Tuesday 20 March 2007

(Part 3) "Into The Storm & Finding the Calm" - a Powerful Lenten Experience in Wash. DC (in a series of reflections on "Things That Really Matter”)

Indeed, it was a powerful experience in D.C. -- though we had several very trying moments getting there while dealing with incredibly poor weather - one of the worst storms of the winter to hit the region before it moved up the Northeast coast. Our caravan of two minibuses included 30 persons and it was more difficult than we realized at first (with no restrooms on the vehicles) to get the gas, restroom and food breaks all coordinated! We passed three different accidents in Maryland that had "just happened" on toll-roads and interstates, and everything slowed up considerably, time after time.

This was all after our patience had been severely tried by some asinine state highway snowplow drivers on the PA turnpike - driving 5 abreast for about 40 miles or so - at 25 mph - sanding the roads but with hardly any snow or ice on the turnpike itself! We couldn’t figure out what the sam hill they were doing unless it was "preventive" in case it would freeze later. But, no, in spite of the obvious 5 or 6 mile long traffic jam they created, they went on and on an on....refusing to pause to let anyone pass -- which delayed and angered pretty much everybody.

After an interesting combination Metro/bus ride though DC that took twice as long as we had hoped to get to the Cathedral, we finally arrived to the service an hour and a half late (after having originally given ourselves plenty of time) just as the procession was exiting the church in the midst of an in-your-face sleeting windy gusting 30 to 40 mph "chilling-to-the bone" stormy blast for at least 15 or 20 minutes. (All we basically got to see was the inside of the Cathedral as the joyous participants were streaming out into the storm. It had been pretty well attended, virtually full, with an over-flow crowd of about a thousand at another church nearby.)

We were informed that a DVD of the music and speeches during the worship service will be developed and available soon. I imagine that will be very worth ordering to enable those who couldn't attend to gain a bit of the feel of the movement -- from lament, to the cross, to the power and hope that imbued that Lenten worship experience. (Our caravan members are interested in obtaining one as soon as possible, so that we can watch it together and reflect on the experience, our responses, and our involvement in follow-up interactions within our own locale in Michiana.)

Significantly, as the throng assembled and we marched about a dozen people abreast down one half of the street, we began to sing, waving our battery operated candles: "We are marching in the light of God..." Quite soon "the storm was stilled" for the rest of the experience - not just metaphorically, but literally. That four-mile march was spirited and invigorating; some of us estimated at least 3500 people participated. But was I ever glad I had the foresight to bring along my insulated boots - which helped keep my feet warm as well as my heart!

Someone said Saturday morning that we would likely have had at least 6000 people at the worship service; about 850 were registered for civil disobedience down at the White House culmination of the March, but only 275 did it - so that gives you some idea. They prayed beside the White House fence on the sidewalk where they did not have a permit to congregate, in groups, walking across the street to do so starting about 11:30 pm or so. It took the police practically all night to "process" them as it was - and they said later the police were courteous for the most part.

The major news media has pretty much ignored this action, except for a small article in the New York Times, and a great 4-minute piece on Saturday's "Weekend Edition" on NPR. Most of the media was focused on the demonstration by the storming radicals marching to the Pentagon on Saturday and the counter demonstration beside it - stuff a lot more flashy and attractive to the journalists, apparently. But I think what we had there is highly significant - perhaps the genesis of a time when many leaders are now willing to become personally very uncomfortable - and united - in order to send a powerful message to the rest of this nation and the world. This alternative leadership apart from the political process, emanating from the heart of faith, can only grow. Jim Wallis made it clear in his speech at the end of the worship service: "America is not the light of the word. Jesus Christ is."

