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U.S. congregations struggle with possibility of war

2/6/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

A UMNS Report By Kathy L. Gilbert and Linda Green* By Kathy L. Gilbert and Linda Green*

As America edges closer to a possible war with Iraq, United Methodists are praying for peace, divine guidance for world leaders and the safety of U.S. troops.

The latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows 50 percent of Americans are in favor of a U.S. invasion of Iraq, 22 percent are opposed and 28 percent are unsure. The poll was taken after Secretary of State Colin Powell's address to the United Nations Security Council. The research suggested his speech had little impact on how Americans stood on the issue, despite the belief that he presented a strong case.

Like the rest of the country, United Methodists in the U.S. are divided over whether there is enough evidence to go to war with Iraq. Shortly before Powell's speech, United Methodist News Service conducted a random phone sampling across the church's five U.S. jurisdictions to ask what pastors and church members are thinking and doing in the face of a possible war.

Despite strong feelings on both sides of the issue, everyone agrees they are praying for a peace.

"Everyone feels that war is wrong and is against God's teachings that we should love one another," says Jamie McSwain, lay leader and secretary of Ashdown (Ark.) United Methodist Church. "But we realize that there is evil in the world, and sometimes Christians have to stand up and do something about the evil, and sometimes that does mean war. We as Christians would continue to pray that there are other ways of dealing with the situation. We will pray for our leaders and that they will go to God in any decision they undertake."

"I have heard comments that were very much against going to war and others that comment our leaders probably know more than we do and we have to trust them to do what is right," says the Rev. John Crede, Aledo (Ill.) United Methodist Church. "We have had some conversations after 9-11 about our responsibilities to make disciples and to spread the Word, wondering if some of our lack of doing so has brought us to a place that we (Americans) are so hated."

The United Methodist Church, in its Book of Resolutions, states that war is incompatible with the teachings of Christ and urges the peaceful settlement of disputes among nations. However, the church acknowledges that when peaceful alternatives have failed, armed force may be necessary.

Many congregations are directly affected by the possibilities of war because members have either already been deployed or may soon be called into service.

First United Methodist Church in Hinesville, Ga., is near Fort Stewart, one of the first military posts to be deployed.

"Of course our congregation desires for us not to have to go to war," says the Rev. Anita Pringle, associate pastor. "The military people feel that is what they are called to do, this is their job, and they need to go and do it and do it well. We try to support them in their desire to carry out what they feel they have been called to do. We are praying constantly for peace while trying to be very supportive of those in our congregation and in the community who are faced with the possibility of war," she says.

Mary Lee Clark United Methodist Church in Del City, Okla., is also located near a military post, Tinker Air Force Base.

"We are a Native American congregation and have several veterans who are taking a wait-and-see attitude," says the Rev. William Stoneroad. "With them having been in conflict, like myself, we don't want to see a war. But if it comes, war will be accepted. The people in the congregation will support it.

"Coming from a ministerial point of view, I try to get them to realize that there has to be compassion and that compassion begins with the person. It is difficult as a veteran to think of conflict and that it should be averted, but as a Christian to realize that we are all made by the same God," he says.

"The difficulty arises in thinking if there should be war or should we be engaged in a peaceful venture. We don't want war but realize that lives are being damaged by Saddam Hussein. We are dealing with a person on the brink of insanity."

Some of those contacted have strong words of support for President George Bush, while others feel he is rushing to war.

"The president is of the opinion that for America and the world to be a safe place, Saddam must be removed from power," says the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston and a friend of the president's.

"I don't want to oversimplify a complicated and painful situation, but that is the long and short of it. He (President Bush) really, really does not want to go to war. But more than that, he really wants to remove Saddam."

"Our president is a United Methodist," says the Rev. Lenny Stadler, Weddington United Methodist Church in Matthews, N.C. "I want the president to know there are United Methodist clergy and laity - an overwhelming majority - who are supportive of him. I don't want him to think all United Methodists are holding to passive views at this point.

"I don't want to go to war, but when you look at the alternatives, what option do we really have?" he asks. "It is not a question of how much more time we are going to give inspectors; it is a question of how much more time we are going to give Saddam to keep stalling and delaying and deceiving.

"I hope we can truly as a nation not get divided over this but get behind the president with our prayers and support," he adds.

Allen O. Morris, on the board of an unofficial church organization called Concerned Methodists, agrees that President Bush is in the best position to make a decision about whether to go to war or not. According to its Web site, Concerned Methodists is a "renewal" group working within the United Methodist Church, urging it to greater biblical faithfulness to its Wesleyan heritage.

"What we should do is pray for the president, pray for his discretion and be confident in his Christian walk," Morris says.

