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Church Crowd Silent After Protesters Are Grabbed, Shoved

Church Blogging # 23
By Nick Mottern

On Sunday, October 4, Martha Conte, Gayle Dunkelberger, Nora Freeman, Debbie Kair and I attended St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Armonk, NY in our bannering campaign to encourage clergy and parishioners in Westchester County to work to end the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.

We experienced a disturbing incident in which the pastor, the Reverend John F. Quinn, had to intervene to prevent an usher from trying to wrestle me over backward after the man had grabbed Debbie’s shoulder and attempted unsuccessfully to rip one of our banners from her hands.

Since he came from behind us, it was not clear whether the usher, a man in his late 60s or early 70s, had read either of the banners we held or whether he was simply enraged by our intrusion into the service. He was accompanied by at least five or six other men, some pressing in on us with him while others tried to restrain him.

Father Quinn told us later that St. Patrick’s is a “peace church,” but after the service not one soul in the church spoke to us and most averted their eyes from us. Also disturbing was the behavior of parishioners who made it difficult for Debbie to enter the line going to the altar for Communion, which came toward the end of the service. “They glared at me and walked right in front of me,” Debbie said.

The one expression of kindness was from a woman who shook Martha’s hand during the point at the service where people greet each other, which occurred after the above-mentioned incident.

We came to St. Patrick’s, a large, round brick building with a conical roof that rises sharply at the center to a flat peak, on a sunny morning with the temperature in the 70’s. On the way into church two of us bought raffle tickets being sold by the local division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians to benefit Rosary Hill Nursing Home and Hospice.

Inside, we found the church pews arranged in pie-shape sections radiating from the altar. By the time the service began at 10:30 am about 300 people had assembled. The congregation appeared to be all white.

The service opened with Father Quinn announcing that this was “Respect for Life Sunday” and that the Mass would include a blessing of families new to the parish.

After looking at the order of the service, Debbie suggested that we stand to display the banners at the beginning of the penitential prayers. When the time came, we rose and stood behind our pew raising two banners. One said simply:

PEACE ON EARTH Good Will to All Luke 2:14

The other:

4,346 U.S. soldiers killed - tens of thousands wounded
1 million+ Iraqis killed - millions displaced
Much of Iraq and its culture have been destroyed
The U.S. has spent 3 trillion - 4 billion from Westchester

There were a few people in pews behind us so we moved out of their line of sight to the altar. While we were moving, after a minute or two, I heard a man saying loudly: “Please leave.” I looked and saw the man moving down the line of banners and then saw him tussling with Debbie, who was lowering the banner with the statistics. He kept saying “Please leave” and was tearing at the banner, trying to wrest it from Debbie’s hands and to crumple it into a ball at the same time. Other men were behind him and seemed to be trying to help him.

Frustrated at not being able to get the banner from Debbie’s grip or to destroy it, he came at me, grabbed both of my wrists as I held up my end of the banner and started to drive me slowly backward into some chairs or a pew. I said: “What are you doing?” and repeated that. By this time at least one other man was reaching to restrain him and others were telling him to stop. One man said: “Don’t do it. Don’t touch him.”

At this point Father Quinn materialized on my right. He is about 5 feet six inches tall, slight of build, balding with white hair, a much smaller presence than the group of men confronting us. He told the men to stop, saying: “Everyone is welcome here.”

Several people immediately said: “Without the sign.” Father Quinn said to us: “That’s your call,” which we took to mean that he would permit us to continue displaying the banners if we wished. We decided to fold the banners and to stay for the rest of the service.

In his sermon, Father Quinn told of how St. Francis of Assisi in 1219 had crossed from the battle lines of a group of Crusaders into an opposing camp of Muslim troops headed by Sultan Malek al-Kamil to try to help achieve peace. The sultan was so impressed with Francis, Father Quinn said, that the sultan told him that if there were 12 people like him they could change the world. “God gives us the ability to see what unites us,” Father Quinn said.

A commentary about St. Francis that was included among the church handouts was entitled: “Blessed is the Peacemaker”, and it noted: “Francis saw God in everyone. He was led to non-violence and this spirit dominated his whole life.”

During the reading of communal prayers, a teenage boy included prayers for US troops recently killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, reading their names, and prayers were offered for others killed in warfare.

At the close of the service, Nora and I went to the sacristy to talk with Father Quinn. He said he had not seen the usher grab and shove Debbie and me but that the men who came at us are “good guys”, and he thought the most aggressive of the ushers was trying to protect him, Father Quinn. He said that there were three other parishioners who would likely have been much more aggressive, and he was glad they weren’t at church. He said that St. Patrick’s is a “peace church.”

Martha spoke with Father Quinn a bit later, telling him that she was glad to see the United Nations flag being displayed in the church because it is unusual to see this in an American house of worship. During the service, Father Quinn mentioned the opening of the UN General Assembly, and asked the congregation to pray for its deliberations during its September through December session. (Martha noted that there is a sign outside the church saying “God bless the world”, which she says is a “refreshing change from ‘God Bless America’.”)

After leaving the church we went to a local park to collect our thoughts. Debbie said that her shoulder was still sore where the usher had grabbed and squeezed it prior to tussling for the banner. We were all surprised that not one parishioner was moved to say anything about what they had witnessed. In two years of visiting Westchester County churches, this level of aggression and unfriendliness was unique.

It is possible that only a relatively few in the church saw our message before it was forced down. And it is likely that many were offended by our standing in up with the message during the service. It is also true that no one was offended enough by the violence they witnessed to speak to us about it. Possibly they felt we got what we deserved.

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Not sure you will get this comment. Maybe Chip can help.
My 9 yr old ended up in a Baptist Church this past Sunday while I was at work. She told me "I was sort of sick to my stomach when I went to the bathroom. They had a loud speaker in there and a man was saying that God needed more and more of us to fight and God would know when to bring the troops home."

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