modest in size, was packed, with possibly more than 200 people. The congregation was all white and quite conservatively dressed. And the choir, who sat in a loft at the back of the church, filled the church powerfully with beautiful music.


Just before the sermon, a parade of Sunday school children processed through the church waving small colored pennants, each with the name of a different saint.


Then Reverend Elsberry, who appeared to be in his 70’s and who, the church’s website reports, was once assistant minister of St. John’s Lafayette Square across from the White House, known as “The Church of the Presidents”, stepped forward to deliver his sermon.


At this, we stood up in our pew, close to the front of the church, on the right side and against the wall, and held up 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)


I heard someone in the congregation say “Oh” or something like it, very, very softly. Otherwise there was no utterance from the people.


After a few seconds, Reverend Elsberry, clearly very angry, glaring at us, said sternly: “We’ve seen your word, and now we’re going to go on.” 


We had decided to stay in the church if possible, and so we folded the banner and sat down. 


Reverend Elsberry almost roared into his sermon, lifting his voice to a high pitch as if to dispel the cloud of the banner incident. He said he was going to talk about an “impossible challenge”, the challenge “to be like Jesus…to become like God.”   There is a certain “fragrance” to an atmosphere where people are aspiring to this type of life, he said, citing a Bible verse.


Some people might say being like God is setting the bar too high, Reverend Elsberry continued. “Why does God call us to this impossible task,” he asked, “because He makes it happen.” If people want to be like God, he went on, there are many ways to do this, but one is through “stewardship by generosity.” God has been generous, he said, telling people to look at the beauty of nature just outside the church window. And, he said, God had been generous to “give Jesus to us” in his crucifixion “as an offering for our sins.”


He went on further about generosity, saying “the greater the love, the greater the generosity” and that God wants “our giving to by joyous, madcap, no holds barred.” He said that the “surest way of being like Him is generosity.”   And he concluded with the conjecture that as the generous parishioners of St. Matthew’s approached their “heavenly Father” it would be known that “certainly the people of St. Matthew’s were like Jesus.”


At this point he introduced a man and woman, church officials, to talk in specifics about the church’s up-coming fund-raising campaign. The man said that church donations “stand for what we believe in”, noting that the church had supported reconstruction of churches damaged by Katrina and also supports a program in Tanzania. (A church newsletter in 2006 said that parishioners also drove a truck with donated relief goods to Mississippi immediately after the hurricane.)


“We don’t talk about money very much,” the man said, and then he introduced his female colleague to explain “how we pay our bills,” whereupon there was a chorus of “Ha, Ha’s” from the congregation.


The woman discussed sources of income and referred the congregation to a bulletin insert that included a graph indicating that parish pledges and offerings in 2006 had totalled between $800,000 and $850,000, with total “overhead” approaching $1 million. The shortfall appeared to have been made up by endowment and other income. 


The service then moved into the next part of the liturgy, which includes a portion in which people greet each other. The woman sitting behind us gave a friendly smile as she shook our hands, but the woman in front of us smiled sparingly and seemed to shake our hands only because it was required by the form of the service. Her daughter, a girl of about 11 or 12, had turned to look at us earlier and had given a little smile. And now she looked at us pleasantly.


During Holy Communion, we watched carefully to see if anyone coming down the aisle next to us would glance at us or smile. One woman did smile at us, but the rest of the people looked straight ahead. A man looked down furtively into our pew to see the banner that lay folded at our feet but then looked quickly straight ahead. The experience was what I would imagine if I were sitting next to a line of robots moving slowly past. It seemed like some kind of mind control was in force.


The only exceptions were three adolescent boys who looked at us, curious. The mother of one of them, apparently wanting to distract or reassure him, rubbed his back after he looked down into our pew to see if he could see the banner.


We left the church during the singing of the final hymn so that we could be waiting outside for people to exit, holding the banner. We moved to the far side of the broad driveway in front of the pillared entrance so we would be out of the way of cars but clearly visible. There were about five male ushers on the front steps, but none of them came over to speak with us.


Shortly, before most of the parishioners had left the church, Reverend Elsberry came streaming toward us, vestments flying. He was furious but controlling himself, giving his words great intensity. He said that we should not be at the church, that it is private property, offering no opportunity for us to respond. “This is not a public rallying place,” he concluded as he marched away, “Would you please leave?”

We folded up the banner, and almost immediately an extremely friendly woman probably in her late 40’s or early 50’s came up to us and asked us what the banner said. And as we unfolded it, Margaret said “your pastor” told us to fold it up. “He’s not my pastor,” the woman responded, “I’m an atheist.” She explained that she came to church to accompany her daughter and that she herself lived in Connecticut.