"Along with prayers for the president, we pray for the safety of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. We pray for Saddam's salvation. Wouldn't it be great if he had a Damascus Road experience and became a champion of world peace?"

Some feel the American people are not getting all the facts.

"If the president and higher officials know something, then they should tell us," says the Rev. Paul Luckett, Blessed Trinity United Methodist Church in Jackson, Miss.

"Saddam and Bush need to stop playing games. I understand egos, but it is time to come clean and not let innocent people be killed. This is no plaything. This is life and death. If they want Saddam, go get him, but leave the innocent people alone. The Bible speaks of war but anytime we can prevent it, we need to prevent it. People do not have to die."

The Rev. Lee Elder, pastor of Asbury-Mt. Olive United Methodist Church in Topeka, Kan., has similar views.

"I am opposed to this war," he says. "If the administration has evidence of weapons of mass destruction, it should let us know and should stop playing games. If Saddam Hussein is removed, the one replacing him would be worse than he, and civilians would suffer. The vast majority to die will be civilians. The same thing happened in the first Gulf War."

He says his congregation is opposed to war and feels it is an issue of oil in the Middle East and of America just being "arrogant and hypocritical."

"We have weapons of mass destruction, and it is hypocritical to tell others not to have them," he says.

Michael Graham, a member of Lincoln Park United Methodist Church in Washington D.C., also feels the conflict is about oil, and he believes Bush wants revenge on Saddam for trying to assassinate the president's father. "He slipped up and said that once," Graham says of Bush.

He points out that many young men and women in his congregation are in the armed services. "We are planning to do a tape of the congregation in various ministries to send to young people that are in our church that are presently over there or about to be deployed. It is something that is always on our minds because it affects our children."

The Rev. Ken Murray, pastor of Seay Hubbard United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., says his church feels that there isn't enough evidence to justify military action. "We as a congregation believe that all avenues or other means of dealing with the issues in Iraq need to be utilized or exhausted before a war," he says. "We have not been given any evidence of weapons of mass destruction, and the buildup of forces is premature. It appears to us and to me that regardless of what the inspectors find, things for war are already in place. This is going to bring more suffering to the people, and we don't believe that this is the Christian thing to do. We don't have the evidence that will justify a war."

The Rev. Gary Main, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Columbus, Neb., says his congregation "is divided about the possible war. We have both sides. Some members say that we need more information before considering war. Others trust the president, and if he says go, they believe we should go. There is a conservative-liberal dynamic here.

"Before we declare war, we need more information. I would be opposed to war unless more information is forthcoming and it is reasonable," he says, giving his personal view.

"The congregation is fairly pro-war, pro-U.S.," says the Rev. Larry Gray, associate pastor of Memorial United Methodist Church in Farmington, Mo. His rural congregation "is very patriotic," he says.

"I am an old veteran (Air Force), and I am very much pro about holding the flag, holding the country and defending the honor," he adds.

"We have been praying for peace," says the Rev. Jesus Bermudez, pastor of El Buen Samartino United Methodist Church in Albuquerque, N.M. "We believe the negotiations should be exhausted before going into any war. We don't want war to happen. The congregation's view is based on the belief that Christians are called to seek peace in our world. We don't think war will solve anything. It will be destroying many people.

"We don't know if Saddam has the arms that the U.S. claims he does," he says. "The inspectors have not found anything, but if our government knows something, they should prove it and then confront Saddam and ask him to destroy the arms."

"I am guessing we as a congregation don't have a single mind about the possibility of war," says the Rev. Earl Guy, associate pastor of Escondido (Calif.) First United Methodist Church. "There are probably strong feelings on many different points of view, and a number that don't have strong feelings at all.

"I am opposed to war," he adds. "I am generally not in favor of war as a means of our national interest. I think there may be circumstances where war is necessary or unavoidable. I don't feel the case has been made that is the case here."

The Rev. Jim Hall of Hemet (Calif.) United Methodist Church has been actively protesting the possibility of war. He has participated in anti-war rallies and is addressing his view in the church newsletter this week.

"My wife and I decided we needed to do something to show our concern and our dislike for the concept that somehow war is a solution or a way to deal with problems," he says. "As United Methodists, we are people of peace. We feel we need to support, promote and encourage that understanding. We need to look at every diplomatic way we can to deal with things. To run off and start massing troops and threatening people is just inconceivable to me," he says.

He says he has had a lot of support for his viewpoint in his congregation, and some have even joined in the rallies with him. On the other hand, he says, one couple told him they were leaving the church and all churches.

"Some are opposed to where I am, but we are in dialogue and we are talking about it. That is what United Methodist do. We don't have to agree; we have the right to different views."
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*Gilbert and Green are United Methodist News Service staff members in Nashville, Tenn.

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