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Anti-war Protesters Take Cause to Churches
Anti-war protesters take cause to churches
Since October 2007, a small group of demonstrators has visited 20 Westchester churches during Sunday morning services, silently unfurled banners of protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and waited for a reaction.
They have received scattered applause in a few churches and have been invited to stay for coffee in several.
But they have been thrown out of other churches - often with anger and sometimes with a touch of force - and have been called communists, narcissists, morons, pinkos, wackos, fools and words that can't be printed.
Some church pastors support the group's anti-war stance, if not their methods of protest, while others condemn the unannounced visits as tactless intrusions on worship.
The group of six main demonstrators has no name and is not affiliated with any larger organization or movement. But word has spread in the church community that they are out there - and could be coming your way.
In fact, the protesters plan on visiting at least one church a month until American troops are out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We usually don't get the greatest response," said Nora Freeman, 53, of Port Chester.
"Most of the time it's dead silence at first, which is kind of eerie," said Debbie Kair, 52, of Hartsdale.
Members of the group met recently over soup and bread in one participant's home and agreed to talk to a reporter about their motivations. Their story is uncomplicated: All are veteran peace activists who oppose the wars as imperialistic, oil-driven violations of international law.
Having taken part in street-corner demonstrations and rallies that were ignored, they decided to up the ante by trying to provoke church congregations to speak out against the wars.
Why churches? Because clergy helped stir opposition to the war in Vietnam and, the group said, should be taking a similar anti-war stance today on moral grounds.
"We wanted to bring an anti-war message into public spaces in an unusual way," said Nick Mottern, 70, a carpenter from Hastings-on-Hudson who is also head of Consumers for Peace, a national group trying to build opposition to the war in Iraq.
"Pastors who are favorable to what we do, by and large, are reluctant to speak about the wars because it can be divisive," he said. "They are already facing declining populations and revenue."
Kair, a former Maryknoll sister, said too many congregations believe they can leave the world behind when they gather for prayer.
"Jesus went out to the people and listened to them," she said. "How can you have a strong Christian belief if you're not looking at the war in a Christian context?"
But protesters have no right to take a political cause into a house of prayer, said the Rev. Eric Mathsen, pastor of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in White Plains, which was visited by the group in January 2008.
"We were broadsided, and my congregation was outraged," he said. "This was in the context of the Eucharist. People look forward to the consolation and communion of sacred worship on Sunday morning, and you cannot do this."
Mathsen said he addresses moral issues like abortion from the pulpit, when necessary, but avoids partisan politics.
"People have their own positions on the war, and Christians of good conscience can disagree on these issues," he said. "But this was a radical tactic. They didn't accomplish what they hoped."
The Rev. Rachel Thompson, minister for congregational life at Bedford Presbyterian Church, had heard about the group of protesters and "prayed" that they would not come to her church when she was leading Sunday services.
"I looked over and there they were," she said about a service in June. "My heart sank. I was afraid I wouldn't know what to do."
Thompson agrees with the group's anti-war position, though, and welcomed the group, asking members to stay for the service.
"They were so civil," she said. "They just sat down. I welcome their message, and I think they're right. The 'religious right' has defined the religious dialogue in this country for too long, and that's a shame. I can't say this is an activist congregation, but the senior minister and I have preached against the Iraq war more than once."
The demonstrators did not want a reporter to accompany them on a church visit, saying it would put undue focus on a single congregation.
In general, though, the group simply shows up at a randomly chosen church and sits until there is a break in the service. Then members of the group get up and stand on the side, unfurling banners that show the cost of the wars - in deaths and dollars - and that call for "Peace on Earth."
When they've been asked to leave churches, sometimes after ushers pull the banners from their hands, they have usually continued their demonstration outside. Their harshest condemnations have come from people leaving church.
The group has gone to 14 Protestant churches, five Catholic churches and one Unitarian church, caring little about such distinctions.
Monsignor Patrick Carney, pastor of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Hartsdale, where the group was expelled in September, said he agreed with the group's message but failed to understand how its members could interrupt a Mass.
"There is something else going on, you know," he said.
The group has not visited a black church or a synagogue because, as Mottern put it, the experiences of African-Americans and Jews in the U.S. "have been different than ours." They are now considering doing so.
Three of the six demonstrators said they are humanists, and Kair is the only one who goes to church regularly. But they have few reservations about telling church-goers what their priorities should be.
"Someone always comes up and says: 'We believe in what you're doing, but this is an inappropriate way to do it,' " said Gayle Dunkelberger, 70, of Katonah. "It may be inappropriate, but I say: 'So what?' The bigger picture is we've killed over 1 million Iraqis and 4,000 American troops."
The group doesn't understand how people can say they are religious, focusing on their relationship with God, but are not interested in politics.
"The people who suffer the consequences of our policy have no choice," said Martha Conte, 57, of White Plains.
The Rev. Diane Britt, rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Katonah, took exception to the group's presumptuousness when she stopped a service to address them in April.
"Interrupting the middle of a liturgical church service is not the way to ask someone to respond to war," she said.
Even the Rev. Gawain de Leeuw, rector of St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in White Plains, who agrees with the group's anti-war position and invited them to his church in January 2008, said their tactics are ineffective and their goals unclear. He said the group is likely to alienate church-goers who are tired of partisan politics and clergy who are struggling to build cohesive congregations.
"Let there be an open conversation," he said. "Instead, it feels like an ambush with a wagging finger."
A year ago, the group met with White Plains clergy to explain its method of protest. Both sides felt that little was accomplished.
"The feeling of the clergy was: 'If you don't have a clear objective, how can we help you?' " said the Rev. Melanie Miller, pastor of the Church in the Highlands, a United Church of Christ congregation, which hosted the meeting.
On Feb. 15, the demonstrators made their 20th visit - to the Church in the Highlands. Miller welcomed them and invited them to stay.
But she still doesn't understand what they are after.
"We were concerned about maintaining the integrity of worship," she said. "We asked what they wanted. Conversation? Education? We didn't really get an answer, other than raising awareness. We walked away with no direction."
Still, the demonstrators are undeterred - even if they expect that the election of Barack Obama, who is seen as a conciliator, will make people even less concerned about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama is increasing the American military presence in Afghanistan.
"It offers aid and comfort to pastors who want to keep their mouths shut," Mottern said.