The woman said that we were right to have come to the church. The conditions in Iraq are so bad, she said, how can we not think about the war? She thanked us for coming and left.


At about this point, a man in his 40’s strode by, but at a distance, and shouted at us: “Narcissists”.


Others passed, also at a distance, looking past us.


One of the last people to leave the church, a woman in her late 50’s or early 60’s, asked us whether it would not have been better to talk to the pastor before coming to the church. I explained that we had consulted with several clergy before undertaking the campaign, and there were two reasons we decided not to do what she was suggesting. First, we did not want to put clergy in the spot of having to admit to parishioners that they knew a bannering might occur and had not acted to stop it. Second, we did not want to appear to be punishing clergy who did not agree with us about the need for them to speak out on the war.


Margaret explained that we wanted clergy to get together and speak out against the U.S. occupation as Clergy and Laity Concerned worked to end the Viet Nam War. “Coffin”, the woman responded, referring to anti-war preacher William Sloane Coffin Jr., “That’s not what this church is.”


People at St. Matthew’s are, she said as she walked away, “very individual”.


As we reviewed our experience of the morning, we realized that Reverend Elsberry was the only clergyman among those in four churches we have visited who, at no time, expressed the slightest sympathy for the message we brought. He was also the only one who, in all interactions with us, expressed anger and rejection of us and our message.


At two churches we visited, White Plains Presbyterian and the Community (Methodist) Church in Pound Ridge, the pastors included our concerns in the prayers of the morning service and welcomed us to stay and visit with parishioners. Reverend David Johnson, at the Community Church, was the most inclusive, offering us a chance to speak during the service and telling the parishioners that politics has a place in church.


While Monsignor Hilary Franco at St. Augustine’s Church in Ossining told us to take our banner outside the church, he did not tell us, or have anyone else tell us, to fold the banner while we held it outside the church, or to leave. Monsignor Franco, when he left the church at the close of the service, stopped to read the banner and said that what is happening in Iraq is a shame.


As we drove away from Bedford, Margaret observed: “These are the people running the country. The people in Washington are just hitmen.” 

The foregoing was written by Nick Mottern. 

Margaret Eberle reports:
The drive up to St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Bedford was a feast for my eyes – sunny, cool, and with the colors of autumn and deep green grass not yet affected by the cold that was yet to arrive. There was lots of open space, and there were lots of old magnificent trees (some obviously over one hundred years old judging by their girth) undamaged by pollution and the chain saws of Con Edison, and lovely, big, well-kept houses. We were about to “trespass” into the spiritual home of the ruling elite.


Somehow, this felt different than the other churches I had visited. My mind was transported to Iraq and Afghanistan. What were the people of these two beseiged countries facing right at this minute? Scenes of broken houses and broken dreams, total destruction, children playing on streets filled with garbage and liquid sewage. All this carnage and misery is a direct result of the lies and illegal, immoral actions of our government including the Congress and their corporate advisors, financed by our tax dollars in an insatiable quest for empire and control of other countries’ resources.


As we approached the church, on the left hand side of the road, there stands a tall, stone cross which reminded me of some I had seen in Ireland but decorated with something other than a Celtic design. There was a marker on the ground identifying it as the “Bedford Cross”. I would like to know more about that cross. 


We drove into the parking lot of the church and proceeded to walk into the church, which is cream-colored and of an early design. The music coming from the loft at the rear of the church was absolutely beautiful…sounded professional.  


As the congregation entered the church there was not the usual casual chit-chat I remember in other visits to other churches; these folks obviously take their religion very seriously. 


When Nick and I stood up and displayed the banner, Reverend Elsberry responded with nothing short of controlled fury but stopped short of ordering us out of the church. We folded the banner and sat down and stayed through the rest of the service. The reverend’s sermon dealt with what he called ”an impossible challenge to be like Jesus”, by being “generous” through “joyous, madcap, no holds barred” giving to the church. He even suggested that God would remember when they approached Him that the parishioners were like Jesus because of their generosity. Somehow, I kind of got the feeling that maybe Nick and I might have done our own emulating of Jesus by holding up that banner.


After the service we were holding the banner in front of the church when Reverend Elsberry told us to leave because, among other things, we were on private property. Two other people approached us, one of them a woman who made a strong point that this church was not political. I had suggested that we were encouraging churches to reactivate Clergy and Laity Concerned, an organization that was very active during the Viet Nam War. She said, “You mean Coffin.” She was referring to the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., who was very active against the Viet Nam War. She repeated her point that this was not a political church. She left before I could engage her further that her position was, most assuredly, a political position.