Written by Connie Larkman
Once she discerned that the concept would ring true for her congregation, the Rev. Ann Plumley couldn't wait to put two and two together.
In a Sunday service designed to observe the end of the Iraq War, First Church Congregational UCC in Mansfield Center, Conn., solidified on March 25 its standing as a peace-witness church with two separate acts: a gesture by two men from warring countries symbolizing the end of the war in Iraq, and the baptisms of two of the church's youngest members.
"It was a connection that a colleague helped me make between the virtue of Christian witness and the sacrament of baptism that made it fit," said Plumley, First Church senior pastor.
Principal participants in the service were Ret. U.S. Army National Guard Master Sgt. James Woodland; his friend, Waleed Al-Rukaibawi, a native Iraqi now living in the United States; and 4-year-old Alyssa Angus and her 3-year-old brother, Matthew, the church's most recent baptismal candidates.
"It made a theological leap from virtue of Christian witness that these two men and others in the church had been making about peace and war over the years, and the congregation's promises to these children who were being baptized to teach them the stories of faith," said Plumley.
Woodland and Al-Rukaibawi met in 2004 while Woodland was stationed in Iraq. Al-Rukaibawi was helping U.S. Army personnel with installation and maintenance of heating and air-conditioning systems. The two met and became friends.
Eventually, Al-Rukaibawi told Woodland he wanted to move with his wife and seven children to the United States. "I said I would do what I could to help him," said Woodland. Along with Catholic Charities, the church and others, he was successful. Al-Rukaibawi is now an HVAC technician with the University of Connecticut.
During the March 25 worship service, Woodland removed a handmade sign in front of the church that had tallied the number of U.S. deaths in Iraq; Al-Rukaibawi took down a sign posting numbers of Iraqi civilian casualties and U.S. troops injured. After carrying the signs into the church, Woodland saluted one sign, and Al-Rukaibawi put his hand to his heart and bowed respectfully to the other.
Their simultaneous gestures were a symbolic commemoration of peace in Iraq, said Plumley, and, subsequently, a celebration of First Church's role as a peace-witness congregation.
Plumley said Alyssa and Matthew's parents are among a large percentage of new members who join First Church, at least in part, because of its peace and justice witness. Testament to that witness was born out in the ever-growing patch of orange surveyors' flags – one for each U.S. casualty in the Iraq war – that began to pop up on the church lawn seven years ago. Homemade signs tallying war casualties were placed into the ground, and weekly vigils were held.
"Unfortunately, it didn't take long before the entire lawn was covered in flags," said Plumley.
After about 18 months – and 1,400 flags – the church decided the surveyor signs should come down, said Plumley.
"After seven years of adding flags, and now with President Obama's announcement of withdrawal of troops from Iraq, the question was, 'What are we going to do (to continue to show that the church is a peace witness)?'" said Plumley. "Peace witness is too much of the church's identity."
In an op-ed column published in "The Chronicle" of Willmantic, Conn., March 23, Plumley wrote, "We pray our children's children will tell stories of peace-making from this era in Mansfield's history, and we look forward to witnessing future generations' acts of courage and conviction that build peace in this world that God so loves."