Church turns away Sheehan
Post Independent Staff
Reflecting the national divide over the war in Iraq, a Glenwood Springs church has decided that Cindy Sheehan is not welcome to speak there.
The decision sends organizers scrambling for another local speaking venue for the anti-war mother of a soldier who died in Iraq.
Sheehan, who has garnered much media attention after camping out near Bush’s vacation home in Crawford, Texas, had been scheduled to speak at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Glenwood Sept. 16.
The church’s administrative advisory council voted Thursday evening against letting Sheehan appear there.
Church member Dean Moffatt, who had helped arrange to let Sheehan speak at the facility, expressed disappointment over the church’s decision.
“Our church should be for peace and for an open dialogue for discussing issues that affect us all, and hearing things firsthand. We should be an open society and continue to strive for that,” Moffatt said.
He blamed a “neoconservative” group within the church for the decision to turn away Sheehan.
“They ignore the fact that she’s a mother of a fallen soldier, a grieving person. They buy into the conservative media and the talk shows and the conspiracies ” you know, that she’s a front for various organizations, etc. It’s a real threatening thing, and they completely forget the Bible, they completely forget what our faith is based upon, and they react and this is what’s happened.”
Some 40 to 50 people discussed the issue at a church meeting before the council voted. Some church members threatened to leave the church if it let Sheehan speak there, and that would have hurt the church financially, said church member Mo Barz.
Barz, who considers himself a strong supporter of the church, said he was among those who might have left the church if Sheehan had been allowed to speak there.
“I was definitely against having her. I felt all along the church should rescind any agreement they had to have her be there.”
He said he thought it was inappropriate for the church to host a political speaker.
Said Moffatt, “If the president came, he’d sure be welcome. Politics becomes a dirty word for some people and they turn around and use it in another way.”
Barz said he doesn’t think it’s right to compare President Bush to an activist.
“We should welcome the president. After all, he was voted in as the president and we should treat him as such.”
Moffatt said he became involved in Sheehan’s local appearance when he was approached by local peace activist Jim Chenoweth. Moffatt said he has sometimes helped arrange to let groups use the church facilities in the past. He said he approached the church’s pastor, Robert Sewell, and was given approval for the idea.
Once the plan became public, however, some church members began to speak out against Sheehan speaking there, including in letters to the editor in the Post Independent.
Moffatt said the church long has made its facilities available to a range of organizations, such as the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, various environmental groups, musical groups, the Extended Table soup kitchen, and Alcoholics Anonymous.
“It’s kind of what we do; it’s our community outreach type of thing,” he said.
Political organizations such as the League of Women Voters have held events there as well, although usually with pros and cons of issues being presented, he said. The church also has hosted meet-the-candidate events. Moffatt said he can’t recall a political person giving a stand-alone speech there, but some have passed through for social hours.
“Politics means different things to different people,” he said.
Moffatt said his church, like many mainstream churches, has “a neoconservative wing, sometimes made up of older people, sometimes composed of retired military. … Some are elderly and very faithful, and (hold the belief) ‘it’s my country, right or wrong.'”
Some also have children in the military, he said.
“Out of this comes a coalition of people who are very afraid. They see the direct links between 9-11 and Iraq. They start to equate Bush with Jesus. They feel that their church is their last refuge in many ways, that things are falling apart all around. They’ve reacted very, very emotionally to Cindy Sheehan.”
Yet Moffatt said he thinks another significant part of the church congregation believes in its motto, “Open minds, open hearts, open doors.”
Moffatt believes the church’s decision runs contrary to what he said is an official stance of the United Methodist Church of the United States against the war ” although he added that the local church isn’t bound by that stance.
Barz, who served in the field artillery during World War II, said he didn’t favor the war in Iraq initially. He believes Bush was misinformed about possible weapons of mass destruction there, and now that none have been found he wishes the United States had been more hesitant to attack.
“I probably felt that we shouldn’t have been in it in the first place, but now that we’re in it I think we should stick with it. We have to do our best to get out of there and hopefully it won’t take too long.”
Barz said Sheehan tried to talk her son out of joining the service.
“He knew what he was getting into and he had a lot to gain,” he said.
Had he not died, he stood to benefit from the G.I. bill, just as Barz got a college education through the bill, Barz said.
He said probably a majority of church members “completely disagree” with Moffatt regarding whether Sheehan should have been allowed to speak there.
Barz said he believes the church’s council made its decision by a 6-4 vote. Sewell declined immediate comment on the church’s decision, other than to say that the facility wouldn’t be made available to Sheehan and the church leadership was preparing a statement to be released later on the matter. Moffatt said one of the council members in the minority on the decision was his wife, Wendy.
Moffatt believes the church’s split reflects the nation’s divide regarding Iraq.
“I think the country is polarizing. It’s seen in all these different walks of life,” he said.
Moffatt said that before this week’s vote, he owed his allegiance to the church and saw himself only as a facilitator in the effort to have Sheehan speak locally. Now, he believes he’s free to help find another place for her to speak, and thinks another location will be found.
He said he has no plans to leave the church.
“I would never threaten things like that,” he said. “I’m sorry, if somebody says ‘my way or I’m on the road,’ to me that’s a hollow threat.”
Moffatt said he regrets the church’s position, given the role churches have played in political issues such as the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War.
Still, he said he’s received a lot of support in the community from people over the issue. And while he and other church members who take his view might lose sometimes, “We might gain because we’re trying to enter into these issues. This is not over with. We’re not all going back into our little cubbyholes,” he said.
Media spokespeople associated with Sheehan had no immediate comment Friday about the church’s decision, or whether she has experienced similar treatment elsewhere.
Contact Dennis Webb: 9450-8515, ext. 516
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