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War-Torn Congregation

When war quarantines the visionary portions of the Bible, an Iowa minister turns to poetry and gets in trouble.

Who knew war could be such a contentious issue? Emory Gillespie, a minister from Mount Vernon, Iowa, didn't know what she was getting into when she brought politics to the pulpit.

On March 19, 2003, a teenager in my congregation in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, visited our local beauty shop for a routine trim. She was a quiet girl who raised hens and helped around her mom’s coffee shop. The stylists gushed over her red hair, down to the waist, and ran their fingers through it.

While they were rinsing it, her hair slid down into the drain and got tangled in the pipes. The stylists called a plumber and scrambled for an hour to save it. Finally, they surrendered. Chopped it up to her ears.

The next day, U.S. forces launched an air strike against Iraq. The teenager’s mother, the owner of a local coffee shop, told me about the hair when I visited her at the Java Jump Café. She was surprised that her daughter was not more upset. “How can I cry over this little thing when, on the other side of the world, just look,” her daughter had said.

As the aerial assault and casualties escalated, the daughter ripped holes in a T-shirt, grabbed Magic Markers, and gouged words onto it from a poem by John McCrae. She wore the shirt to church on Sunday morning and, before the services, walked up to me and recited the poem:

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

I found it hard to recognize this introspective girl now aflame with grief. During announcement time, I asked her to stand and heard an appreciative hum from the congregation.

Following worship, though, some of the greeters—whose sole job is to float beside the doors and be nice—refused to say hello to me. When I called out, they continued toward their cars. They must be hurrying to the steakhouse buffet, I thought. I called out again. They did not turn back. They were, I later learned, enraged.

The ongoing bloodshed settled into my auditory nervous system like an earache, a mind-numbing noise that dulled my sense of aesthetics and my joy.

I’m one of those Heifer Project kind of pastors who send a card to a friend that says, “In lieu of a Christmas present, I’ve donated a herd of goats to a family in Argentina in your name.”

My beliefs got me in trouble.

Over the next few months, I fumbled while trying to create worship services that acknowledged the war and spoke to both halves of the congregation. For grieving, we sang Appalachian hymns in modal keys. For hope, we lit candles and scattered rose petals into a plastic globe. For the paradoxical truth that there is beauty in the midst of sadness and suffering, I turned to poetry.

I incorporated fragments from Yeats’ “Second Coming” into one sermon. The falcon wheeling in the sky, unable to hear the falconer, names for me how war severs our collective tether to some great, clear-minded spirit in the universe.

I read Auden’s “September 1, 1939” because it indicts the institutional church and confirms our hunch that Calvin was right: all human beings are corrupt.

I recited a line from the Psalms, “I was beset as a city under siege,” because a director of a retirement village told me it named the emotion she felt when no e-mail arrived from her son, who was driving a tank across the fields of Iraq.

The sensitive liberals—the counselors, teachers, social workers, college professors in my congregation—lapped it up. After worship, they displayed their shredded tissues before my face, cursing me in a good-humored way for giving them their weekly cry. “Damn you, Emory. You did it again.” They hugged my neck and went back to collecting shoes for orphanages or working on an educational facility for low-income children. They brought more friends every Sunday.

As the weeks went by and the war continued, the greeters tightened their huddle in the back of the sanctuary. They were retired men who picked rock, raised hogs, or stacked groceries. They were women who cleaned teeth, balanced books, and organized alumnae weekends at Cornell College. They played dominoes every Thursday night, blasting politicians, college administrators, and local doctors as they laid down their dotted tiles. They bragged about blocking a bike path from coming to our town.

Each week, I tried to think of reasons to break into their circle. After worship, I’d wander to the last pew to compliment someone about the new finish on the doors or the new shrubs around the parking lot—these folks tended to rally around maintenance projects—but, as if we were back in seventh grade, they were cool to me, and when I walked away, two of them stifled their laughter, whispering, “Shh, shh.”

One of these folks, the retired quarryman, broke from the pack and warned me, “Don’t read those poems.” Another friend warned me: “Don’t read certain parts of the Bible, such as ‘Peace on earth, good will toward all people.’ Before the war, it was okay for you to be passionate about peace. Not now. Here are some other poems to read out loud.” They were verses for military funeral rites, red as the color of the stars on the flag, which mentioned nobility, valor, and fallen soldiers.

I organized a Veterans’ Day service with the local priest and pastors. I set up a fund for homeless veterans in our area. I invited the veterans to come forward on Memorial Day to light candles for their fallen comrades.

No matter how many patriotic poems, hymns, or stories I offered, they smelled a rat.

On more than one Monday, I went back to the pulpit to retrieve my sermon for filing and found it gone. No one had any ideas about where it went. No problem. I’d print out another one. Items posted on the bulletin board, such as a collection of photographs of children from Afghanistan with war wounds, mysteriously migrated to the broom closet.

The church secretary asked to take a sabbatical. Her dad was a veteran. We hired a temporary secretary, who grew surly with the mounting tensions.

