Written by J. Bennett Guess
As the specter of U.S. war with Iraq moves closer to reality, UCC congregations stand ready to respond in services of worship and additional calls for peace.
For several weeks, Plymouth Congregational UCC in Plymouth, N.H. has included a notice in its worship bulletin saying that, when and if the U.S. strikes Iraq, the congregation will gather at 7 p.m. that evening for a special worship service, says the Rev. Judith Gooch.
"Our church includes people with all different perspectives on war," she says. "But we learned a long time ago that demonizing or degrading differences is not helpful. The best way to do Christian ministry together is to find common ground."
Gooch's husband, Larry, served in the Vietnam War. Afterwards, she says, they approached issues of war and peace from very different faith perspectives. She is, for the most part, a pacifist; he believes, generally, that war can be a necessary evil. "We had to work through that," she says. "I don't know anyone who is for war."
"I don't believe that supporting the military should be the same as supporting a bad war," she says. "But I don't pretend to have all the answers. I stumble along like everyone else and try to be faithful."
The church is committed to praying for its enemies and for those who serve in both the military and the Peace Corps, which includes a total of four from the congregation. Members have attended peace actions in Washington, D.C. and New York, and President Bush's phone number is listed each week in the bulletin.
"If Christianity means anything, then the values and ethical stands of Christian voices need to be heard," Gooch says. "If our faith is going to be more than an hour and fifteen minutes of nice music, then we need to be concerned about how our worship impacts our involvement in the public, in the world."
Peace vigils and prayers
At Trinity UCC in Chicago, the Rev. Melbalenia Evans says they will look to their justice ministries to lead them in appropriate responses if war occurs, but "we would immediately open our chapel for a peace vigil and for those in the community needing to be in prayer."
"Our pastor (the Rev. Jeremiah Wright) continues to preach about the injustice and the inappropriateness of this war. It's such a tragedy that people are more concerned about oil than about children," Evans says. "It is offensive how they have wrapped the idea of patriotism around supporting this unjust war, meanwhile they ignore our struggles at home, like those with HIV/ AIDS, those who need employment. It's horrible."
In Duluth, Minn., members of 12 faith communities, including Peace UCC and Pilgrim Congregational UCC, are committed to continuing and strengthening their vigils for peace, which they have been conducting every Sunday afternoon since Oct. 20, according to Jesse Schomberg, chair of the Peace UCC's just peace committee.
Stay aware of those fighting
Coral Gables (Fla.) Congregational UCC will make its chapel available 24-hours each day for peace prayers, says the Rev. Donna Schaper. The congregation has been keeping a prayer list of those directly affected, including five people with close ties to persons who have been called into active duty.
"We have been housing the Miami Anti-War Coalition meetings every Sunday night. Our third city-wide protest drew more than 500," Schaper says. "But we still need to get the word out that there are a lot of people who really don't think that this war is a good idea," she says.
The Rev. Woody Shook, associate pastor of First Congregational UCC in Keene, N.H., says his congregation's response will focus "on the pastoral, not the political."
"We will do what churches do whenever there is war," says Shook. "We will be very conscious of the families of those who are serving, those who will be affected on both sides. Obviously, it will color our worship." As it did during the Gulf War, the congregation has designed a prayer tree complete with "descending dove" ornaments that include the hand-written names of those personally impacted by the impending war. The particular style of dove was chosen to symbolize the presence of the Holy Spirit and is not a political statement about peace, he says.
At this point, the ornaments include only the names of those in the military who have a relationship to members of the congregation. "The sense from the general congregation is that we are very aware of the families that have loved ones and friends that are being called up (for military duty)."
The Rev. Bob Edwards, pastor of Sierra Vista (Ariz.) Community UCC, estimates that the majority of people in his congregation support U.S. war with Iraq. Located just outside of Fort Huachuca—the U.S. Army's intelligence training base—the church includes a high number of retired military officers.
Edwards says the prospect of war is something that his church members have faced throughout the congregation's history. If war becomes reality, he will continue to offer general prayers for peace for all who will be impacted, but his primary pastoral concern is for those in his own community.
"I have 21 retired colonels in this congregation. They are going to see it from a particular perspective," he says. "What matters to me is the person in this pew. I think the UCC, too often, does not understand that there is a person in that pew. People in Iraq are important, but sometimes I think that the leadership of the UCC is very unrealistic. I have to face the people in these pews."
Leandra Casson, a member of Victory Chapel, UCC in Stone Mountain, Ga. says that, when war begins, her congregation is likely to gather immediately to offer prayers for peace and justice. "I envision that we will step up our community action, our intercessory prayer ministry, and the united family ministry, which will respond to families who have loved ones who have been sent off to war. Because we have a large congregation, we will likely be very affected." She also trusts that her pastor, the Rev. Kenneth L. Samuel, "will offer words that will help to put this war into perspective and let us know that God is still speaking even in the midst of all of this."
The challenge of scripture
The Rev. Mark Seifried, pastor of United Congregational UCC in Worcester, Mass., says "if war were to happen, our congregation would immediately plan, and likely host, a peace vigil or prayer gathering in the downtown Worcester area. Our approach would be to ask for God's will to be done, for peace and justice to prevail, and for killing to be avoided."
Seifriend says his congregation's views on the war are "all over the spectrum." Yet since September 11, 2001, and in anticipation of war with Iraq, he says, some in the congregation have been exploring the biblical concept of shalom, including educational opportunities with children and youth.
"We have been looking at the challenge of scripture," he says.
The Rev. J. Bennett Guess is minister for communication and mission education with the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries.
PATRIOTISM, NATIONALISM, AND CHRISTIAN WORSHIP, a resource for UCC congregations, will be available by March 15. It includes suggestions for appropriate Christian responses during times of war and a sample worship service for peace. For a free copy, contact Justice and Witness Ministries at 216-736-3725 or firstname.lastname@example.org.