This Christmas, a New Probing in Prayers for Peace

Article excerpt

At the main intersection of this former industrial town, they gather every Sunday after Quaker services - a half-dozen or so men and women bundled in bright coats and hats, holding homemade signs saying: "War is not the answer" and "Come join us."

In San Francisco, classrooms of children in Catholic school are dedicating the month to an "Advent of Peace" by doing something each day - from blessing wreaths to reciting the novena - to devote themselves to peace.

And in Cleveland, a diverse church group of 80 from around the country gathers to reinvigorate the "just peace" movement, trying, among other things, to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Across the country, church groups this holiday season are rededicating themselves to peace and social causes, at the end of a year marked by simmering conflict abroad and the threat of terrorism at home. This year's Christmastide, it seems, is giving rise not only to traditional prayers for peace, but also to fresh, grass- roots efforts to understand - in all its complexity - what makes for a lasting peace. Movements that stagnated in the prosperous, tranquil 1990s have been buoyed on waves of new interest.

"It's people in the pews saying, 'This is the time.' It's individuals choosing to do this," says Mary Elizabeth Sperry, associate director for publishing at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. "So it becomes a much more intentional process."

A year ago, Ms. Sperry's office was flooded with dioceses' requests for peace-prayer resources as the nation reeled from Sept. 11, sending up Christmas prayers with new urgency. This year, printers are again scrambling to spew out prayer cards, calendars, and songbooks, with orders coming primarily from youth groups, school teachers, and adult prayer groups.

After a feel-good era in which some Americans sported bumper stickers that read "visualize whirled peas," many are now pondering how to achieve peace.

In Philadelphia, Germantown United Methodist Church started a study group on how wars can be prevented. In Rockford, Ill., 150 laypeople showed up at Court Street United Methodist Church this month for a dinner and vespers meeting on peace. "It's average, ordinary citizens who are doing this, unlike in the '60s when it was students and left-wing radicals," says Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in New York, who attended the Rockford dinner.

Peace - but by restraint, or by force?

Yet as Christians probe peace, differences are clear. On one side is a series of rallies and vigils opposing invasion of Iraq, and a coalition of 11 religious and civic organization formed this month to "Keep America Safe: Win Without War. …