“Waging Peace” was the theme of the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge’s 25th annual prayer breakfast on Tuesday, even as the specter of a possible war with Syria and the long shadow cast by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 served as ironic reminders of just how hard waging peace actually is.
“In many places around the world this event could not happen — where people of diverse faith traditions come together,” the Rev. Robin McCullough-Bade said in opening remarks to about 240 people gathered at Boudreaux’s. “And so on this morning we remember those in Syria, Afghanistan, and other places of strife.”
McCullough-Bade, a Lutheran pastor, is director of the Interfaith Federation, a diverse group of more than two dozen local faith communities including Quakers, Unitarians, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists.
Several members were asked after the breakfast for their thoughts on the situation in Syria and President Barack Obama’s position just as news was breaking a possible agreement had been reached regarding chemical weapons in that country.
Omaya Jazairli, who was born in Syria and came to America in 1973, said her relatives, “cannot say anything because they fear talking on the phone.”
Jazairli, who serves on the federation’s board of directors and worships at the Baton Rouge Islamic Center, said she thinks Obama’s threat of bombing was a counterbalance to the power Russia has been wielding in Syria.
“Russia is really dominating Syria for a long, long time,” she said. “We just heard Syria has agreed to give their chemical weapons to the United Nations — that is a good step.”
Jazairli said Syrian President Bashar Assad “has to go,” but she didn’t think bombing was a good idea because it could start a wider war. She hopes negotiations work.
Rabbi Thomas Gardner, of Beth Shalom Synagogue, also a federation board member, said he thinks Obama has been right on the issue of wanting to hold Syria’s president accountable for the use of chemical weapons.
“We cannot let people gas their own citizens with complete impunity,” Gardner said. “We have to convince them of not using gas and we have to stop the violence, but I don’t see that happening easily.”
The Rev. Fred Jeff Smith, senior pastor of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church and son of the late Rev. Charles T. Smith, one of the federation’s founding members, said he supports Obama but, “I’m cautious when it comes to military action anywhere but particularly the potential for us entering into another armed conflict.
Smith continued, “I keep hearing this will be bombing and airplanes and no boots on the ground, no soldiers, but I don’t see how you can make that assurance with such boldness given the nature of the sensitivities that exist in the Middle East.”
The Very Rev. Paul D. Counce, pastor of St. Joseph Cathedral, noted Pope Francis recently called for Catholics worldwide to pray for peace in Syria.
“The Catholic church’s view is that additional violence — making war — doesn’t advance the cause of peace,” Counce said. “War can sometimes be justified in self-defense or when everything else has been tried, including diplomacy, but the church is very clear that attacking Syria … is not the right thing to do.”
Nathan Ryan, assistant minister of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, said freedom of conscience is an important tenet of Unitarian Universalism and there is no consensus among that church’s members regarding Syria.
“We are taking action to support the refugees,” Ryan said. “I personally want a solution, whatever that solution is, that brings about the most healing and peace possible. I want this decision to be made in a nonpartisan way that keeps justice and love at the center.”
During her opening remarks, McCullough-Bade reviewed the communitywide “Waging Peace,” project begun at last year’s event that became a cantata by renowned composer Robert Kyr. The musical piece was performed last spring and produced into a CD and educational curriculum now available from the federation.
“It is more than a CD or a cantata — it is a gift to our community,” McCullough-Bade said as she described the five movements of Listen, Understand, Forgive, Collaborate and Proclaim. “We need to take those words and apply them.”
The Rev. Brenda Smith, program director for faith practices and missional leadership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, headquartered in Chicago, was the keynote speaker. She elaborated on the “Waging Peace” theme and encouraged the audience to “practice peace and forgiveness.”