BEL AIR – As the Rev. Ralph Batykefer paced across the pulpit on a recent Sunday, he delivered a sermon on faith that jumped from Indiana Jones to the plains of Texas — but never once mentioned the war in Iraq.
Although the Oak Grove Baptist Church has 10 members deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Batykefer felt the war had no bearing on this particular Sunday on the message for his congregation, just miles from the Aberdeen Proving Ground.
That doesn’t mean it’s not an issue — the need for war is discussed in Sunday school classes at Oak Grove, where parishioners and ministers show their support with American flag ties and pins and where a large flag hangs behind the pulpit.
But at Oak Grove, as at most churches in the Aberdeen area, the war does not dominate worship services and the morality of war is not a sermon topic.
“We would have to be in a bubble for us to not be affected,” said Batykefer, the youth minister at Oak Grove. “But everybody handles it in a different way.”
Unlike churches across the country, many of the ministers in the Aberdeen area have not denounced the war, although one church did allow a peace rally on its grounds. Instead, the churches here take a stand of neutrality and encourage their members to think about the conflict as a true test of their fate and respect the views of others.
“I don’t think we are in a position to take a dogmatic position,” said the Rev. Thomas Fender, of the Church of Christ on Royal Avenue in Aberdeen. “As a church there is no specific policy, we believe that an individual should follow their individual conscience in concert with their faith.”
For the most part, that position of neutrality has worked. Although church members sometimes ask for more obvious displays of support for troops, like an organ rendition of “God Bless America,” most often they come to church to think about a God they believe has control over every occurrence.
“To me faith isn’t something that makes your day good every day . . . true faith has been tested by fire,” said Batykefer, echoing the feelings of other ministers in the area.
Batykefer said he has taught classes to teenagers and adolescents about the war and they have questioned him and each other about the justness of the conflict. He often encourages them to examine the Scriptures and let their fate in God decide for them whether this is a “just war,” like those described by St. Augustine.
Although some churches have added extra services, extra classes and counseling for parishioners worried about the war, many have not, since most of their members are used to watching loved ones leave for battle.
“If someone is a reservist, the family kind of lives with that possibility all of the time,” said the Rev. John Elledge of the St. John Episcopal Church in Havre de Grace, five miles from Aberdeen.
Instead, Aberdeen is going about its daily life, albeit with an even better sense of the sacrifice troops make daily and an omnipresent mood of concern.
“Most of the folk here have just accepted the fact that this is happening and there is nothing we can do about it,” said the Rev. Anne Perry, the pastor of the Union United Methodist Church. “I am just struck by how proud they are of their relatives who are actively involved in this situation.”
That pride was on display at Oak Grove, where the Rev. Ken Tipton, the music minister, sat in a pew after services one Sunday sporting a red-white-and- blue tie. He showed off the 20-foot American flag that usually hangs behind the pulpit and talked about a photo montage of church veterans.
“We’re a patriotic church. They understand it’s (the war) got to happen,” Tipton said. “They are really pro-troops.”
Batykefer pointed to the fact the Bible cites wars that occurred thousands of years ago — and said the issue is likely to be around thousands of years hence.
“For the most part war has always been around,” he said. “I don’t think we will ever get to the point where we are going to eradicate evil or people who want to wage war.”