Small church shrinks in chill of Persian Gulf crisis

December 18, 1990|By S. M. Khalid

The Persian Gulf crisis and fears of war strike especially close to the hearts of the small Episcopal congregation at the Church of St. Katherine of Alexandria, with nine of its members sent to the region as part of the U.S. military buildup.

"It's terribly disproportionate because we're such a small church," said Emily Tilley, 39, who has both husband and son in Saudi Arabia.

"With my family, it's worse," said Mrs. Tilley, who lives in Randallstown. "There's five of us, and two are over there. My husband is my right hand. He is everything to me. Before they left, they asked me to pray for them every day."

Mrs. Tilley said she found solace at St. Katherine's, the cozy West Baltimore church where she met and later married her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Sterling Tilley Sr., and where the family members were baptized and went to church regularly together.

And she has been praying at home every day since the August departure of her husband, who turned 41 Sunday. Her son, Marine Reserve Lance Cpl. Sterling "David" Tilley Jr., 21, a senior at Hampton University in Virginia, was called up a month ago.

She writes daily to both of them.

"I believe in the power of prayer," said Mrs. Tilley. "I really don't give much credence to what I read in the paper because they vacillate back and forth so much."

She has no confusion about why U.S. troops are in Saudi Arabia. "It's about oil and big business," said Mrs. Tilley. "Both my husband and son are military-oriented. They believe they've taken the oath and they should assume responsibility for the job."

About 350 people are officially members of the 99-year-old church, about half of whom attend on a regular basis. Most of the congregation is composed of older women, making the absence of nine men with the military felt that much more acutely.

The other soldiers and sailors from the congregation are Brian Butler, Nixon A. Camper Jr., Keith Thomas, Jerrold Wingfield and Andrew Jackson, all of the Army, Louis Thomas, serving in the Navy, (no relation to Keith Thomas) and Garrett Jones, who is serving in the Marine Corps.

"It's a very high percentage," said the Rev. Peter D. W. Bramble, the church rector, of the nine members sent to the Persian Gulf region. "I nurtured them. I knew them well. One served beside me here as an altar boy, carrying the cross. Here they are over there, with the possibility that they will return in a body bag and I will have to bury them."

In his sermon Sunday morning before about 50 congregants, Father Bramble commented on the irony of the approaching holiday season that preached "peace on earth, good will towards men," while nine men from the church were in the Middle East during a time of "warmongering."

"How can we sing the Lord's song of peace at Christmas when we are preparing for war?" Father Bramble asked his congregation. "I'm sure in Heaven, they are not getting ready to fight."

Father Bramble prayed for the lives of the servicemen stationed in Saudi Arabia, and for President Bush and President Saddam Hussein of Iraq to find a peaceful solution. War, he said, is "lunacy" that never brings resolution, only "devastation, confusion and humiliation."

The congregation kept their emotions in check during the service, but they surfaced strongly after they ended.

"It's terrible that they are taking our young men -- who are drug-free and AIDS-free -- over there where they could be bombed away," said Nona Diggs, the older sister of Mr. Wingfield. She said his absence was especially painful, since an older brother had died at Thanksgiving.

Among those attending services Sunday was former Representative Parren J. Mitchell.

"For 25 years, I've opposed militarization," Mr. Mitchell said. "With so many young men being sent over, it's entirely disproportionate. Why so many from this church? I gravely fear thatthere will be war. Bush is so adamant."

Also adamant against U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf crisis was World War II veteran Nixon Camper Sr., whose son was sent to Saudi Arabia Sept. 1.

"I don't like the idea that we're over there," said Mr. Camper. "There's no reason for us to be there. There's a saying: To the winner goes the spoils. We took this land from the Indians. If we get Kuwait back from the Iraqis . . . the Israelis need to get out of the occupied territories. It's hypocritical to tell one invader to get out and not the other one."

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