Honoring the fallen
Written by J. Bennett Guess
July- August 2004


Looking for the name of a friend who died in Iraq, Tonia Young, 10, of Wakeman, Ohio, inspects the 837 pairs of boots displayed in memoriam June 21-22 at The First Church in Oberlin (Ohio), UCC. Tracy Boulian © The Plain Dealer photo. Reprinted with permission.
 

Public images of flag-draped, military coffins—once common during wartime—are now forbidden by the U.S. government. But that hasn't stopped several UCC churches from finding creative ways to help their communities grieve the deaths of hundreds of U.S. service members and thousands of Iraqi civilians.

On June 21-22, about 1,000 people from across northern Ohio wandered about the expansive green lawn at The First Church in Oberlin (Ohio), UCC to view "Eyes Wide Open," a traveling, multimedia exhibit of the American Friends Service Committee. Its centerpiece is a makeshift memorial containing rows and rows of black combat boots, each identified with the name of a fallen U.S. soldier. Reminiscent of the somber, orderly feel at Arlington National Cemetery, Oberlin's emotional tribute paid homage to 837 military personnel who had died to-date during the 2003 Iraqi invasion and subsequent occupation.

Inside the church, 10,000 bullet casings, each representing an Iraqi civilian killed during the war, surrounded a primitive plow—a symbolic, prayerful reminder of Isaiah's biblical, swords-into- plowshares image. Accompanying education-oriented displays helped visitors grasp the cost of war both in human and financial terms.

Organized locally by an ecumenical peace group that meets at the church, the exhibit required a cadre of volunteers to spend nearly seven hours setting up and properly tagging the sets of boots. The escalating number of military casualties meant that Oberlin's volunteers had to purchase additional boots from a local Army-Navy surplus store to refl ect the most recent deaths.

"As the exhibit goes on to other cities, they too are having to buy new boots," said the Rev. David Hill, the church's pastor.

One 20-year-old volunteer, Hill said, became emotionally overwhelmed during setup when he realized how many of the dead were younger than he was. Another young woman, whose husband had died recently in Iraq, took time to pay her respects to each and every fallen soldier represented there.

"The memorial aspect was key," Hill said. "You can be for peace and support the troops. There is a mistaken belief that if you are protesting this war, you do not support the soldiers, but the boots help to make a bridge. They honor the soldiers who are over there, the ones who are paying the ultimate price for this. And this enables [people] to have the serious conversations about the issues surrounding this war."

Similarly, at St. Mark UCC in Terre Haute, Ind., 938 flags covered the church's lawn on Memorial Day, May 31, with each representing a U.S. soldier who has died in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

The Rev. Jimmy Watson, pastor, said the idea belonged to church member Dave Roberts, who wanted to express concern for fallen soldiers while also attesting to war's destructive consequences.

Watson says he warmed to Roberts' idea once he better understood his motives. "As a pacifist, I had a difficult task because I didn't want our church to be seen as Ôwar cheerleaders,'" Watson says, "but instead as supporters in Christ of the families of those soldiers who have perished. É We wanted to appeal to our community's natural patriotism while at the same time we wanted to give them a sense of the tragedy of war É to inject some sense of realism to what is happening."

Public reaction was positive, he said, even if there was a wide range of understandings of the exhibit's purpose.

"Some saw it as what Memorial Day has always been—the typical, patriotic thing to do to memorialize fallen soldiers," Watson said. "But some said it made them question the senselessness of what we are doing [in Iraq]. We wanted to honor those who have died but inject a sense of realism in what is happening here."

At United Church of Chapel Hill in North Carolina, fabric artist Sherri Wood—with some help from the congregation's senior high youth—fashioned a memorial banner for the church. Its design includes hundreds of tiny coffins, representing the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. The coffins' placement spells out the word "repent." On the banner's second side, ornate stitching memorializes fallen Iraqis.

In May, Elise Surko, a member of Fredericksburg (Va.) Congregational UCC, was so upset by news reports coming from Iraq about prisoner abuses at the U.S.-operated Abu Ghraib prison, she urged her church to do something. "She wanted the people over there to know that we're not all like that, in the same way that I'm sure the Iraqi people would want us to know that they do not all represent the violence that we see coming from there," says the Rev. Cathie Fisher Braman, pastor.

Four days later, 30 people—representing not only the UCC but also Muslim, Unitarian Universalist, Baptist and United Methodist traditions—participated in a UCC-organized candlelight vigil in the center of town.

"We were able to show that we are a peaceful people," Braman says.

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Rev. J. Bennett Guess
Executive Minister, Local Church Ministries
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3801
guessb@ucc.org