As War Breaks out, Episcopalians Join National Outpouring of Prayer and Protest

Episcopal News Service. January 25, 1991 [91016]

the staff of Episcopal Life

As millions of Americans watched the war of sophisticated weapons and high technology unfold on television, January 16, people of all faiths across the nation intensified their prayers for peace and expressed their concerns about the war.

In Rockport, Massachusetts, for example, a group of 20 seventh and eighth graders arrived on the doorstep of St. Mary's Episcopal Church during a heavy rain the day the war started. They told the Rev. Richard Bamforth that they wanted to pray, but had not been allowed to use the public school.

"They stormed upstairs, got down on their knees and they stayed there for an hour," Bamforth said. "It was the first time in 32 years of ministry that I have had people come storming in the door, demanding to pray. I was overwhelmed."

The war brought a variety of responses from the church. The attack on Iraq immediately set into motion the Episcopal Church's plans for an emergency, 24-hour hotline in the armed forces office of the Episcopal Church Center to coordinate information and develop a pastoral care network in anticipation of casualties.

The war also spurred interest in the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, with many young people inquiring about becoming conscientious objectors.

In an ironic twist, the war also brought to mind the memory of one of the best-known apostles of peace and nonviolence. On January 21, the fifth day of the war, peace rallies and church services nationally commemorated the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At a Harlem Baptist church, Bishop Richard F. Grein of New York spoke of the irony of commemorating King's birth in a time of war. "Dr. King would have been in deep sorrow today," Grein was quoted in Newsday. "I have no doubt that [he] would have led the nation in prayer and peaceful demonstration."

In Phoenix, in what was probably the largest Martin Luther King commemoration in the nation, about 20,000 people of all ages and races, wearing yellow ribbons to signify their desire for peace, marched to the plaza in front of the state capitol where they heard religious and political leaders, including Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning, vow to continue the fight for a state holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader. "We will win the war but can we win the peace?" asked one placard.

The Rev. Henry L. Barnwell of First Life Baptist Church thundered an invocation: "Accept our prayer for peace -- in our state of Arizona and all over the world." (Arizona is one of three states that does not recognize the King holiday.)

The prayers and vigils were set against the backdrop of last-minute efforts by Browning and other religious leaders to convince President Bush to avert a catastrophic war in the Persian Gulf. Bush ordered the air attack on Iraq after it failed to comply with the January 15 United Nations-imposed deadline for withdrawal from Kuwait.

Two days before the war began, Browning participated in a prayer service at Washington National Cathedral, then joined 6,000 others on a candlelight march to the White House where they met with hundreds of military family members at another vigil.

That night, Browning and 28 other Protestant and Orthodox church leaders urged Bush one final time "to give peace a chance" and sought to get the U.N. Security Council to extend its deadline. Browning said he prays for "a speedy conclusion to a great tragedy."

Browning talks with President Bush

The day before the attack, Browning telephoned President Bush. "The president said the church leaders had taken high moral ground, but that he had to go a different way," said Browning. "I told him everyone would continue to pray for him."

And the morning of the attack, Browning received a call from Secretary of State James Baker (who, like Bush, is an Episcopalian) to ask the presiding bishop to pray with him. Browning had used prayers, found in the Book of Common Prayer, for the president, country, armed forces, human family, and peace ("kindle, we pray, in every heart the true love of peace," says the peace prayer). Baker said he would use them again in a meeting with staff.

Few in military, civilian, political, or church life seemed immune from concerns about the war and the safety of an estimated 460,000 U.S. men and women serving in the Persian Gulf.

The Episcopal Church now has 18 chaplains providing support to the military, many working long hours under intense emotional and spiritual strain according to Bishop Charles Keyser, suffragan bishop for the Armed Forces.

On other fronts, the Episcopal Peace Fellowship has called for a fast for peace until Bush and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein agree to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the war.

"People have been calling from all over the country," said Executive Director Mary Miller in Washington, D.C. "People are fasting in a variety of ways. For some it's total; for others, it's choosing a day a week."

Many callers are seeking information about conscientious objection, Miller said. "Young people are asking for help in making decisions. They are saying, 'We are preparing for war, and am I prepared to stake my life on that, or is there another way to go?"'

Since 1940 the church has maintained a confidential register of conscientious objectors at the Episcopal Church Center. The Office of Youth Ministries reports that it has received more than 300 requests for materials on conscientious objector status since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Peace vigils and prayers

As the war broke out, peace vigils and prayers for the military and chaplains took on new meaning in churches across the country.

At the Episcopal cathedral in New Orleans, the congregation prayed for U.S. servicemen and women, and for Saddam Hussein. With close to 8,000 military personnel serving in the Persian Gulf, Louisiana has sent more troops to Operation Desert Storm than any other state, according to a diocesan spokesperson.

In McMinnville, Oregon, St. Barnabas parishioners invited the community to a 24-hour prayer vigil and provided materials so all could write letters to men and women serving in the Persian Gulf. Church members had identified 77 who came from the county. "We mailed hundreds of letters," said the Rev. Richard Treadwell, the rector.

In Marion, Indiana, the Rev. Ronny Dower said good-bye to his son, Christopher, a lance corporal in a weapons platoon on its way to the Persian Gulf, and then began to plan an ecumenical prayer meeting. So many people came that organizers ran out of yellow chrysanthemums. They had planned for 200, but 400 people came to pray in this city of 40,000, just 30 miles from Grissom Air Force Base.

St. Anne's Episcopal Church, Jacksonville, N.C., is situated near Marine Camp Lejeune and New River Marine Air Base. With 25 parishioners serving in the Persian Gulf, the church is offering pastoral support to combat the anger, fear, loneliness, and anxiety from which many are suffering.

"There are a variety of opinions about the war," said the Rev. James Cook, "but what unites us is the concern and love for the families of those serving in the [Persian] Gulf."

In a letter to diocesan clergy opposing military action in the Middle East, Bishop David E. Johnson of Massachusetts spoke of his personal experience of war. "Having been trained to deliver five megaton weapons on the cities of perceived enemies, I became aware of the potential ruination of our planet. As a priest of the church remaining in the active reserve during the Vietnam War, it was my unfortunate duty to inform families of the loss of a son or husband." Johnson said the current situation reminded him of the words of Roman philosopher Epictetus -- In normal times it is the children who bury their parents, but in times of war, parents must bury their children.

In Los Angeles, the massive bronze doors of St. John's Episcopal Church were locked once again -- as they were during the Vietnam War -- and will stay locked until the war in the Persian Gulf ends.

[thumbnail: Episcopalians Join Effort...]