Praying for peace

Congregations cautious of Obama's longer-than-expected timetable

March 02, 2009|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

In their pursuit of peace, the parishioners and leaders of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church have marched, rallied, prayed and even been arrested. Yesterday, they celebrated. President Barack Obama announced last week that 90,000 U.S. combat troops would withdraw from Iraq by August 2010.

Some peace activists have criticized Obama's plan because it would keep 35,000 to 50,000 troops in Iraq into 2011 - months longer than the timetable he envisioned as a candidate. Congregants at Brown Memorial said they believed Obama was keeping his promise to end the war, but they also said they would not rest in their efforts for peace.

Standing on the altar of the Bolton Hill church, the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors asked his congregation to pray that God would "guide President Obama in his quest for peace and help us hold him accountable."

In interviews after the service, Connors and others said they worried about the pace of withdrawal from Iraq, and they questioned the troop escalation in Afghanistan and the lack of an apparent plan for victory.

"I am very worried about continuing American interventionism and the idea that we can go wherever we please," Connors said. "I don't know that a military solution [in Afghanistan] is even a solution. We may end up creating new enemies, like in Iraq."

The current U.S. force in Iraq numbers about 142,000. During the campaign, Obama pledged to bring combat troops home within 16 months of taking office. His new timetable takes about three months longer than that, and most of the troops wouldn't begin coming home until after Iraqi elections in December.

"He made the 16-month pledge, but at the same time he qualified that as based on the military experts," said Elden Schneider, 66, a teacher who participated with his wife in local rallies and street demonstrations for peace. "The 19-month pullout - it's based on the best information he has. I'm so glad that the process has started."

Brown Memorial is part of the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq coalition, and its members have participated in marches and nonviolent "witness" events in Washington for several years. In 2006, Connors was arrested during a peace action outside the U.S. Capitol.

His parishioners have supported him and been inspired by him. They've tied peace ribbons outside their church and joined Connors in protests at the White House.

"As far as Iraq is concerned, I have been feeling for a long time that we should get out of there as fast as we can without having things fall completely apart," said Carl Taylor, 92, a professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He has spent several years in Afghanistan recently, working with a nonprofit called Future Generations Afghanistan, and he said the country is most in need of infrastructure - schools, roads, jobs.

"Troops are secondary," he said. "What's really needed are development activities."

The Rev. Heber Brown III, pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in North Baltimore, has also been active with the Christian Peace Witness group. In 2007, he was arrested in a march for peace at the White House. He believes Obama is keeping his word.

"At the same time I recognize, from my own personal and moral standpoint, that no time is too soon to step away from a war that has now been largely agreed upon to be wrongheaded," Brown said. He said he would like to see a quick end to combat and a shift in focus to rebuilding and justice for Iraqis.

Among Brown Memorial parishioners, Mari Satterlee has a unique perspective. She attended high school with Obama in Hawaii and the first two years of college with him at Occidental College before Obama transferred to Columbia. She said Obama has been considering the counsel of his military advisers.

"I'd like to have [a withdrawal] as soon as possible," said Satterlee, an assistant principal in the Baltimore school system. "But I think he's been given some good advice, so for me it seems prudent. I'm sure once things get started, he'll reanalyze his decision."

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