On the weekend eve of national elections, Brethren, Mennonites, and others gathered in San Antonio, Texas, to explore national issues of conscience. The group realized that whether or not there was a majority party shift in Congress, the time is now for peacemakers of conscience to speak with a clear voice in regards to war and its costly impact to society, reported Phil Jones, director of the Brethren Witness/Washington Office.
Organized by Mennonite Central Committee under the direction of MCC staff Titus Peachey, the event drew more than 70 participants from across the US to the three day conference. Participants were hosted by San Antonio Mennonite Church and were given opportunities for networking and relationship building around the issue of countering military recruitment. The idea for the conference was generated in March 2004 at the Anabaptist Consultation on Alternative Service. Peachey expressed delight at having such a broad base of attendance in San Antonio, with only slight disappointment that more denominational leaders were not able to attend.
Ertell Whigham, associate pastor of Norristown New Life Church, spoke for the opening session. The congregation is a multicultural, bilingual Mennonite church. Whigham shared from his broad military experiences and involvements, including six years in the Marine Corps with a combat unit in Vietnam 1968-69, and as a recruiting sergeant 1973-74. He challenged the conference to seek the truth that lies deep beneath many military promises and expectations.
Workshops gave participants an opportunity to be in conversation with others who are heavily involved in counter recruitment, and to explore issues of peace and nonviolence from theological and practical understandings. Matt Guynn of On Earth Peace presented a workshop on the theological basis of counter recruitment. Other workshops were on topics such as counter recruitment in schools, racism in the military, peace as worship, alternatives to the military, and seeing counter recruitment as a social movement.
Other presenters for the conference included a three-member panel of former military personnel who were able to leave the military as an act of conscience. They recounted stories of heavy military recruitment, unfulfilled promises from the military, and the growing understanding that their initial choice of the military was one that they could no longer honor. J.E. McNeil of the Center on Conscience and War in Washington, D.C., and Dick Davis, pastor of Peace Mennonite Church in Dallas, Texas, also spoke. Davis served as an army chaplain and resigned his commission in 1992 as a conscientious objector.
In his closing remarks to the conference, during morning worship shared with the San Antonio Mennonites, Peachey reminded the group that many influences affect the choices we make. His sermon titled, “Countering Recruitment with Gospel Nonviolence,” drew on Luke 9:51-56, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Peachey encouraged all to understand that “our own internal work can transform things around us, a greater, more powerful step than dismissing things in anger.”
Brethren in attendance included four local San Antonio residents, Brethren volunteers, denominational staff Guynn and Jones, Brethren members from Ohio and Pennsylvania, and a large youth delegation from Brooklyn First Church of the Brethren in New York. The Brooklyn group offered leadership for Sunday morning worship through drama and music.