Congregations focus deeply on war
by Donald E. skinner
Dahlonega, Georgia, is not the first place one might pick for an antiwar rally. As the home of North Georgia Military College and State University as well as an Army Rangers wilderness training site, the town has its share of those who support the war against Iraq.
Which is why the seventy-member Georgia Mountains Unitarian Universalist Church felt it important to take a stand for peace as war approached in mid-March. On a corner of its property (a key location because it's on the road to the Wal-Mart store, says the Rev. Marti Keller), church members, including children, gathered with other local peace activists, to hold up signs and sing about peace.
The reaction from motorists was mostly silence, says Keller. "We got a few supporting honks per hour and a few obscene gestures, but that was it.
"Being out there was a courageous thing for our people to do. In an area like this where there are lots of folks who support the war, and not much visible antiwar activity, we decided we needed to be out there with our message of peace."
The outbreak of war in mid-March found many congregations and individual Unitarian Universalists deeply focused on the war. It was a time for churches to shift gears, turning from preventing war to focusing on support of those in the military and on what happens after the war. Many congregations, from River Road Unitarian Church, Bethesda, Maryland, to Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, Overland Park, Kansas, created bulletin boards on which members could post names of friends and relatives in the military.
"It's a way for us to continually hold their presence," says the Rev. Virginia Luke at River Road. "We have a strong peace movement here, and we also wanted to make sure we showed respect for people who were sent to Iraq."
The congregation of the Kitsap Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Bremerton, Washington, was watching over its ten military families as war came. The Rev. Suzelle Lynch made a point to personally invite them to a candlelight vigil the day the bombing of Iraq began. When a military spouse goes to sea, church members are encouraged to support the family. "It's important for us to be a place of caring for everyone," Lynch says. "I haven't preached a lot of sermons against the war, for that reason. We make sure military families know that antiwar doesn't mean antiperson."
Still, it's been hard at times for Emily Rohrer, whose U.S. Navy lieutenant commander husband, Tim, was on a ship off Korea this spring. In a column in the fellowship newsletter before war began, she wrote that she enjoyed the spiritual choices at Kitsap. And the friendships. "But . . . when I see the No Iraq War signs and petitions in the lobby, I get a funny unwelcome feeling in the pit of my stomach." She said she reminded herself that war protests were not directed at her.
On the day war began, UUA president the Rev. William G. Sinkford led a prayer breakfast for the Naval Surface Warfare Group, a group which includes both naval officers and Marines. The Rev. Cynthia Kane, a Unitarian Universalist Navy chaplain, also attended. Sinkford says, "I thanked them for the work they do, but more importantly let them know that even persons like me, who have stood vigil for peace, speak with one voice in support of the men and women in uniform."
He also met with the chiefs of chaplaincy of the Air Force and Navy. Sinkford said both groups appreciated his remarks. "It matters a lot that those who have been most vocal in opposition to our nation's policies, at the same time can stand with our service folks." There are four Unitarian Universalist chaplains in the military.
The Unitarian Church of Norfolk, Virginia, home to one of the world's largest naval bases, includes twenty-five military families. "When the war started I talked about how just having soldiers and pacifists in the same pew is radical social witness and not to be underestimated," says the Rev. Danny Reed. "We're going to be in the shadow of this war for a long while. I hope we continue to leave space and room for a variety of opinions and thought."
In the week before war began, Ben Hall, a community minister with Religious Society of Bell Street Chapel Unitarian Universalist, Providence, Rhode Island, walked 113 miles across Rhode Island and half of Connecticut carrying a peace sign. He says the best part of the trip was the many conversations he had with people on both sides of the peace issue. "My dream now is to organize a forum with people who really disagree with the peace movementa chance for people to not preach at each other, but to listen."
The UUA Web site provides numerous resources about the Iraq war, including UUA statements, worship materials, and resources for Unitarian Universalists in the military and their families. Visit the site at www.uua.org/news/2003/iraq. The UUA's partner agency, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), is accepting donations for humanitarian aid in Iraq. For more information, go to www.uusc.org/news/iraqweb-appeal20030321.html.