Unitarian Universalists mark third anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq with peace vigils, rallies, and sermons.
In Portland, Ore., about 350 friends and members of First Unitarian Church joined 10,000 others for a downtown rally and march Sunday, March 19, against the war. Despite the numbers, Robert C.A. Moore, founder of a peace group at First Unitarian, said he sensed less enthusiasm this year. Noting that 40,000 turned out in Portland when the war started in 2003, he said, “There seems to be some real fear among people that they’ll do or say something that will get them investigated by the FBI. But for those of us who remain active, we’re motivated by the thought that we might do something that will end this war one day sooner.”
Caron Wells was one of 40 or so Unitarian Universalists attending a rally Saturday in Kansas City, Mo., that drew about 1,000 people. Hundreds of flyers with names and photos of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians who have died in the war were strung onto waist-high lines that crisscrossed the small park where the rally was held.
Wells said later, “I kept thinking of the song in our hymnal, ‘We are a gentle angry people and we are singing for our lives.’ We were all there because we believed in the worth and dignity of all people.”
The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Falmouth, Mass., sponsored a community vigil Sunday on the village green. “Some people had wanted us to hold a full debate Sunday about the Iraq invasion,” commented the Rev. Robert Murphy, “but our church had that debate three years ago. At this point, our congregation is trying to respond to the human suffering that continues in places like Baghdad and Basra. We’re trying to help American military families and we’re also trying to support the humanitarian agencies that are working with civilians in Iraq.”
The UU Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, N.Y., decided to formally speak out against the war. The congregation adopted a statement of conscience protesting “the unjust and immoral war in Iraq” at a congregational meeting in February. The resolution was approved 74-17 according to president Ron Roel. The statement was published in the congregation’s February 7 newsletter.
Some congregations marked the anniversary in their Sunday service with sermons or prayers. Other congregations acknowledged the war in services with other themes. The Bull Run UUs, a 213-member congregation at Manassas, Va., kicked off its annual fundraising campaign Sunday. “It was a service of celebration,” said the Rev. Nancy Elizabeth McDonald, “but I reminded people that even in the midst of celebration there is much work to be done in the world and peace yet to be made.”
Bull Run is near Washington, D.C, and a number of military and Defense Department families are in the congregation. McDonald said she is always careful to speak about issues, but not personalities. “I’m there to minister to the congregation, not the Democratic Party. I keep the congregation’s needs, fears, and hopes in mind rather than a specifically partisan set of assumptions.” She went on, “Whether you’re for or against the war, you’re grieving the fact it exists.”
The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, an organization of more than 1,000 congregations, has opposed the Iraq war since its beginning. The General Assembly, the Association’s annual business meeting, has adopted resolutions calling for congressional hearings on the “moral and legal justification for the invasion of Iraq,” the replacement of multinational forces with United Nations peacekeeping forces, and an end to “United States-sponsored torture.”
Susan Leslie, director of the UUA’s Office of Congregational Advocacy and Witness, said the numbers of people at antiwar rallies this spring may be less than they were in 2003 when the war started, “but I feel like our witness is broader and deeper than it was then. Many congregations are organizing discussion groups on the war as well as showing up at rallies. When I ask congregations what they’re doing I get more responses back than I did at the start of the war. I think that as an Association we’re taking a more sustained approach.”
UUA President William G. Sinkford, who sent a letter to Congress in December noting that pursuing a military-based strategy is having “tragic human consequences,” called last week for a public debate by Congress on Iraq. “I believe that we as a nation need to have a real conversation about what we have done—and failed to do—in Iraq, and where we should go from here.” Sinkford urged UUs to contact their members of Congress to promote a debate.
“The coming weeks are the best opportunity we’ve had in a long while to make real progress,” he said.
Helen Hamilton Rivas, a member of the UU Church in Birmingham, Ala., has been to many of the twice-weekly peace vigils held over the past three years at the Five Points South Fountain near downtown Birmingham. She went again Saturday, the date of the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq war.
She was also marking a more personal anniversary: Her granddaughter Kate was born three years ago. “I remember driving to Montgomery to welcome her into the world and stopping at the steps of the State Capitol to hold a peace sign for a while with the Montgomery Peace Project. I’m just wondering how long it will be before her birthday can finally overshadow the date that this war began.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.