[Washington Window] Close to 3,000 Christians from 48 states and all denominations packed into Washington National Cathedral on March 16 to take part in the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq.
Undeterred by the evening’s freezing rain, participants in the ecumenical event came dressed for the weather and the ensuing march to the White House in waterproof ponchos and walking boots.
Despite the capacity crowd, the service, designed to mark the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War, began with silence and without the usual buzz of well-attended events.
Simply attired clergy and denominational representatives carrying candles formed a somber – and lengthy – procession behind a cross swathed for Lent.
After the candles had been placed on a table in front of the altar, where they flickered all evening but did not go out, Cathedral Dean Samuel T. Lloyd extended a welcome “to all 3,000 of you prophets here tonight.”
One determined party of four, making their way to the cathedral from Spokane, Washington, had a collision with a tractor-trailer on the icy Pennsylvania roads, he said.
But that didn’t stop them.
“The car was destroyed, and they hitchhiked the rest of the way here,” Lloyd said, to whoops and applause. “There’ve been many challenges, but look at this! The cathedral is packed tonight.”
A choral lament accompanied by crashing drums set the tone for the service, which alternated between heart-wrenching testimonials and fiery calls to action.
Three representatives read excerpts from the reflections of a U.S. soldier, who spoke of the shame he felt when he realized he had pointed a loaded weapon at three 8-year-old shepherd boys; the diary of a young Iraqi, who lamented the deaths of children on a school bus who had been on their way to take an exam; and the words of a woman in Baghdad, who described the expressions of families entering the morgue, praying that they did not find what they were looking for. Later, a Church of the Brethren clergy member read an account of torture and humiliation written by an Abu Ghraib detainee.
Celeste Zappala, whose soldier son, Sherwood Baker, was killed in Baghdad on April 26, 2004, delivered a moving testimony.
“I’m here tonight as a witness of the true cost of this war,” she said. “I am joined tonight by others who have lost their sons to the betrayal and madness that is the war in Iraq.”
Zappala described the moment when a military man with medals on his chest came to her door to tell her of her son’s death and she “fell to the ground, and somewhere outside of myself I heard someone screaming and screaming.” And she reminded the congregation that 3,210 American families had been through the same gut-wrenching experience.
“How many limbs and how many eyes and how much blood,” she asked. “And what happens to the souls of soldiers who pick up their friends or who fire into a car to discover later a shattered Iraqi family… The ocean of tears spreads across both countries along with the numbers. …
“Lord, war is our failure to love you, and peace is your command. How do we follow your command to love each other? Surely it cannot be by sending the children of others off to kill people we do not know.”
“America needs our moral witness more than ever,” said the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Atlanta church, Ebenezer Baptist, who delivered a passionate indictment of the war punctuated by standing ovations and applause.
Instead of asking the question, “What are we going to do to keep from losing the war,” Warnock said, “Americans must reframe the question. The real question is not whether America will lose the war – the real question is whether it will lose its soul.”
Describing the condition of New Orleans as a “tragic symbol of America’s misplaced priorities,” he scolded the government for spending “billions and billions” on the war while neglecting the Crescent City; for neglecting its own soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center; and for the hanging death of Saddam Hussein, which he said was as shameful as a lynching.
“Surely we can do better than this!” he urged. “We must tap into the best of our faith traditions in order to redeem the soul of America. We do need a surge in troops. We need a surge in troops in the nonviolent army of the Lord. We need a surge in conscience. We need a surge in activism. We need a surge in truth telling.”
After a message from a Christian Peacemaking Team in Iraq and words from the Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson, president of the North American Region of the World Council of Churches, Rick Ufford-Chase, an elder of the Presbyterian Church, called for action.
“I must say that I expect that we’re in for a long, cold night,” he said, urging the congregation to remain for the march and “take the light of Christ into the dark night.”
Joining the call for action, evangelical leader Jim Wallis said “Tonight we begin to end the war in Iraq, which will be the next faith-based initiative.”
Leaving the cathedral to the sounds of “We Are Marching,” participants pulled up their hoods and took their candles and their prayers for peace out into the dark D.C. night.