What the church should be

I was unable to go to Washington last weekend.

At one point in my life, though, I was one of the young people like the ones in the article below. After high school, I spent a couple of years as a peaceworker to end the war in Vietnam and then as a campaign worker for George McGovern. No matter what shape the church is to take in the future, as Rick says, these young people are doing the work of the church–BEING Christ in the world–right now. The older people are too!

* * * * *

March 20, 2007

What church should be
Presbyterians of all ages connect faith and action in peace witness

by Eva Stimson

Photo of four college students
Whitworth College students, from left, Nicola Crawford, Zach Dahmen, Michael Vander Giessen, and 2006 graduate Eric Colby, drove 2,700 miles across the country to participate in the March 16 Christian Peace Witness for Iraq. Photo by Eva Stimson.

WASHINGTON — Nicola Crawford, a student at Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-related Whitworth College in Spokane, WA, says that when she got an email earlier this year about the March 16 Christian Peace Witness for Iraq, she “decided it’s something I believe in.”

And that’s about all it took to convince her and a couple of other Whitworth students, Zach Dahmen and Michael Vander Giessen, to commit to driving 2,700 miles to Washington, DC, the week before mid-term exams. They hooked up with Eric Colby, a 2006 graduate of the college now working as youth director at Spokane’s Knox Presbyterian Church, who offered his 2001 Toyota Camry for the cross-country trip.

The four almost didn’t make it.

After driving for 34 hours straight they ran into icy conditions on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, just above Maryland. With Michael at the wheel, the car hit a patch of slush and slid into the next lane. The Camry bounced off the tire of a semi-truck and ploughed into a ditch in the median.

Because the car didn’t flip over or veer into oncoming traffic or get pulled under the wheels of the tractor-trailer, the young passengers came through with barely a scratch.

“Any other scenario that could have happened, we’d probably be dead,” Colby said in an interview later.

The car was another story. Not sure it could even be repaired, the four left it at an auto-repair shop in the tiny town of Warfordsburg, PA. They hitchhiked the rest of the way to Washington (about 100 miles), and headed straight to the National Cathedral for worship.

They were among the 222 people arrested in front of the White House later that evening.

“After everything, I have to say [the trip] was definitely worth it,” Dahmen said in an interview the next day. He said members of his congregation, Colbert (WA) Presbyterian Church, held an all-night prayer vigil the same night as the Washington, DC, event.

Colby said the young people decided taking part in an act of civil disobedience would give them “a chance to be heard.”

It was also a way of putting their faith into action, Dahmen said. “I want people to understand that following Christ is a lot more than going to church.”

“We believe in peace,” said Vander Giessen. “We felt the need to participate with our brothers and sisters.”

Rick Ufford-Chase, executive director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and a key organizer of the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq, says the Whitworth students are examples of what he calls the “remarkable” participation of young people in the event.

“This thing was going out on [youth-oriented Web sites] Facebook and MySpace,” he said. College and seminary students flocked to Washington, and a number of them were involved in planning the service and march.

For Ufford-Chase, their enthusiasm confirmed something he has long believed: “When young people are given a clear, grounded way to connect their faith to what’s going on in the world, a way that has integrity, they will step up. This is the way to attract the next generation.”

Two women cutting vegatables in a kitchen
Katie Anderson, left, an intern working with the National Network of Presbyterian College Women, and Jen Ross, a Rhodes College student from Naples, Fla., helped out in the kitchen at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. They were among more than 100 Presbyterians who participated in a networking event the day after the March 16 peace witness. Photo by Eva Stimson.

Jen Ross, a student at PCUSA-related Rhodes College, in Memphis, TN, attended the event with four other students affiliated with the National Network of Presbyterian College Women. They were among the last group of people arrested after a long, cold wait in front of the White House, returning to their hotel about 6 a.m.

“I’m not tired at all,” Ross remarked the next morning, smiling brightly while chopping tomatoes in the kitchen at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown Washington. She was helping prepare lunch for a networking event at the church, co-sponsored by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, the Presbyterian Washington Office and the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.

“It was my first time doing anything like this,” Ross said, adding that she was scheduled to report on her experience in a “minute for mission” at her home church, Vanderbilt Presbyterian in Naples, FL.

Photo of two pastors
The Rev. Clay Thomas, associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Sarasota, FL, and retired Presbyterian minister the Rev. Gene Lefebvre, from Tucson, AZ, forged a cross-generational friendship while waiting to be arrested in front of the White House. Photo by Eva Stimson.

The peace witness in Washington brought together Presbyterians across a wide spectrum of ages and from far-flung geographical locations. Among them was young pastor and reccnt Columbia Theological Seminary graduate, the Rev. Clay Thomas. Six months into his job as associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Sarasota, FL, he felt compelled to come to Washington to “take a stand” for peace.

“Just being against the war is not enough,” he said. “A physical witness is one way of living out my faith.”

While he was making his “physical witness” in front of the White House, he met the Rev. Gene Lefebvre, a retired Presbyterian minister from Tucson, AZ. Lefebvre said the two got acquainted while waiting to be arrested: “I was standing in line and there was this strange guy reading from a Bible …”

The “strange guy” turned out to be Thomas, who read from Isaiah 58, then passed his Bible to a Quaker man next to him who read from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. As events unfolded, Thomas and Lefebvre looked out for each other and a cross-generational friendship blossomed.

Photo of a woman Jackie Rocha who attened the event in Washington, DC
Jackie Rocha, 83, came to Washington, DC, with a group from Palo Cristi Presbyterian Church in Paradise Valley, AZ. Photo by Eva Stimson.

One of the oldest participants in the weekend events was 83-year-old Jackie Rocha, who came with a group of eight from Palo Cristi Presbyterian Church in Paradise Valley, AZ. Rocha, who walks with a cane after breaking her hip a year ago, is a veteran marcher for civil rights and other causes. She walked part of the way from the National Cathedral to the White House, then caught a bus to Lafayette Park because of the slick streets.

She gave two reasons for taking part in the Washington events: “I would really like to see peace” and “I hate to stay home and dust.”

Two ministers who recently fled Colombia because of death threats were impressed by the peacefulness of the Washington events. The Rev. Milton Mejia, former executive secretary of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, and his wife, the Rev. Adelaida Jimenez, flew up from San Angelo, TX, where they are now living, to attend the service and march.

Photo of the Rev. Milton Mejia and his wife the Rev. Adelaida Jimenez
The Rev. Milton Mejia, former executive secretary of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, and his wife, the Rev. Adelaida Jimenez, who fled Colombia last year because of death threats, marveled that even the people who got arrested during the march in Washington were “calm and secure.” Photo by Eva Stimson.

In Colombia, people who speak out for justice and human rights risk kidnapping, torture and murder by government or paramilitary troops, they said. But participants in the Washington march “were calm and secure,” Jimenez said. “Even people who were arrested knew they would be OK.”

Mejia said he hopes Christians who oppose the war in Iraq will also oppose the civil war that is ripping apart Colombia. “That is why we wanted to be here,” he explained.

A lively buzz filled the fellowship hall at New York Avenue Church as Mejia, Jimenez, Rocha and more than 100 others at the March 17 networking event chatted in small groups, sharing their experiences and ideas for achieving peace.

From one end of the room Whitworthian Dahmen surveyed the scene, then smiled and commented wisely: “This is what the church should be — people of all ages, from all walks of life, coming together for a cause that’s bigger than they are.”

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One Comment on “What the church should be”


  1. We missed you here in Washington. I was glad to see so many young adults.


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