Fireworks are illegal in Illinois but not in Indiana, which makes for lots of interstate commerce. It also makes for an odd phenomenon familiar to anyone forced to travel the expressways around Chicago: nonstop billboards advertising Krazy Kaplans Fireworks. The signs number in the hundreds, sometimes planted so close together that you can see half a dozen at the same time. It’s not hard to tell when Independence Day is coming up.
Some Brethren have conflicting feelings about the Fourth of July. Annual Conference often falls over the holiday, and it’s not unusual to hear someone joke, “Is it okay for us to go watch the fireworks?” It’s usually not a serious question, but reminds us of our historical unease with displays of patriotism and militarism. It calls attention to the tension between good old-fashioned community celebrating and the glorifying of “bombs bursting in air.”
I didn’t expect to hear that question this year, since Annual Conference ended July 2. But Grand Rapids surprised us by celebrating the Fourth of July on the first of July, presumably because Saturday is better for a downtown festival than Tuesday. The flashing lights and noise got an even earlier start, when the crew wetting down the roof of the convention center accidentally set off the fire alarms—resulting in some amazingly well-timed theatrical effects during Donna Ritchey Martin’s Saturday evening sermon.
The next day, after Annual Conference, I encountered several of the leaders from Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN—the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria) at Song and Story Fest, held not too far from Grand Rapids at Camp Brethren Heights. Markus Gamache told us he couldn’t remain outside for the fireworks display—in fact, he couldn’t sleep that night. The sound reminded him too much of the attacks by Boko Haram. He couldn’t stop thinking of the crowd of women and children that he housed in his home, and how they would instinctively run into the woods when they heard anything that sounded like gunfire. A car backfiring would put soldiers on high alert, he said.
We might not be inclined to forsake the thrill of fireworks, but we can remember this: that being able to enjoy the show probably means that we have not been witnesses to war. For that we can be filled with gratitude, compassion, and a commitment to bring an end to deadly things that explode in the night sky.
Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.