Old Hymns Hold a New Urgency

Times Staff Writer

The hymn about peace was not familiar to most in the small African American congregation on Sunday, including Marlyn Robinson, but the hope was.

She was thinking of her cousin in Kuwait, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Elliot Leonard.

In another pew, John Price was thinking about his cousin, Gregory Johnson, on a warship in the Middle East. Orville Draughan was thinking about a friend and neighbor, Ralph Jackson, who may ship out next week.

In the pulpit, the Rev. Ignacio Castuera was thinking of his niece Michelle and her husband, Jerry Aldridge -- both in the Army, Jerry in Kuwait.


And so the congregation sang.

“We pray where want and war increase, and grant us, Lord, in this our day, the ancient dream of peace....”

On the first weekend after the outbreak of war with Iraq, which brought news of American casualties and captured soldiers, the 30 people who showed up for services at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Watts joined millions across the country who called on their faith to bring loved ones safely home.

“The most important and first thing we can do as religious people is to go to our knees and pray,” Castuera said.


The war is coming home in personal ways, congregants said -- the remark of a little boy who wonders why his father isn’t home, the wide-eyed expression on a daughter’s face watching antiwar protesters in Hollywood, ancient prayers and hymns speaking with sudden relevance.

Robinson’s Marine cousin in Kuwait has a 7-year-old son. “He doesn’t understand where his father is, why his father’s not there with him,” said Robinson, one of the leaders in the congregation. “I understand his coach says, ‘I know you miss your father, but I’m here to help you, and you’re still going to play.’ Then his mother tells him, ‘Well, I miss him, too.’ ”

She thought about her cousin when she heard news of American soldiers being killed, wounded and captured. “You wonder who they are. But whoever it is, you just kind of have a feeling of them being captured,” Robinson said. “You don’t know the situation over there. No one does. They say things, but we really don’t know.”

Then Robinson, dressed for church in a tailored navy blue suit, her gray hair set off by half dollar-size circular gold earrings, spoke of hope. “He’s going to come back. He’s going to be with us. We just have to pray for him.” Lately, she said, she’s been doing a lot of praying -- “for all of them.”


Price, a musician and video editor, was driving in Hollywood with his 14-year-old daughter Saturday. They saw antiwar protests. “I was just thinking of how I hope that I can get her to see a need for peace and see how she has to resolve conflict,” he said.

Price, who has been in the service but not in combat, said it is sometimes hard to readjust to civilian life after going through war. He worries about his cousin in the Navy.

“I hope that he comes back a whole person, not damaged in any way mentally,” he said. “I’m more worried about that than him getting shot since he’s on a ship,” Price said.

Church on Sunday was where Price said he wanted to be. “I just want to be around people who are thinking peace,” he said.


Castuera, standing in a pulpit draped in deep purple -- the liturgical color prescribed for the 40-day Lenten season of prayer and repentance -- offered a plea and a prayer.

“We need you here to pray when peace has been destroyed. Children are crying. People are dying. Soldiers are fighting,” the pastor said. “We pray for those who are in harm’s way, giving or receiving violence. We pray that those of us who are followers of the Prince of Peace may not give up on the theme of peace.”

After the service, Robinson said that she doesn’t always know if prayers are answered.

“Sometimes we can see where it helps. Sometimes we can’t. Sometimes it’s helping if we don’t see it,” she said. “But that’s what we have to do, and if we don’t do it, we have nothing to strive for and look forward to.”