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Tacoma congregation declares ?sanctuary’ for war resisters

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First United Methodist Church in Tacoma, Wash., declares itself a "sanctuary" for members of the armed forces.
June 20, 2006

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 nearby bases 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 in the 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 the move.
“ 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 have recently 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 veterans’ groups to set up the program, and Mike Dedrick, a leader of the local chapter of Veterans 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 Magazine.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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