A Sacred Day In New York


Today the faith-based revolt against the impending war in Iraq poured out of hallowed halls and into the streets. Joining people in 120 other cities and towns under the banner of United for Peace, New York’s religious leaders celebrated International Human Rights Day by bearing witness to the poverty and suffering of those both in Iraq and at home. Before the day’s end, the mass arrest of interfaith leadership marked the arrival of still another dimension of the burgeoning anti-war movement.

The stage seemed to be set by a full-page ad in The New York Times on December 4, placed by the National Council of Churches. President Bush was pictured with his head bowed in prayer. The caption, reminding the president of his lip service to his own faith motivations, pleaded to him: “Jesus changed your heart. Now let him change your mind.”

While religious communities have long been at the forefront of anti-war activism, they showed their collective force today. Following an interfaith vigil in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, more than 100 ministers, imams, rabbis, nuns, lay leaders, seminarians, and faith-based community organizers blocked the sidewalk and were arrested in front of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

The accused, after being divided by gender, were packed into two holding cells at the NYPD’s 17th Precinct. Among the 60 men in our cage were Rev. Herbert Daughtry (pastor of Brooklyn’s House of the Lord Church), Rev. Luis Barrios (liberation priest at St. Mary’s and San Romero), Ben Cohen (co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream), Imam Faiz Khan (of the Asma Society), Rev. Peter Laarman (minister of Judson Memorial Church), and Daniel Ellsberg (publisher of the Pentagon Papers). While it has so far been impossible to receive reports from the women’s side, it appeared that at least as many women were arrested.

Among the women inside was the director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, Cheri Honkala. She arrived to town yesterday from a month-long, nationwide bus caravan for economic human rights, to host a “Truth Commission” on poverty in front of the United Nations. The coordination of anti-war and anti-poverty protests was fitting. After all, we were reminded, Saddam Hussein isn’t the one closing welfare centers and cutting off unemployment benefits. The violence that our government commits abroad is funded by the violence of poverty at home.

Most in the men’s cell wore clerical garb; many were carrying sacred texts; one smuggled in the “Prison Journals of a Priest Revolutionary” by Philip Berrigan. Father Berrigan, a Jesuit priest who spent 11 years of his life in prison for anti-war civil disobedience, succumbed to cancer last week. His spirit seemed to hover over the space as the jailed read his words aloud.

The holding cell became a forum for prayer, storytelling, announcements, an impromptu teach-in, planning for next steps, and loud singing and clapping. An Episcopal archbishop stopped by the precinct to see if the conditions inside were adequate. One of the jailed ministers responded: “We’re doing fine. The problems are out there.” Eager to return to daylight, they were nevertheless experiencing a rare fellowship forged of shared commitment.

The day was, in a sense, a reunion. Many of the seasoned jailed clergy already knew each other, from their work with Latin American liberation movements, the Civil Rights Movement, the struggle in Vieques, the Plowshares movement for disarmament, and more. It was as if they were renewing their vows; they were recommitting to an old, sacred struggle with some new details, and welcoming the younger among them.

One of the “secular saints” inside, Daniel Ellsberg, proudly introduced his 25 year old son, Michael, on this occasion of his first arrest. He told a story of 25 years ago, when baby Michael was only 3 months old. Back then, his father first presented him to some of the same people in this very cell, saying: “I want you to introduce you to your future co-conspirators.” After all that time, they were meeting again.

Of course, the day’s action was not the first step in a movement that is rapidly gaining momentum, but it was among the first broad and active religious responses. The protesters followed the lead of 2000 New York City students, from middle-school to high school and college age, who walked out of school last week to march against the war. And it anticipates this Saturday’s Uptown March for Peace and Justice, to be led by youth of color from Washington Heights, Harlem, and the Bronx.

Prior to today’s civil disobedience, Rev. James Lawson, who was responsible for much of the training in nonviolent resistance during the Civil Rights Movement, addressed the participants. He admonished that the severity of the impending war in Iraq will demand much more than symbolic protest. It will require Americans, especially people of faith, to render the war plans of this administration literally unmanageable … blocking traffic in the streets, standing in front of government agency doorways, sitting on the floors of congressional offices, and choosing the rite of passage into the nation’s jails.

He was giving voice to a call that more and more people of conscience, both within and outside religious institutions, hear in their hearts. It is a call from a creative force in the universe, of many names or no name at all, to block this war machine with both their spirits and their bodies. Today is a hopeful indication that faith leaders, en masse, are answering.

[Chris Vaeth is a community organizer in New York.]

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