March 24, 2003
Though many national church leaders have lobbied ardently against war, prayers for America's leaders and soldiers -- and, in some cases, for the Iraqi people -- took precedence over criticism of the Bush administration Sunday as the country's Christians gathered for worship.
"Whether you're against it or whether you're for it, your primary obligation is prayer for those people while they are deployed there," the Rev. John Conway told Roman Catholic parishioners in Albuquerque, N.M.
Christians are deeply divided, said the Rev. Dorington Little, a Congregationalist minister in Hamilton, Mass. But "no matter what view we take," he said, "all of us are called to do the one thing that is the hardest thing of all, and that is to trust God to work his will."
Meghan Greene, a Florida State University student attending Baptist services in Tallahassee, said this is not the time for debate. "A lot of that is irrelevant now that we're in it," she said.
At the Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, parishioners displayed pictures of family members in the military next to a patch of sand.
In West Virginia, worshipers donned yellow ribbons. And, most everywhere it seemed, churches sprouted signs expressing support for U.S. troops.
At the First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn., a giant American flag was draped over the baptistry and red and blue lights adorned the organ pipes.
Some preachers did raise political sentiments.
"God is crying," said the Rev. Charlie Reynolds at Providence United Methodist Church near Richmond, Va. "God's heart is breaking because the peace has been broken. God's children are being maimed and broken."
Leaders of the United Methodist Church, President Bush's denomination, strongly oppose the war. The Rev. Rick Jensen of First Christian Church in Omaha, Neb., quoted former President Jimmy Carter: "There are times that war is a necessary evil, but it is always evil."
Machine guns used by American troops are weapons of mass destruction, the Rev. Jim Cassidy said in Minneapolis at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, which has agitated against war for months.
On the other side, members of Northview Christian Life in Carmel, Ind., heard Pentecostal pastor Steve Poe say "war is never God's best" but "because we live in a fallen world it sometimes becomes necessary to defend our country, rescue oppressed people and do what is right."
At Saddleback Church, a huge congregation in Lake Forest, Calif., the Rev. Brad Johnson read Proverbs 11:14: "Without wise leadership, a nation is in trouble." Then the huge overflow audience broke into small circles to pray for wisdom for leaders of all nations.
Later, the Rev. Lance Witt remembered the Iraqi people "who will pray to live through another night" and asked that God bring a new government that would allow people there to live in dignity.
For many Americans who had been glued to news broadcasts, it was a relief simply to be in church.
"Once I got in there and around everyone else I was not so scared anymore," said Terri McCabe, attending Catholic Mass in Columbus, Ohio.
The opening hymn at First United Methodist Church in Brighton, Mich., expressed the feelings of many: "Lead us forward into freedom, from despair your world release, that redeemed from war and hatred, all may come and go in peace."