The Rev. Steven Swope stands outside First Congregational UCC in San Bernardino, Calif., before leading "A Service in the Time of War." David Creamer photo/San Bernardino Sun.
What does the church do when the country goes to war? Before the war started, while it was underway, and even after the fall of Baghdad, UCC ministers and members prayed, lighted candles, marched and discussed the war and all that it might mean. Here is a sampling of those words and actions.
In the Connecticut Conference, local churches were urged to join in the tolling of bells every day at 12:15 p.m. as a reminder of the war and its terrible toll and as a means of lifting the horizon of hope before our people.
In Fort Wayne, Ind., in a poorly heated room adjacent to the sanctuary of Peace UCC, half-a-dozen worshipers, calling themselves Prayers for Peace, have gathered every Monday evening since last fall to pray for world leaders. The names on the prayer cards include not only President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and national leaders of Great Britain, China, France, Germany, Israel and Russia, but also Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong II.
In Hillsboro, Ore., as the war started the Rev. Diane Dulin invited members of First Congregational UCC to designate Sunday, March 23, as a day for fasting and prayer. "We may speak and listen to our Creator rather than trying to convince or argue with one another," she said. During worship that Sunday there was minimal preaching and extra time for prayers, reflection upon scripture, and music.
In San Bernardino, Calif., on Wednesday evening of March 19, as the fighting began in Iraq a small group gathered at First Congregational UCC to pray. The hymns and prayers were neither in support of nor in opposition to the war, the Rev. Steven Swope told the San Bernadino County Sun. "This is a way for people on all sides of the issue to struggle together and be supportive of each other," he said. "No matter what our personal approach to the issue, we are going to stand and pray together."
In Vancouver, Wash., in mid- March the weekly newsletter of First Congregational UCC included three different prayers that families could use at home: A Prayer for Protection of Those in Military Service, a Prayer for Those Who Wait at Home during a Time of War, and a Prayer for Children During a Time of War.
In Kettering, Ohio, David's UCC sponsored a workshop called "Talking About Peace Without Going to Pieces." The Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, President of UCC-related Chicago Theological Seminary and the editor of "A Just Peace Church," spoke at the event.
In Fairbanks, Alaska, the Rev. J. Douglas Leggett of Midnight Sun UCC joined others to protest the war in a nonviolent action of civil disobedience at the Federal Court Building.
In Kutztown, Pa., "Waging Peace" was the topic at the weekly Soul Cafe at St. John's UCC. Discussion focused on initiating healing and reconciliation and opening conversations with people alienated from one another, with special emphasis on creating Christian-Islamic dialogue.
In Memphis, Tenn., First Congregational UCC held daily vigils against the war and organized a local "Women in Black" mobilization, where women dress in black to symbolize grieving and stand in protest of the violence of war. The church also sent 112 bags of rice to Washington, D.C., with the message, "If your enemy is hungry, feed them. Please don't bomb Iraq."
At St. Peter & St. Paul UCC in Cincinnati, each week since 9/11 as worshipers go to prayer they light a Peace Candle. "At first, it was in response to the terrorism and now has grown to include the world, leaders of countries, military personnel serving countries and the possibility of war," says the Rev. Marty Westermeyer. "As always, we pray for peace not only for the world, but that we may be peace makers ourselves in the places where we live."
And at the Amistad Chapel in the UCC's Church House in Cleveland, a lighted candle is burning continuously from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. on weekdays during the war. The candle is a symbol of the ongoing prayers of the UCC's 1.4 million members and 6,000 congregations who pray for all those in harm's way, the people who love them, and for peace all around the world. A display of names of family members of national staff who are serving in the military stands by the baptismal font.
Support the Olive Branch Appeal
Already the UCC has sent $115,000 for the Iraq humanitarian crisis from the One Great Hour of Sharing offering, but another $300,000 is needed. Please write a check to your local church designated for "Olive Branch Appeal" or mail a check to Wider Church Ministries (same designation), 700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland OH 44115-1100, or donate online at ucc.org/disaster/olive.htm.
Why should we pray?
ÔPeace is not simply the absence of warfare'
From Hartsdale Airport in Atlanta, while waiting for a flight home from a Ministry Issues symposium, Pennsylvania Southeast Conference Minister the Rev. Russ Mitman wrote a Pastoral Letter. It included these thoughts on prayer:
It seems almost naive for me to say that the only thing that will bring us to the other side is prayer. Yet, it is prayer that is the unique arsenal faith communities have amidst hopelessness, fear and polarization. Praying for troops sent into the conflict and praying for peace are not contradictions. Praying for families fearing the worst for their loved ones and praying for our enemies, as Jesus commanded, is not a contradiction. Praying for those "for" the war and praying for those "against" the war are not contradictions. In fact, it is only prayer—prayer in the name of Jesus Christ—that gets us beyond the contradictions, not because we can do it by our careful crafting of the words, but because the Word beyond all words grants to us that which is beyond our understanding. Peace is not simply the absence of warfare; peace is God's reality, heaven's gift to those who pray unceasingly, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."