On Sunday, March 6, 2011 we joined Martha Conte and Gayle Dunkelberger in visiting Grace Episcopal Church in White Plains NY in another of our attempts to stimulate Westchester County clergy and congregations to work to end the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
In this visit we decided to take a new approach.
Instead of simply standing up during a break in the service with our banner that gives statistics on the wars and asks for action, one of us would raise a hand during the announcements portion of the service and say simply: “We have come say something about our wars, should we do this now or possibly at the coffee hour after church?”
Gayle suggested this to see if we would have more success if we were not seen as being disruptive of the service.
Grace Church has a history of supporting low-income people in White Plains in a variety of ways and being socially concerned. So we entered the church on this grey, rainy morning with a cautious eagerness to see how our new plan would work.
The interior of the Gothic stone church has cream-colored stucco walls with dark walnut colored roof beams and ornate, stained glass windows.
We sat next to a window that was dedicated to Stewart Kent who was born August 28, 1896 and who, the window said, “died in the service of his country” on December 21, 1918.
World War I ended on November 11, 1918, but it appears that Kent may have died in an English hospital right after the war’s end judging from the New York Times clipping attached below, found through the wonders of Google.
At the rear of the church is a balcony stretching the width of the building and holding a large, beautiful looking and sounding pipe organ and choir loft. Across the front of the balcony is the inscription: “A new commandment I give to you, love one another.” – John 13:34
The church filled rapidly for the 10:30 service. The congregation totaled about 70, evenly divided among black and white parishioners, unique among the churches we have visited.
The service this Sunday was what is sometimes referred to as “high church”, a more elaborate service involving the use of a large number of candles and tapers, incense and flowing garb for the priest and altar attendants.
After the reading a scripture and singing Psalm 99 and hymns, the pastor, the Reverend Richard A. Kunz, gave a sermon in which he said that Jesus had taken three of his disciples to a mountaintop where it was revealed to them that he was the son of God. This gave the disciples an understanding that their destiny was to be with God and “This gives us the promise of our ultimate destination and goal…we will be glorified with Christ one day.”
He illustrated his point with the story of a young man in the congregation he had served in Pittsburgh who had suffered brain damage at birth but was a contributing member of the church community.
At a musical program at the church the young man was asked by his mother to dance before the audience to show the beauty of his movements, and Reverend Kunz said, he moved with an extraordinary “grace and power and dignity and joy” in the way that he would be “in the fullness of God’s kingdom. We saw that just for that instant.”
The sermon was followed by the baptism of Aadi Kumar, and then there was a break in the service called “The Peace” when the congregation exchanges greetings and hugs.
At this point, Gayle approached Reverend Kunz and told him that we would like to speak and asked whether would it be best to do so at the announcements period or at coffee hour. He said coffee hour would be best.
After the peace came an announcement period, and Gayle rose to say that we had come to the church to talk about the wars and we would be at the coffee hour. She spoke softly so as to be as unobtrusive as possible, and it is not clear how many heard her.
(At this point Debbie picks up the narrative because Nick could not stay for the coffee hour.)
As the pastor suggested we went to the coffee hour after the service. A friend of mine, a member of Grace Episcopal Church, greeted us. I was explaining to her our purpose – to challenge Christian churches to speak out against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – when a member of the church’s governing board came up to me. He said that we could contact the pastor to have an information and discussion session after a service. He suggested that talking to the pastor before coming to the church today would have been more appropriate.
This church does a lot of good things for the community by sponsoring a shelter and a soup kitchen among other things. Thus, I was surprised that members of the congregation did not approach us to talk about our banner or ask our purpose in being there.
I approached several groups of people, explained to them our purpose, gave them a flier (see below), encouraged them to contact our congressperson Nina Lowey, asked them to contact the leadership of their church specifically asking them to speak out publicly against the wars, and encouraged them to make a public statement against the wars as a matter of faith and conscience because, I believe, Jesus does not want us to use violence to achieve peace.
A few people responded in a positive manner when I said that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not going to bring us freedom from the fear of terrorism. However, many people did not respond. I was unable to know if they disagreed with me or did not care that these wars continue with no sign of ending and no sign of success. Many of our troops and innocent Iraqi and Afghani civilians are dying or being disabled; yet so many are silent and I am puzzled as to why. I looked forward to the informational session suggested by the parishioner to learn their views.
Gayle followed up on the suggestion, calling Reverend Kunz several times, leaving word on the church answering machine, and also emailing. Now, more than a month after she took these initiatives, we have gotten no response.