A Space Where Violence is Abhorred Church Visit #19
Report and commentary by Nick Mottern
On Sunday, February 1, 2009, Martha Conte, Gayle Dunkelberger, Margaret Eberle, Debbie Kair and I visited South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry, NY in our campaign to encourage clergy to speak out for an end to the US occupation of Iraq and for withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.
In his opening prayer, Reverend Joseph Gilmore said that his church is “a space where violence is abhorred,” and we found the church to be far and away the most welcoming and accepting of our message of any of the 19 churches we have visited over the last year and three months.
We came to the stone church for the 10 am service on a cold, clear morning two weeks after the inauguration of President Barack Obama and in the glow of optimism generated by that event. While Mr. Obama has talked about withdrawing troops from Iraq within 16 months, he has said nothing definitive about the timing, and he has taken steps to increase the numbers of US soldiers in Afghanistan. Given the prospect of continuing and expanding war, we had decided before the inauguration to continue our campaign and to include Afghanistan in our message.
We came to the church because Reverend Gilmore told me when I met him at a vigil protesting the Israeli assault on Gaza that he thought our church visits were a good idea and that he would welcome us coming to his church. We did not, however, let him know when we would attend.
By the singing of the first hymn – “Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise” and the opening prayer, about 100 people had gathered in the mostly white congregation, which included eight African-Americans and about ten children. Most of the people appeared to be in their late 40s and above.
The congregation was dressed informally, and the atmosphere of the church was relaxed and free. In the opening prayer, Reverend Gilmore made it clear that all people are welcome and that the church is a place where all people can feel safe; he urged everyone to “put down any heavy thing you may be carrying.” As evidence of inclusiveness, Debbie pointed out to me, the bulletin’s writing of the Lord’s Prayer, which it called “A Prayer of Jesus”, began: “Our Belov’d Creator” instead of the more traditional “Our Father…”
Instead of a sermon, the bulletin called the pastor’s morning talk: “Provocation”. At the time for the collection of the offering, we rose from our seats and stepped to the right side of the church and held up two banners. The first said:
OVER ONE MILLION CIVILIANS HAVE BEEN
KILLED, WOUNDED OR DISPLACED
The second banner, new in our campaign, with white lettering painted on a dark blue fabric with a painting of earth, read:
After we had been standing a few seconds, Reverend Gilmore said: “Friends, you could not be more welcome. You may hold up the banner for as long as you wish.” (In previous church visits the responses of pastors have ranged from telling us to leave the church to asking us to be seated. However, at the Community Church in Pound Ridge we were given an opportunity to address the congregation.)
We decided to stand with the banners until the singing that accompanied the collection of the offering had ended.
At the portion of the service where announcements were made, Reverend Gilmore recalled that the civil rights organizer James Forman had stood up unannounced to talk to the congregation of Riverside Church in New York, stopping the service. He wished that Mr. Forman would visit the church he attended in Scarsdale, and although that did not happen, he told me later, he did gather a group of 40 people to study Mr. Forman’s “Black Manifesto”.
(In his 1969 visit to Riverside, James Forman called for $500 million from white churches for reparations to African-Americans for injustices suffered during and after slavery. He also visited other churches during the 1960’s with the message that they must assist African-Americans, including one in Providence, Rhode Island that I was attending. His presentation, interrupting the service and riveting the attention of the congregation, was unforgettable and inspired our series of church visits.)
Reverend Gilmore told the congregation that he and I had spoken at the vigil in January and, speaking to our group said: “You have no idea how glad I am to see you.” He invited us to join in the lunch of bread and soup that would be served in the parish hall after church.
In his “Provocation”, Reverend Gilmore talked about “the contributions of black Americans to our common life,” noting the beginning, on this Sunday, of Black History Month. He focused on artists such as Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, playing a recording of Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”.
He talked about President Obama’s inaugural address, saying that the president was expressing that “hope did not look like a portrait of him…it was a group picture. And he praised the prayer of the Rev. Joseph Lowery, its closing humor, and said that Lowery “held up a picture of hope-a picture of all of us.”
He then referred to a Bob Herbert column in the New York Times that reported on a mass movement to end war in Liberia that was spawned by a woman who asked women to get together and pray for peace. Victory for the women came when Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf was sworn in as Liberian president, marking the end of the civil war. “That is what hope looks like,” said Reverend Gilmore.
As we rose to leave the sanctuary at the end of the service, a woman sitting in front of us thanked as for coming, and at lunch, several people discussed our action and the wars. A man in his late 40s or early 50s said that Reverend Gilmore has made it a point to ensure that people feel comfortable speaking freely in the church about political issues.
A woman who appeared to be in her early sixties asked how we had been received at other churches, and we told her of the wide range of reactions, including having had our banner pulled from our hands by an usher at St. Patrick’s Church in Bedford, rolled into a ball and stomped on.
While we were talking with these people, Reverend Gilmore sat down and thanked us again for visiting. In the course of our conversation, I asked if one of us, suggesting Debbie, might be able to give a sermon at his church. He said to just let him know when.
As I arrived home from our visit, I was happy that we had found a church with so many like-minded people. But I also felt that our protest would not necessarily spur greater action. I felt this possibly because I sensed the people had done all they could. Possibly it was because even in a friendly group, or especially because we were in friendly group, it seemed that we as protesters have become a predictable part of the war narrative.
Just before concluding this article, I read an article by Robert Fisk in which he asks:
“ I wonder if we are ‘normalizing’ war...I’m not sure where all this started…I rather think it was the Gulf War. Our television lads and lasses played it for all it was worth-it was the first war that had ‘theme’ music to go with the pictures – and when US troops simply smothered alive thousands of Iraqi troops in their trenches, we learned about it later and didn’t care much, and even when the Americans ignored Red Cross rules to mark the mass graves, they got away with it. There were women in some of these graves – I saw British soldiers burying them. And I remember driving up to Mutla Ridge to show a Red Cross delegate where I had seen a mass grave dug by the Americans, and he looked at the plastic poppy an American had presumably left there and said: ‘Something has changed.’
“He meant that something had happened to international law, to the rules of war.”
As I left the experience of our church visit, anticipating the Super Bowl game and sensing the holiday atmosphere of the afternoon that it generated, what I was feeling is that Fisk’s “something” is happening to all of us.
When we started our bannering campaign, the goal was to stimulate action to end the Iraq War. I realize now that, for me, the church banners have become a way of remembering, an attempt to not be completely overcome, marginalized as a human being and deadened by the “normalizing” of war.