Across the UCC: UCC churches find positive ways to work for peace
Written by Carol L. Pavlik
December 2002

Carol L. Pavlik

From youth-run concerts that educate to vigils that witness, UCC members of all ages are joining their communities to urge a peaceful resolution to the conflict with Iraq.

The Interfaith Prayer Vigil for Common Sense about War on Iraq, led by the Rev. Warren Clark and United Church of Tampa (Fla.) UCC's Social Action Committee, crept into the public eye not with angry shouts of anti-war sentiment, but with silence and prayer.

As 61 protesters, ranging from Muslim to Methodist, Jewish to UCC, spanned the entrance of the U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, the din of F-16 fighter jets overhead and the whoosh of trucks and cars speeding past on Dale Mabry Highway did not drown out the prayers for peace in protesters' hearts. Clergy from several faith communities stood in robes while lay people stood with simple signs of peace.

These two justice-minded youth were part of the protest on war with Iraq, which took place in front of the U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. Jim Christison photo.
There were no angry chants or fervent protests, only prayerful hopes that the nation's leaders would consider alternative methods of non-violence based on the teachings of Jesus and Ghandi. And just as Clark had hoped, reporters from local newspapers, television and radio stations arrived.

"There's just something about the presence of people of faith," says Clark, "praying, not angrily shouting and denouncing." Clark says the centeredness that accompanies prayer summons a power much stronger than anger.

This doesn't mean Clark doesn't feel angry, believing a war with Iraq would be a terrible mistake. But Clark and his congregation feel the message of nonviolence and prayer will resonate best in their community.

"When we vilify the people with whom we profoundly disagree, or we vilify our enemies, basically we become cynical and we lose the love that Jesus gives us that is so very powerful," says Clark. "For me, the most powerful time [during the vigil] was when I was out there standing on the street between two Muslim ladies and I just got still. I did guided prayer and I really prayed for President George Bush by his first name." In turn, Clark prayed for Vice President Dick Cheney, Saddam Hussein and the members of Congress.

"I prayed for them to have an alternative vision, to have common sense," he says. "This business of praying for your enemies? Very powerful."

Church takes out ad for peace

Since September 11, 2001, the Rev. Jerry Stinson, pastor of First Congregational UCC of Long Beach, Calif., has been told by church members that they are plagued by tremendous pressure to "love everything the U.S. does." Stinson says he has preached on the difference between nationalism and patriotism. He wants to assure members that they don't have to want war to show support for their country.

First Congregational's Peace Group recently raised enough money to run an ad in the local newspaper, The Long Beach Press Telegram. The ad begins, "What will war with Iraq accomplish? A million new terrorists!" and continues with a list of facts meant to dislodge myths supporting that war is necessary. ("Bombing Baghdad, a city of 5 million people, will not liberate [the Iraqi people]. It will kill them.") The ad is signed by more than 100 people, 17 of them ministers.

Already a second ad is in the making, and money is being raised to run the ads in multiple local publications. The Peace Group, formed specifically in response to the planned invasion of Iraq, is finding other ways of being vocal in their community, linking up with other organizations for weekly vigils. The congregation is in the process of preparing a position statement, and peace forums are slated to bring in theologians and historians to talk about the issues surrounding Iraq.

Staying informed and voicing your opinion is paramount, says Stinson. During coffee hour, worshipers at First Congregational can peruse the "peace table" featuring information about upcoming peace activities.

Billboard reads, 'War: Not in my name'

This winter, motorists in Coral Gables, Fla., will pass a billboard on the highway reading, "'War: Not in my name, not now, not ever.' —God."

The sign is paid for by Coral Gables Congregational UCC and, says Noel Cleland, member of the church's Justice and Peace committee, there will be others to follow.

The congregation is drafting a resolution voicing strong opposition to war with Iraq, but Cleland fears that by the time the resolution is completed to everyone's satisfaction, the U.S. military already will have made its first strike. "There is a sense of urgency to do something now," he says.

A recent panel discussion on alternatives to war in Iraq packed hundreds of people from the surrounding community into Coral Gables. Speakers from the Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish faith communities shared their perspectives on the growing U.S.-Middle East tension, and gave audience members a chance to voice their opinions and ask questions. Attendees also received information on contacting Congressional representatives and President Bush.

Since the U.S. Congress passed Bush's resolution for war, Cleland says he thinks most people are no longer feeling empowered to actually stop the war. "Whether or not we want to go to war is becoming less of an issue," he says. "Now it's more important we stand our moral ground."

The congregation also has chosen education as the focus for its peace ministry. In an area heavily populated by college students, the church will take its message to nearby colleges and universities, making sure that students are educated about the Selective Service. Especially important, says Cleland, is that foreign students and immigrants understand their rights and responsibilities during a time of war.

"People need to understand," says Cleland, "and to think about what they hear."

Iaye and Sharifi
Kids organize concerts to aid kids

The plight of the children in Afghanistan gained the attention of socially-minded UCC youths this summer, resulting in two musical concert events to aid children forced to flee their homes in Afghanistan.

The first concert took place in Concord, N.H., where a little girl named Meg Seaford, not quite 7 years old, approached the Rev. Nathan King, pastor of Trinity UCC in Concord, about sending money for food to help the children in Afghanistan. King invited Meg to help read scripture when the lectionary focused on Jesus feeding the 5,000, and enlisted the congregation's help in brainstorming for a fundraising idea.

A few months later, "Megstock!" became the talk of the town. Church members David and Mary Bowles hosted the concert event on their lawn with David's band, Suburban Legends, providing entertainment. Meg and King shared a prayer for the children they were helping, then Meg busily helped lay out desserts on serving tables while more than 100 people attendance danced and sang on the lawn until late at night.

Megstock! was a success: $960 was raised and sent to Afghanistan through Church World Service.

Across the country in Oregon, two 4th grade boys also were troubled by the children's faces they saw on the nightly news. Brandon Iaye and Mehdi Sharifi, playground buddies and members of Meridian UCC in Wilsonville, Ore., discovered they could raise money to purchase food and shelter kits through Church World Service. With the help of four more friends from school, the two boys showed tremendous faith and fortitude by contracting musicians from the church for a concert.

"We were so proud of these kids," says the Rev. Linda Mines Elliott, who says Iaye and Sharifi researched the culture and history of Afghanistan and put together a PowerPoint presentation so audience members could be educated as well as entertained.

Sharifi's father, Ali, of Iranian descent, sells rugs by trade and brought in samples from Afghanistan. Some had historical events, such as the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, woven into them.

Sharifi's grandmother served Iranian food and snacks at the concert. After the concert, $1,500 was sent to Church World Service for purchase of food and shelter kits. Even more amazing was the pride Elliott saw in the boys' eyes.

"They were stunned," says Elliott with a smile. "They had no idea they could raise that kind of money! It was empowering."

Later, Elliott wanted to thank the boys.

"Just imagine what you can accomplish in the future," she wrote. "There's nothing you can't do—if you do it together and with the values of God's realm as the goal."

Send news, stories and photos of events at your local church to Across the UCC, United Church News, 700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland, OH 44115.