This past Monday evening, our congregation hosted a Candlelight Vigil to mark the fourth anniversary of the start of the current war in Iraq. I posted the event on the MoveOn.org website, and as a result, a number of people came to the event from the wider community. Out of about 50 people who came, I only recognized about 10 or 15 people.
I was suprised, but delighted. I often think about how our church can become more open to the community and more responsive to its needs. I was raised and trained in the world of mainline protestantism, a branch of American Christianity which is in a deep panic about its loss of members. In that world I learned all sorts of things a church can do to try to get people to visit your church and (hopefully) become members. Most of this has to do with programs you can sponsor that will meet people's needs--afterschool programs, parenting classes, twelve-step groups and seminars on becoming happier or improving your marriage.
The event that took place here on Monday night clearly met a need--but it wasn't really a need that I was aware of, in myself or in anyone else, until at least half way into the event. Most of the "vigils" I've been to before have been in public places--at town centers, or in front of the White House. They are political rallies, just a lot quieter. But because it was raining off and on on Monday night, we decided we'd better meet inside, in the large room on the first floor of KC. We sat in a semi-circle, clustered around a table where Anne taped pages from the newspaper with the faces of American soldiers who have died in Iraq. For the first 40 minutes or so, we took turns reading statements by the parents and friends of soldiers who had been killed. We remembered together that these soldiers had names and faces, that people loved them and missed them. We remembered that they had been adventurous or funny or brave. One story layered on top of another story. Some people cried.
Then, we took some time to remember the Iraqis who have also been killed and wounded in the war, some of them soldiers, some of them civilians, men, women and children. We remembered that these people also had names and faces, even though we weren't able to say them out loud, and they were also loved and missed. And then, we were silent together.
Out of that silence, something amazing happened. We spoke words of hope. Some of us said, "I pray..." and some said, "I hope...." People spoke simply, quietly, forcefully. They prayed for understanding between Sunni and Shitte, they hoped for growth in our national self-understanding. They prayed for our Commander in Chief. They hoped that our congressional representatives would act this week with wisdom.
Somewhere in the middle of this, it occurred to me that this was not a political rally. This was something very different. This was public mourning, and public comfort to those who mourn. And it was as beautiful and as refreshing as the best worship services I have ever led or attended.
If you had ask me, before Monday night, what I thought was needed to further the anti-war movement in this country, I would have said we needed a plan, a rally, a campaign. I wouldn't have thought that a small gathering of neighbors in a church hall would make much of a difference.
Now I'm wondering. Maybe this is part of what we need to do as a country--something that we have skipped over and now need to return to again. We need to grieve together, for all of the life that has been lost, and for the terror and chaos that now seems to order life in Iraq. We need to take time to sit in silence together in the face of the enormity of the loss--of life, of hope--that this war has brought.
And then we need to lift up whatever kind of prayer we can muster, and light a candle if we dare. Just to remind ourselves that there is a kind of light that cannot be hidden, because it shines in the darkest night.