Tacoma congregation declares ?sanctuary’ for war resisters
June 20, 2006
|Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church
First United Methodist Church in Tacoma, Wash., declares itself a "sanctuary" for members of the armed forces.
By Paul Jeffrey*
TACOMA, Wash. (UMNS) — In the middle of a city surrounded by military bases,
a United Methodist congregation is opening wide its doors to military personnel
who may question the legitimacy of orders to fight in Iraq.
The administrative council of Tacoma’s First United Methodist Church
voted unanimously June 11 to declare the church a “sanctuary” for
members of the armed forces with moral qualms about participating in military
activities that may violate their conscience.
“It’s important that we provide space where people can find their
moral compass,” said Mary Lynn, the congregation’s lay leader.
“We ask a lot of our soldiers, and we’re all told to support our
troops, but do we really take seriously the moral quandaries that they may
feel they’ve been put in? It’s a completely logical thing for the
church to create that quiet and supportive space for people to sort things
out,” she told United Methodist News Service.
According to the congregation’s pastor,
the Rev. Monty Smith, volunteers will soon begin distributing leaflets on
with the number of a
phone hotline that questioning soldiers or their families can call.
The congregation is working with veterans’ groups
to have counselors available around the clock, and is ready to house military
personnel in the
downtown church for short periods of time.
Smith, a former military officer, said the congregation’s decision shouldn’t
be construed as anti-military. “I personally would never do anything
to dishonor the military uniform or those wearing it, nor would this church,
in a community that is so populated by the military. This is the best way for
us to support our troops,” he said.
In the resolution establishing the congregation
as a “sanctuary church,” the
First Church administrative council stated that sanctuary is “a place
made holy by the sanctifying action of God, amidst God’s people — an
act of obedience to the mandate of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The council pledged “protection, advocacy
and support to those who, after individual examination of conscience, are
unable to participate
armed forces of the United States or combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The resolution also noted that the congregation “obviously can neither
make decisions for individuals, nor protect them from the legal consequences
of their decisions — but we pledge our support, counsel and love to any
who choose to nonviolently object to participation in war.”
Police may enter
In a June 16 press conference announcing the decision,
Smith said the church wouldn’t block the detention of resisters if
the military or police came knocking.
We’re not violating the law in this space,” he explained. “We
support people as they examine their conscience, and we seek to nurture them
in this process of discernment and conversation. But if we’re informed
by military or civilian authorities that we have someone in our building
that they have a warrant for, we’re bound to comply with the warrant.
We would let the police in.”
Church leaders acknowledged that they were being
cautious. “We have
sought legal counsel, but these are very untested waters, and we don’t
want to make missteps as we get into this,” Smith said.
The pastor also acknowledged that not everyone in his congregation supported
Methodists are like cats in a bag. Put 20 in a room and you get 50 opinions,” he
said. “But that’s part of the loveliness of this place. We’re
not all of one mind, but we’ll continue having this conversation with
ourselves and with the city.”
The denominational official who oversees ministries
in the area said she supported the congregation’s announcement. “This action is consistent with
our tradition as a church to seek peaceful alternatives to war and support
conscientious objection to military service,” noted the Rev. Elaine Stanovsky,
the superintendent of the Seattle-Tacoma District and spokesperson for the
Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference.
We provide chaplains in a variety of settings, including in the military,
but the church also maintains a critical distance from military and government
policies,” she said. “So we support our churches as they counsel
and encourage individuals making conscientious decisions either to serve
or to resist military service.”
Part of a tradition
According to the head of the denomination’s Washington D.C.-based social
action agency, the Tacoma church’s decision was an important statement
about the war in Iraq.
The church building or place of worship as a sanctuary for war resisters
or those escaping persecution has a long history, and what First Church in
Tacoma has done is in that tradition,” said James E. Winkler, chief
executive, United Methodist Board of Church and Society.
“I don't know whether or not this is part of a trend, but as the invasion
of Iraq grinds on year after year, ever more people are unhappy about the situation,” he
added. “The length of the war is but a part of the problem. The larger
concern is that the people of the United States were led into war on false
grounds by their elected leaders. It is impossible to fight a successful war
under these circumstances.”
In part, the congregation’s decision came
in response to news coverage of several members of the armed services who
made public their
refusal to be deployed to Iraq, though Smith said he and other church leaders
had not spoken with any of them.
The congregation has worked closely with several
to set up the program, and Mike Dedrick, a leader of the local chapter of
for Peace, said the sanctuary declaration will alert military personnel to
the availability of counselors.
We’ll help them understand their rights as service members and assist
in obtaining discharges for conscientious objection or other reasons,” explained
Dedrick, a former interrogator with the U.S. Army in Vietnam. “By declaring
sanctuary, the church is saying, ‘Here’s a space where you can
come if you’re in the military and object to the war, where you can
get information and counseling about all your options.’”
*Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for Response
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or email@example.com.