When I pointed out an error she had made typing up a peace poem for the sermon, she made a wistful comment about the good old days when the church was not political and worship was more like a dream.

Clipped news articles appeared on my desk. One explained the parallels between a soldier in the ditch and Jesus on the cross, both making the ultimate sacrifice. One titled “Local Pastors Say Nothing” reported that out of the handful of regional clergy they’d interviewed about the war, not one had mentioned anything political in church or—God forbid—staged a protest of any kind.

Then someone stole the peace magnet off my jeep.

A significant number of people, most of them greeters, left the church. They sent in their letters, dropped off their keys, and discontinued their financial support of the church, which had been substantial.

Box of chocolate truffles in hand, I made some attempts at reconciliation with the members who’d left. One couple said that we didn’t sing enough patriotic songs. We needed to build up our nation’s morale. We needed to be upbeat. I reminded them that we’d sung “America the Beautiful” quite a few times and prayed for the troops. I said, “I believe that we are all grieving, and I simply don’t have enough happy songs to do that.” They asked me to leave their house.

Then the worst visit. I stood in a woman’s kitchen, again with truffles, and apologized in general for not being the congregation she needed, asking how her son was doing in his helicopter over Baghdad, and inviting her to come back to church. The woman called me heartless. She cited a sermon in which I’d quoted some estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties. “You think we don’t know that our sons are killing children?” she shouted into my face. “You think we need to be reminded in front of the whole church? How dare you. When my son is out there fighting for your right to have a church at all.”

I stood there a long time. I sat in my car a long time. I drove around cornfields a long time.

I stopped by the Java Jump Café and cried into a napkin. “The truffles didn’t work,” I told the owner. Her daughter, whose chopped hair was a more subtle flame, offered me a slice of pie. I refused. How could I eat pie, when people were leaving my church? How could I fret over people leaving my church, when thousands were dying in Iraq?

That Saturday I drove myself to Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, crying most of the way. Paul, the manager, could see that I was in bad shape. “Come, come. Let me help you,” he said. He hopped off his stool and pulled me next to the carousel of postcards. “Remind me. Do you like poetry?” He ran his hands across a row of spines. “Poetry has become a problem for me,” I said and gave him a rundown.

He placed a thin volume into my hands and recited, “My chicken soup thickened with pounded young almonds. My blend of winter greens.” He thumped the book into my hands.

Charles Simic?” I asked. Yes, he nodded. He pulled down a second book:

An oriole sings from the hedge
And in the hotel kitchen
The chef sweetens cream for pastries.

“Pastries again,” he said. “I must be hungry.” He performed the rest of Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Song”:

Far off, lightning and thunder agree
To join us for a few days
Here in the valley. How lucky we are
to be holding hands on a porch
in the country. But even this
is not the joy that trembles
under every leaf and tongue.

What do young almonds, singing orioles, or holding hands have to do with me trying to outmuscle the boa constrictor of war? He placed five poetry books in my arms, including this from Carl Dennis (“To a Pagan”):

At least the deputy angel assigned your district
May hear your groans in the wind and track them
Down to your attic apartment in the outskirts
And mark the coordinates on her map.

These poems didn’t speak about politics or war, but about the idiosyncratic pleasures available to us.

“I’m not sure I have money for all this,” I said, checking the expensive ones on the bottom. “Particularly now. Some of the big givers have left my church.”

He retrieved a final book by Lisel Mueller, placed it on top of the stack, and said, “I am going to make you rich beyond your wildest dreams.”

Another customer standing nearby had heard me use the word “church.” He stepped out of the shadows and introduced himself as a local priest. Then another customer said hello to both of us and explained that she was a pastor from out of town. A fourth man, mentioning that great minds think alike, joined us and introduced himself as yet another minister from out of town. We nodded. All of us, it turned out, tired from dealing with the war. All of us here in the poetry section.

Perhaps during this particular war, and all wars, we liberal ministers drink our coffee with the poets. In these times, the visionary portions of the Bible are quarantined. Congregation members, peers, and our own survival instincts advise us to steer clear of the prophets, Jesus included, and their call to bless the peacemakers and beat our swords back into plowshares. Poetry, however, remains ungovernable. In the poetry section we find a sanctuary, where the full range of human emotion is protected, our moral contradictions still noted.

  • Emory Gillespie is the minister of First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Vernon, Iowa. She teaches Religion and Literature at Cornell College and has published articles in the Wapsipinicon Almanac, Lectionary Homiletics and Journal for Preachers. Emory enjoys her family; Bob who at this moment is fly fishing, Tom...


War-Torn Congregation

When war quarantines the visionary portions of the Bible, an Iowa minister turns to poetry and gets in trouble.
  • Emory Gillespie is the minister of First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Vernon, Iowa. She teaches Religion and Literature at Cornell College and has published articles in the Wapsipinicon Almanac, Lectionary Homiletics and Journal for Preachers. Emory enjoys her family; Bob who at this moment is fly fishing, Tom...

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