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“Peace is Not Offensive” Church Visit #3

By Nick Mottern, Ellie Ommani and Gayle Dunkelberger

With a painting “Storm Clouds Gathering” by John Hufnagel and an excerpt from his accompanying essay.

On Sunday, October 21, 2007, we visited the Community (Methodist) Church in Pound Ridge, New York in the local campaign to urge clergy to take a public stand for an immediate end to the occupation in Iraq and against attacking Iran.


The Community Church is a relatively small colonial structure, white on the outside and in, and it gleamed especially brightly in the extraordinary sunshine of a brilliantly clear October day.   The church is a major feature of the tiny accumulation of buildings that comprises the center of Pound Ridge, a rural and extremely wealthy community in northern Westchester County.


There were about 50 in the congregation for the 10 a.m. service which was conducted by the Rev. David Johnson, a good-natured man in his 50s. The congregation was all white with the exception of several African-Americans who were guests of parishioners. 


This was Reformation Sunday, which, the morning bulletin noted, “ commemorates Martin Luther’s posting of his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany on October 31st, 1517. This act triggered the movement known as the Reformation.” 


The morning’s sermon was announced in the bulletin as “The Minister & the New York City Cab Driver…” Just before Reverend Johnson began the sermon, we stood up in the right front side 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 Johnson was surprised but kept his composure and said: “Thank you.” We kept standing, and he said “Thank You” again. We continued to stand, and he said “Thank you” and motioned for us to be seated. We folded the banner and sat down, as we had decided we would do if this was requested.


Reverend Johnson said our message would be considered in the prayers of the morning, and then he said he needed to pause a moment so that he could “get centered.”


He began his sermon with a joke in which St. Peter makes a clergyman wait to get into heaven but immediately admits a New York cab driver. The clergyman complains to St. Peter: “I’ve been saving souls for 30 years.”   Yes, says St. Peter, but “he scared the devil out of more people than you ever did.”


His message was essentially about the lack of clarity on who is righteous. He said the moral of the sermon was that when St. Peter asks “why should he let you into heaven”

it will be pointless to enumerate good works, that one can only say: “Because our Lord Jesus Christ died for me.”


After the hymn “Just as I am, Without One Plea” the service moved to sharing of “Joys and Concerns”. A woman asked that we pray for people who had suffered during the wild fires in California, and when no other concerns were voiced by parishioners, Reverend Johnson asked us if we wished to address the congregation.


Elie rose and explained that we had come hoping to encourage more people, and particularly clergy, to speak out on Iraq and the possible U.S. attack on Iran, noting that her husband is Iranian. I told the congregants that we did not wish to be impolite by displaying the banner but that we feel that we need to step outside of normal paths of communication and to be shocking to a degree because of the level of killing and the desperation faced by the Iraqi people.  


Gayle said that we felt we should come into the church with the banner because the Iraq War brings war daily into Iraqi places of worship, into weddings, into the privacy of homes and that there is a larger picture than following decorum.


Reverend Johnson commented that “Peace is not offensive” and that we had handled ourselves “not in a disruptive way.”    He said further that “some might disagree”, “but my own personal view is that the church should be involved in politics. “If it is not,” he said, “I’m not sure what the purpose of church is” in that politics affects “the way we live.”


Reverend Johnson then offered prayers in the “Prayer for the People” portion of the service, including: “We pray for Your blessing on those who serve their country that they will do it with an eye toward peace.” He asked God’s blessing for those who have lost “loved ones” in the war. And he asked: “ Make us the instruments of Your peace.”


As he ended the service, Reverend Johnson invited us to stay and visit with parishioners.


When the service was over, and while the postlude was being played, several people sitting in the pews in front of us, including the African-American visitors, turned around immediately, shook our hands and thanked us for coming. 


One of the guests was a man in his sixties from California, who said it was sad that the history of Viet Nam was repeating itself. While I spoke with him, Gayle and Ellie talked with others.


Shortly a man in his late 50s or early 60s, a parishioner, came over, thanked us for coming and said that prior to the invasion of Iraq the church had held a forum in which a Muslim had been invited to share his perspective.  


Another man joined us then, probably in his mid-40s, with close-cropped hair, who asked what the United States should do in a situation in which it has always defended freedom and where the Muslim world has said essentially that it wants to obliterate us, as evidenced in the words of Osama Bin Laden.


I responded that it was not true that we had always defended freedom, and I cited the U.S. intervention in the Philippines in the early 1900s, in Guatemala in the 1950s and in Viet Nams in the 1960s and 1970s as occasions in which the U.S. had attempted to suppress popular movements. The older man nodded in recognition of this information. The younger man asked weren’t we fighting Communism in the Philippines, and the older man and I said no, this was before the Russian Revolution.


With respect to the point about the intentions of Muslims, I said that one could not take Osama Bin Laden as representing all Muslims any more than Rush Limbaugh represents all people in the Republican Party.


Gayle and Ellie joined the conversation at about the point at which the younger man asked what we thought about what he understood to be the expressed intention of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad to wipe Israel from the face of the earth. 


