At a forum discussing the war in Iraq at Eastern Mennonite University in mid-February, professor and former MCCer in Iraq/Jordan Peter Dula stated that there are two things we know we can do to nonviolently counter the war—refusing to pay war taxes and getting off the oil grid by using public transit or riding your bike. After the discussion, a group of students began considering what it would be like to bike to Washington, DC, for the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq event the following month as a tangible expression of what it means to live and witness for peace. One member of the EMU community stated, “I use my bike for transportation as a statement of active peace building. If I get smeared one day by a tractor trailer on the road, how is that different from those who lose their lives for their beliefs?”
The Christian Peace Witness for Iraq event was planned by a diverse array of Christian denominational leaders, including Susan Mark Landis of Mennonite Church USA’s Peace and Justice Support Network. The purpose of the event was to gather as many Christians as possible for a worship service in the National Cathedral, followed by a march to the White House where a number of persons would stop in from of the gates to pray for the end of the war. Since it is illegal to gather in front of the White House for any reason, the people praying knew they would be arrested and fined for their nonviolent civil disobedience. This would be our collective witness.
Buses began organizing to transport people to the event, including groups from Plains Mennonite Church, Christopher Dock Mennonite High School, the Lancaster, PA area, and Eastern Mennonite University. Around the time of the conversation at EMU, I posted the event on Facebook with a group called “Anabaptist Network,” which seeks to connect Anabaptist-oriented persons for collaboration for events, gatherings or discussion. An open invitation to the entire group resulted in over 60 persons RSVPing to attend, coming mostly from the east coast but as far as Indiana and Illinois.
We decided to try to get there by bicycle.
With cold rain in the forecast, three of us including my sister Kristina and EMU student Jon Spicher left Harrisonburg early on Thursday to get in as many miles as possible before hitting the worst of the weather. Loaded down with camping gear to spend the night somewhere outside of the capital, we crossed the Massanutten and Skyline Drive ridges while the skies were clear, stopping at small stores and diners to fill up our water bottles or break for a snack.
At our lunch stop in Rappahannock County, we drew the curiosity of the persons behind the counter at a deli. A middle aged man told me of his daughter’s experience as a soldier in Iraq and his own frustration and confusion about our government’s approach. When he was her (and my) age, he had been in Vietnam. He feared that she would have to live through the same painful reality he continues to experience. When I invited him to join us in DC the following evening, he said, “There’s no way… the last time I tried to go to that city, I only got as far as Arlington Cemetery and had to turn around. I’m with you though… God bless you…”
Throughout the day, we plugged on, feeling the weight of our camping gear, but glad the rain held off into the early afternoon. With freezing rain in the forecast for Friday morning, we decided to try to push into the city on Thursday to beat cold riding in the morning. Unfortunately, the rains came around 4:00pm. We felt the struggle of the journey, but continued in good spirits.
Wet roads and railroad crossings are a dangerous combination for bikers. As we crossed tracks in the wet afternoon, my tires slipped and I fell. Kristina, following me, skidded while trying to stop and landed on my bike. As we got up off the road, we noticed that Kristina’s leg had scraped across my chainring, acquiring multiple scrapes and a not-to-be-ignored laceration. Jon ran into a restaurant to get first aid supplies. We cleaned up the wounds and regathered ourselves to figure out what to do next.
Although Kristina wanted to finish biking into DC, we decided that it would be best to get her to an ER to be checked out. Manassas was the closest hospital/train, so we headed off in the rain in that direction. Ten miles later, we ended up at the Price William Hospital’s ER and sat down to wait. Six hours later, we found out that the cut needed six stitches. Thankfully, Kirk Hanger, pastor of the Nueva Esperanza/New Hope congregation in Alexandria, VA let us crash at his house that evening and even came out to meet us at the hospital at 11:30pm.
In the morning it was raining and sleeting pretty hard so we loaded the bikes on the Metro to get into the city. We were thankful to have arrived, and the struggle that it took to gather seemed quite significant in respect to the purpose of the journey. We discovered that the bus from Christopher Dock had cancelled due to the icy weather, as well as three from Harrisonburg and a few from Lancaster.
When we entered the cathedral’s sanctuary Friday evening, it felt as if everything began to calm into an ecumenical space charged full of reverence and refuge from the weather. We knew we were in familiar territory under the protective roof of the church, away from the sleet outside.
During the service, Rev. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock, Senior Pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta pulled attention to Matthew 16:26. He reflected on how our decisions within the American lifestyle have lead us to the point where violence is necessary to gain what we do not need. “What good is it to gain the entire world, yet forfeit our soul?” As our country seeks to gain the entire world, how can the Christian community in America live so that we do not lose our soul? How can we meet the world in a way to effectively communicate this question?
Jim Wallis of Sojourners rounded out the lineup of speakers with his usual address and we headed out of the sanctuary and into the world where the weather had pleasantly transformed into a light snow. Friends from different parts of the country caught up with each other along the way. As we passed various countries’ embassies, many persons waved and cheered to us. Our cadence was kept by the drum beats of the Psalters, a group with Anabaptist connections originally from Philadelphia. Together we walked with excitement and a steadfast pace for four miles down Massachusetts Avenue to Lafayette Park where we stood face to face with the White House.
When we got to the White House, the police were ready with spotlights on us. The organized direction of the procession dispersed around the White House gates and I lost track of what was transpiring, wandering around the area and climbing a tree to take photos of the crowd. Someone was listing soldiers’ names through a bullhorn, but I couldn’t make out what else was happening. People went forward to get arrested. The White House’s lights went off and someone muttered about how the President wasn’t even there. I hung around the area with friends until about 1am.
The next morning I learned that 222 people were arrested at the White House, each paying a $100 fine. The national media covered the event immediately and minimally, but Mennonite media channels are still compiling information. I hope the world was watching; at least acknowledging that over 4000 people made the effort to communicate, to witness.
As people ask me about the event, I’m not quite sure what to say. The cathedral experience was meaningful and conversations with various “Anabaptist Network” persons during the march were fun. I enjoyed waving to persons working at the embassies. Collectively it felt like we were a part of something.
Yet I’m still struggling with many questions out of this experience.
Why was the ending anti-climatic? Was my destination the cathedral sanctuary or the seemingly ineffective and disorganized manifestation outside the gates of the White House? Why did three bikes make it from Harrisonburg, yet three buses did not? How do the stitches in my sister’s leg relate to the wounds of hundreds of thousands in Iraq? And how was the man from Rappahannock County with us and where is his daughter at this moment?
Why does our coherence seem to dissolve when we try to relate to the world beyond the church community? What does it mean to gain the entire world? Where is our soul throughout the entire journey when seeming ineffectiveness makes us cynical?
To become witnesses for peace and hope also for our soul, it seems that there must be more we can do and much more that we can imagine.
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