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A death in Iraq; a church changed

An opponent becomes an ally after losing his soldier son.
By Jane Greer
Fall 2005 8.15.05

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When First Parish UU in Bedford, Massachusetts, put a banner on their church saying “Speak Out for Peace” in early 2003, before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, little could they have imagined that one of their most vocal opponents would later be speaking out for peace from their own pulpit.

It started simply enough. When 19-year-old Bedford resident John Hart, a newly minted army private, was getting ready to leave for Iraq, he noticed the church’s sign and asked his father, Brian Hart, to help get it removed. The senior Hart agreed and spoke at a meeting of the town selectmen to request that the sign be taken down. The congregation was not surprised, said the Rev. John Gibbons, the church’s minister, and agreed to remove the sign in deference to families like the Harts.

In October 2003 John Hart was killed in an Iraqi attack on his unarmored Humvee and Brian Hart got back in touch with the church. He asked Gibbons to help organize a memorial service at the church for John and also asked him to take part in the burial service held at Arlington National Cemetery.

Before he was killed, John had shared his fears about the Humvees’ lack of armor with his father. Appalled by the possibility that his son and other troops could be killed by a lack of protective gear, Hart began a personal investigation into the matter, gaining support from U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy and Democratic and Republican members of Congress. Hart’s activism helped speed the manufacture of additional armored Humvees and expedited funding for the further armoring of existing vehicles.

Hart thought his time in the spotlight was over. Then, he read a proposal by Massachusetts Congressman Marty Meehan calling for a responsible exit strategy from Iraq and became a vocal supporter. Although not a pacifist, Hart had come to doubt the wisdom of the continued American presence in Iraq. He acted on his new beliefs by organizing a town meeting with Gibbons at the church in June to discuss the war.

The town meeting concept is important to Hart because he believes that many citizens are afraid of speaking out against the war for fear of being branded unpatriotic. “We need to show people we can talk about it,” he said recently. “We haven’t given up our First Amendment rights.” Hart is now working with Gibbons, the UUA, and members of Kennedy’s office on setting up a program of town meetings across the country.

Since the death of their son, Brian and Alma Hart have attended First Parish on several occasions. Although it may seem like the transformation was one-sided, the congregation has been deeply affected by the Harts. “The relationship with the Hart family has caused us to go deeper than we may have done,” said Gibbons. “It has caused us to act from the historic center of our faith; to question and to pursue the truth wherever it may lead.”

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