Gayle said the press coverage of the Ahmadenijad visit to the U.S. had been very slanted against him. And Ellie said that the translation and interpretation of his remarks on Israel in the U.S. press were not accurate; that in fact he had said that the current “government” of Israel, not the country, would cease to exist, in the same way that the former government of the Soviet Union no longer exists.


Ellie spoke further about her experience living in Iran with her husband, including a point about the great strength of women there. She said the U.S. had helped Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War which led to the destruction of a town in which she and her husband were living and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives of Iranian soldiers, a loss from which the country is still recovering.


We had been joined in the conversation by another parishioner, who later introduced himself as John Hufnagel, who was supportive of our argument.


At one point, I said that the U.S. is very concerned that Iran and Iraq not unite in managing their oil reserves, which, combined, rival those of Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The younger man, who said he is ”in energy” , said that the “free market” should prevail, and I responded that there was no such thing as a free market while the U.S. has its naval forces off the coast of Iran, threatening attack. Any oil deals struck in this situation, I said, amounted to extortion, to which the older men agreed.


The conversation continued for at least a half hour. We began to conclude when Reverend Johnson closed the front doors of the church.


I walked over and thanked him for allowing us to speak and for his welcome. I asked him what he thought about the war, and he said it was wrong to have gotten into, but now that the U.S. is there it is hard to know what to do. He was against attacking Iran.


Ellie, Gayle and I and the three men chatted for a little longer, and as we all shook hands and bid each other goodbye, the younger man said to me: “Thanks for fact checking me.”


Just before we left the building, Mr. Hufnagel gave us a print of a painting that he did after 9/11 and an essay that he wrote to go with it. He said he has been sending these to people in Congress, and others, to try to encourage peace. (His work appears at the end of this report.)


The foregoing is by Nick Mottern; following are the reports of Ellie Ommani and Gayle Dunkelberger:

I would only add that such visits impact not only on the parishioners, but also upon ourselves. When we arrived and went into the lovely, bright church, I was nervous, and a tiny thought passed through my mind: is it correct to ‘disturb’ this quiet and cooperative community of believers, who were quite friendly and seemed very close knit? During the service, I was especially fascinated by Pastor Johnson, who was so “down to earth” and sat briefly with the children involving them in the lessons of the faithful, just prior to their being led out of the church proper for their usual Sunday schooling in another area of the church. It has been a long time since I sang hymns, but truth be told, my favorite part of the Catholic church when I was growing up was singing in the choir, so I joyfully sang the songs in the hymn book just to give my heart and voice a work-out.

When Nick, Gayle and I stood and held the banner aloft, I watched the pastor closely. He was surprised, but actually read the banner, and then in a low voice said something about the message of peace. I noticed people around the church, even in the back, straining to see what the banner said, so I motioned to Gayle to step farther back so people could read the sad statistics: over 1,000,000 Iraqis dead, 2,000,000 displaced, over 3,800 U.S. soldiers killed and many more permanently wounded, and the astronomical costs of the war: reaching nearly a trillion, and then specifically the $$$ cost to Westchester (County).


After Pastor Johnson thanked us and asked us politely to sit down, he said we would be given a chance to share when that part of the morning program came, and as Nick mentioned, true to his word, he gave us ample time to say what we felt and why we were there. People looked right at us, some nodded their heads in agreement, and some just sat quietly. It was such an awesome experience. I hope to participate again, and feel fortunate that there were some open-minded and peace-loving souls in that church…and I especially thank Nick and Gayle for their courage and creativity in being witnesses for peace and justice in the world.


In the spirit of struggle, Ellie Ommani


Note: Ellie Ommani is co-founder of the American-Iranian Friendship Committee

I think this visit turned out to be the most productive so far. The minister recognized us, asked us to be seated and offered us an opportunity to speak about our action as soon as the sermon was finished. Bingo. We spoke briefly about our own motivation for participating in this endeavor.

After the service, many people came over to praise and thank us. One man politely challenged our opposition to the war. He asked Nick several questions. Nick answered with abundant patience and an extensive command of history. Ellie then answered even more questions with her wealth of knowledge of Middle Eastern history and love. I learned. The gentleman with the questions shook hands with each of us and said sincerely that he had a lot to think about. I believe that all those who listened to the conversations will be thinking a lot.


Another man who thanked us for coming and speaking, John Hufnagel, presented us with a print of a beautiful watercolor. He told us that he was inspired to paint it because of the devastating use of fear to control our nation. I understood that he actually saw this scene while driving on a cloudy day and was struck by the commentaary it seemed to make. The painting and the accompanying essay are entitled “Storm Clouds Gathering”.

An excerpt from the essay:
“Our continued acquiescence to the fear that we will lose our comfortable way of life has stripped us of our greatest strengths: our moral commitment to the value of the individual, our reliance on open and honest discussion to find solutions, and our compassion and hope for our fellow man.”

His painting accompanies this report.