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A Few Good Saints 

Inside the minds, hearts and conflicts of the anti-war movement

Wednesday, Nov 21 2001
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In 1970, as the bombing campaign in Cambodia was in full swing, George Regas, the new rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, spoke out against the Vietnam War. He delivered a sermon titled “Mr. President, the Jury Is In” -- a response to Nixon’s comments that the purposefulness and morality of the war were not yet clear -- and it was a bombshell. Regas not only criticized the administration, but also proposed using church resources to establish a Peace Operation Center as an advocacy group to oppose the war. His remarks were reprinted in the Los Angeles Times and set off a storm both within his parish and in the wider Episcopal church. “Today,” Regas recalls, “it‘s regular sport to take on the president, but it wasn’t in 1970, when there were 500,000 armed men in the field.”

Conservative congregants and community members tried to unseat Regas -- there was even a faction called Save All Saints, which Regas says was code for “Save All Saints from me.” But Regas survived, with ever stronger convictions, and he went on to make All Saints perhaps the most widely active liberal church in Los Angeles. All Saints established the Center To Reverse the Arms Race, sent delegations to Central America as it was being ravaged by the policies of President Reagan, and hosted Desmond Tutu during the apartheid years. Today, the Peace and Justice ministry is one of the most visible aspects of the church. “Peace, in its broadest context, is a central part of our project,” said Bill Doulos, a priest who has been there since the late ‘60s. “As with many of George’s sermons, that one really had legs.”

It‘s not surprising, then, that All Saints and Regas are playing an important role in the newest anti-war movement, the one that opposes military action in Afghanistan. Regas now heads the Regas Institute, a nonprofit devoted to the issues he cultivated at All Saints. Along with a sizable group of left-leaning clergy from across Los Angeles, Regas and his successor at All Saints, Ed Bacon, are working with citywide groups to think about progressive responses to terrorism as well as the war against it. They meet weekly for panels, dialogues, interfaith services and strategy sessions to craft their message. But finalizing that message has proved somewhat elusive. The main organization -- Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP) -- has yet to finish its official statement. Voicing moral opposition to war is easier than providing a set of alternatives to this particular war. When these religious leaders suggest international justice as a replacement for war, many of their congregants -- and colleagues -- ask: “How?”

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“And we don’t always have the answers,” admitted Ed Bacon. “We are on a steep learning curve.”

For Bacon and others, September 11 and its aftermath represent a new challenge to the traditional call for peace. They are exploring the competing moral imperatives of self-defense and the preservation of international human rights. They are re-examining the traditional theological judgments on warfare. They are turning the discussion in new directions to shed as much light on it as possible. In short, they are trying to rethink the practicality of peace for themselves and their congregations.

One of the earliest churches in Pasadena, All Saints was founded in 1882, and its Gothic revival buildings give it a feeling of ancient authority, even though they‘re only 75 years old. The grounds are tidy; the buildings have just enough ornate flourishes; and the stone church itself is impressive -- it feels like a place for worship, and allows you to forget that the site sits on a small lot downtown, crowded by a monstrous pastel-painted DoubleTree Hotel. In high school, I used to go with friends to activities at All Saints, and I remember standing in the very back of the nave during midnight a Mass on Christmas Eve in 1990, listening to George Regas sermonize against the imminent Gulf War. I don’t recall exactly what he said or what I thought about it; what did make an impression was that a few people in the pews walked out. So when I wanted to see how a liberal congregation was reacting to the war, I knew All Saints would be a good place to start.

Ed Bacon has been publicly opposing the war since before it started. He participates in ICUJP as well as another interfaith group of clergy, called Bridging L.A. Like his counterparts across Los Angeles, Bacon proposes that there are other means, short of war, that are available as responses to September 11 and the fight against terrorism in general.

Even at All Saints, however, not everyone is convinced. Bacon and his assistant rector, Scott Richardson, told me about a recent forum they held to discuss the war, where they found a spectrum of opinion. There were three main groups, according to Bacon: “The core of the congregation agrees. Then there‘s a group who disagree totally. And then there’s another group who would like to oppose the war, but they don‘t have in their hearts a real alternative. So what they’re left with is what we‘ve always done: go to war.”

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