The Spirit ran strong and our emotions were high. The rest of us ringed the entire ellipse surrounding the area, before going to our various places to stay, about 12:30 am. The very bad storm kept many from being able to get there, especially almost everyone in Virginia. However, I met a lot of very interesting people along the way, e.g. my fellow marchers included the national executive director of the Lutheran Volunteer Corp, Rev. Michael Wilker, who was looking forward to doing civil disobedience later that evening, a van-load of students from Bluffton University in Ohio who had just lost some friends from the baseball team in that terrible accident in Atlanta, some Catholic peace workers, a couple of Presbyterian families with elementary school children, a Methodist man from Baltimore who had marched in the 60’s - a communications specialist. He had trouble keeping his candle lit in its cup, but our conversation was bright. Many DC residents were waving at us from their apartment windows and even some diplomatic embassy headquarters, at that hour of the night - 10 or 11 pm, cheering us on. I could go on and on...

Mike relayed an incredible story shared during the service: A car-load of folks driving all the way from Spokane, Washington state hit a semi-truck during the storm (going under it somehow) just a couple states away from Washington DC. Miraculously - though the vehicle they were in was totaled - they somehow emerged relatively unscathed, so they hitch-hiked the rest of the way, and actually made it in time to that worship service Friday evening!

Mike also told me that the words of the first of the four speakers during the worship service - the Gold-Star mother who lamented what happened to her soldier son - were so moving and poignant that he thinks they should be read (or replayed electronically) from every pulpit in America during Lent.

We talked about what we might now very well be witnessing here in our land - the contemporary rebirth of something similar to the Confessing Church, inspired and nurtured by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany during the rise to power of the Third Reich. We now have an ever-expanding corps of Christians from all corners of the faith spanning this entire nation - praying for the end of the war in Iraq, practicing nonviolence, studying the Bible's implications for our foreign policy, fasting regularly until the war ends, gathering strength from each other in prayer, study, and action - and in some places creating weekly peace witness events in their own local communities - all rooted in a common faith in Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. I wonder, could the new Christian Churches Together movement can take this on, as well?

Our group of 30 split into three for overnight lodging, and we all had a very short night of it on cots and sleeping bags in various places. I stayed with a dozen others at Eastern Mennonite University’s Washington Study Service Year House and had to put up with quite a bit of coughing and snoring – so you can imagine how that went - but at least I'd brought my Aerobed to make the most of the five hours of sleep I supposedly got!

I suspect we had at least three or four times that number at “the march” but about one hundred of us Mennonites actually made it Saturday morning to our own fairly informative and inspiring denominational gathering (utilizing the fellowship hall of the Capital Hill United Methodist Church.) This included some sharing - with only an hour's worth of sleep behind her- from Susan Mark Landis, who had a major hand in the overall planning of the whole event, and who had participated in the civil disobedience ("Divine Obedience!") the night before. We also heard insights from others on the Peace and Justice Support Network, hearing about some new ideas for peace advocacy, education, and resources for the Mennonite Church USA, including some new endeavors for and by the youth in our own denomination.

Some profitable time was spent listening to and interacting with Dr. Peter Dula, who recently joined the faculty of Eastern Mennonite University as an assistant professor of Religion and Culture, but spent quite a bit of time just prior to this as the Mennonite Central Committee's Iraq Program Coordinator. He shook things up a little by postulating that the two most practical actions we can take, if we are going to have any hope in actually challenging current policies, besides just talking about them with people in power, are to 1) get off the oil grid - by growing good gardens and ride bicycles as much as possible and 2) engage in war tax resistance! Well – now that generated some discussion! We then took time to process our experience of the weekend, thus far, in smaller regionally-based groupings before heading out.

Our caravan needed to leave DC by mid-day to return on what turned out to be a 13-hour drive home, including some very scary head-winds and more ominous weather on the alternate route we chose to take home using Interstate 68 (paralleling the "Old National Highway") up through Cumberland and over toward Morgantown, West Virginia. That stretch up in Garrett County, Maryland really does have a weather system of its own! It was literally the Grace of God our caravan got home in one piece (especially with me, sometimes known as a "lead-foot" doing a lot of the driving!) I crawled into bed at 3 am Sunday morning, tired to the bone, but recovered nicely by mid-forenoon.

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