Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

Divided over the flag, a congregation of pacifists struggles to regain its sense of unity.

On a spectacularly clear sunday in Dayton, Ohio -- the same Sunday, in fact, that 9,200 people gathered in Lower Manhattan to memorialize their relatives killed in the World Trade Center attack -- 23 members of the Mack Memorial Church of the Brethren sat in the church basement, talking about the American flag. The country was nearly two months into its war on terrorism, months that had brought, along with everything else, a discomfiting conflict into the solid stone building at the frayed edge of Dayton's urban center.

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On its face, the dispute was about the flag: should it, or should it not, be displayed in the church, particularly in the sanctuary. But the flag, ever a symbol, also represented other, more complicated questions. The most fundamental was this: How could church members square their patriotism -- their absolute solidarity with the victims of the attacks, their families, the rescue workers, and other Americans -- with their pacifism, which is central to their Christian identity? Like the Quakers and the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren is a "historic peace church." For 300 years, since the denomination was founded in Europe, Brethren have not merely espoused pacifism -- they have attempted to live by it, too.

A Brethren document entitled "How Do We Live Out Our Faith?" makes clear that pacifism is at the heart of their creed: "For many Brethren, how we live is as important as what we believe. The reason for this goes to the heart of our understanding of Jesus.... As he was in the world -- reaching out to the sick, speaking peace to the enemy, welcoming those at the margins of society -- so we seek to be in the world." This is liberation theology of an older order, from which good works and institutionalized compassion issue. Indeed, relief teams dispatched by the Brethren Service Center in Maryland were among the first aid workers to arrive in Manhattan after the Twin Towers fell and have provided more than 8,000 hours of service. Brethren have also been sending tangible aid -- about $100,000 worth of blankets, tents, and food -- to Afghan refugees. In this war -- as in those of the past, when many Brethren engaged in alternative service -- pacifism has not meant passive disengagement.

The basement of mack memorial is standard-issue church basement: gray linoleum on the floors, folding tables, metal chairs. On this particular Sunday the chairs were arranged in the kind of circle that lets one chair be at its head. "We call this a Daté Circle," explained Greg Bidgood Enders, who co-pastors the church with his wife Liz. "It's part of the Brethren tradition. The people in the circle listen quietly to the person in the speaking chair but don't respond. The question we are addressing today is, Where have you seen or felt brokenness, personally or in the community, and where have you seen healing taking place?" For his congregants this meant, more directly, Where do you stand on the matter of the flag?

Weeks before, in the aftermath of September 11, someone had put an American flag in the front of the sanctuary. Though it wasn't unprecedented -- the flag is typically brought out on July Fourth and Memorial Day -- a number of congregants, as well as the ministers, thought it was inappropriate. As a peace church, they believed that Mack Memorial should not be promoting nationalism. But another group of worshipers found solace in having the flag there. It spoke to them of freedom and tolerance and solidarity. Between those two positions was a chasm, filling fast with rancor and misunderstanding. Two families left the church in anger -- one on each side of the issue -- and the congregation's fall "Love Feast," a Brethren tradition in which worshipers wash one another's feet before sharing both a meal and communion, had to be postponed.

"Love Feast represents a unity in the body of our church, and we didn't want to falsely portray that," said Liz Bidgood Enders, explaining the decision to delay the Love Feast until the community could come together as one again.

Months later, on the morning of the Daté Circle, the Love Feast was still not on the calendar. "It's a struggle not to want to rush things and put this behind us," Liz Bidgood Enders said when she took the speaking chair. Then she moved off it, and the chair remained empty for a few minutes, and everyone sat in silence. Some heads were bowed. Others were not. The idea is to pray on what the person in the chair has said, and then take the chair yourself, if you are so moved.

Helen Sutton stayed where she was. An outspoken peace advocate who had argued against the flag at earlier meetings, she figured it was time for others to have their say. "When I look at the flag, I think of our support of thug dictators and the years of sanctions against Cuba and Iraq," she said later. "But even so, I don't think I can insist that the flag can't be there any more than anyone else can insist that it can."

And no one did insist. One by one congregants rose in silence, settled in the chair, and spoke from that place where head meets heart. There was a member of the church's Peace Witness Committee whose non-Brethren son, a captain in the Army, lost friends and colleagues in the Pentagon attack; she spoke in favor of displaying the flag. There was the church organist who had buried two husbands, both decorated war veterans, who spoke against it. There was the former wife of a former Mack Memorial minister who said, "Love and a lack of alienation and being together are more important than whether or not we have an American flag in the sanctuary."

Round and round it went. The conversation was circuitous and inconclusive and yet, in a small and tangible way, appeared to be drawing people closer, if only because they didn't want to miss a word.

Liz Bidgood Enders moved back into the speaking chair. Like her husband Greg, she is 27 and newly graduated from seminary. Mack Memorial is her first church. "I ask for your prayers to help me," she said. "When I worship with a flag in the sanctuary I tend to forget that God is not only with Americans, but with all nations."

Jim Fourman, who has been a member of Mack Memorial for 50 years, nearly twice as long as either of its young pastors has been alive, also took the chair. "If it wasn't for the people who died for the flag, we wouldn't be here today," he said simply. A Brethren all his life, Fourman felt called to make a distinction between current events and conflicts of the recent past, like Vietnam and Korea, which he opposed. "We should have the flag up. Because we were attacked. There is a difference here."

During the vietnam war, Mack Memorial's ministers were active in the antiwar movement in Dayton. Later, in the 1980s, recalled Gay Mercer, a member of the church for 34 of her 37 years, its pac-ifism was strong enough to alienate a refugee family from Cuba that the congregation had sponsored -- so much so that the family stopped attending the church. Dayton Peace Action meets in the building, as do the antiwar group Pledge of Resistance and the Committee to Save the Iraqi People. Though the congregation's demographics -- urban and interracial -- make it different from most Brethren churches, its credentials as a peace church are unassailable. So it was significant that when Liz and Greg Bidgood Enders led an interfaith peace walk through Dayton five days after the attacks, just six members of their own congregation participated.

"This is a time when people feel confused and torn in different directions, and uncertain about what will happen," said Liz Bidgood Enders. "The flag is very tangible. How to show your faith is much more difficult. A lot of people are struggling right now with what it means to be Brethren."

And not just in her church. According to the October 12 newsletter of the Brethren's General Board, "Annual Conference statements say that Ôall war is sin,' but some have found that hard to accept in present circumstances." A few members, the board notes, have followed the lead of prominent Quaker and npr host Scott Simon in "rethinking or renouncing their peace position."

That, so far, has not come up at Mack Memorial, where patriotism, more than pacifism, is driving a wedge into what had been common ground. "Mack Memorial's struggle over the flag is not uncommon right now," said Matt Guynn, director of Seeking Peace, a Brethren project created specifically to help churches respond to the events of September 11 and their aftermath. "But its carefulness and thoughtfulness in dealing with the process is special. They are following Brethren tradition of acknowledging and working through the tensions and not just going about their daily lives like nothing is happening."

Even in more settled times, unity among a congregation of 144 souls can be elusive. "How do we expect to have peace in the world if we can't have peace here?" asked Katey Brock, who has worshiped at Mack Memorial since 1954 and whose daughters and grandchildren worship there too.

Still, dissonance can carry a tune of its own. That morning, the Daté Circle ended with a hymn called "Healer of Our Every Ills." "Give us strength to love each other," sang the ones in favor of displaying the flag. "Give us strength to love each other," they sang with the ones opposed. They were loud, and a little ragged, but anyone passing by would have said for sure that they were trying hard to sing in unison.