UCC General Minister and President the Rev. John H. Thomas (green stole) joins marchers following a Martin Luther King Jr. Day prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Sandra Sorensen photo.
Call to witness for peace pulls UCC folks together from around the country
The signs. If I did nothing more than fill this entire space with the messages displayed at the peace rally in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Jan. 18, it would capture protestors' sentiments about the United States' seemingly imminent war against Iraq.
"Grandpas for peace," carried by a 70-something man.
"Don't become the evil we so deplore," lifted by a 60-something woman.
"How did our oil get under their sand?"—a sarcastic, yet significant, question asked about the motivations for this attack. The messages spoke volumes, but the rallying cry for peace began even before our buses left Cleveland State University on Jan. 17.
Though many UCC groups in Cleveland and across the country mobilized to attend the march, I became involved through a local non-profit organization working in conjunction with A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), a group based in New York and Washington.
Muslim women participate in a Jan. 18 peace march to the Navy Yard. Sandra Sorensen photo.
We stopped in Breezewood, Pa., for a quick breakfast and it was here that I began to realize the scope of this event. More than 30 buses filled the parking lot and lined the driveway of a little open-all-night, cafeteria-style diner. More than 400 people were either waiting in line or already seated in the dining room.
Standing in line for the restroom, we talked with people who had traveled by bus from Minnesota (they had been on the road for more than 24 hours), Missouri and Dayton, Ohio. As we waited patiently for stall, sink or hand dryer, a woman stood on tip-toe, craned her neck above the crowd and shouted, "It's so good to see you all here. I just had to say it out loud!" Her pronouncement was received with smiles and lots of heads nodding in agreement.
Our buses arrived in Washington at 8:30 a.m. to 15-degree temperatures. Within a few hours, even the veteran protestors among us began to realize that the crowd was larger than they had seen in the recent past. Later, we would hear many estimates—from 30,000 to 500,000. Whatever the actual number, we were many and we were strong.
We were not alone in our assessment. As the Rev. Cheryl K. Cornish, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Memphis, stated it, "the call to witness for peace is calling folks together from every corner of the country."
Like many, Cornish said she was moved by the diversity of the crowd, adding that she was particularly "touched to see so many families standing and demonstrating together, children often carried on the shoulders of the parents."
The Rev. David T. Hill, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Jefferson, Ohio, was 8 years old when his parents took him to his first peace rally in the San Francisco Bay area during the Vietnam era. He and his parents were now protesting again—he at the rally in Washington, his mother and father at a sister rally in San Francisco.
Many UCC members gathered at the Methodist Building for breakfast and a prayer service before the march. Hill spoke with the Rev. Ray Buchanan, a Methodist minister who had just returned from a trip to Baghdad. When asked what he wanted other congregations to know about their trip, Buchanan said, "Tell them we saw many sick and starving children," the devastation of years of economic sanctions. Buchanan said his group "visited several churches while in Iraq...in these churches Baghdad looks little different from Baltimore."
How right it felt to be in our nation's capital on the weekend before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Parts of his "I Have a Dream" speech were echoed during our frigid vigil and his message of non-violence was on our lips. All of us gathered that weekend share a dream that the nightmare of war with Iraq will never become a reality.
Actress and activist Jessica Lange spoke to me and to every mother's heart when she assured the crowd that of all the things she represented in speaking out against this war, she came above all as a mother who wants to save our children. Amen to that.
Laurie Bartels is a free-lance writer from Rocky River, Ohio, and a member of First UCC in Lakewood, Ohio.