The Wantagh Memorial Congregational Church will hold an evening vigil on Saturday to mark International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. The commemoration was created in 2013 by U.N. Resolution 68/32, and the local event will take place on the church’s back lawn. The rules of social distancing will be observed, and masks will be required.
In addition to the day’s original purpose, “One of the primary reasons we wanted to hold the vigil this year was to try to help heal the deep divisions we see in American society,” said the Rev. Ron Garner, the church’s pastor.
“The pandemic has aggravated and intensified people’s feelings of despair,” Garner said. “People’s regular lives are disrupted, their children are sometimes exhibiting signs of stress, and they end up feeling disconnected and depressed.”
Garner said he couldn’t remember a time when society was as polarized as it is now.
The Congregational Church has a longstanding opposition to weapons of mass destruction, he said. “Our congregation is in the process of becoming a Just Peace church,” Garner added. “We see the abolition of war as part of our mission as followers of Jesus Christ.”
The Just Peace movement is a grass-roots initiative in the United Church of Christ and its sister denominations to “boldly proclaim a public identity as a justice-doing, peace-seeking church,” according to the founding pronouncement promulgated at the church’s General Synod in 1985.
“We see these modern weapons, like drones, that have such a devastating effect on the civilian population” in war zones like Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen, said Garner, 68, who was an Army infantry officer for 11 years and is a member of Veterans for Peace.
Between 2010 and 2020, the U.S. military carried out more than 10,400 strikes by so-called reaper drones, resulting in as many as 16,000 casualties, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based global clearinghouse for investigative reporting. More than 12 percent of those killed have been civilians, despite the purportedly military nature of the strikes, the Bureau reported.
Garner has led the Wantagh congregation for the past 10 years. The church’s front-lawn marquee has become well known for pithy messages that are often lighthearted, but always thought-provoking.
“Ministers in the Congregational Church have what’s called ‘freedom of the pulpit,’ which means that they have complete freedom of speech when preaching,” Garner explained. “When I first arrived, the church’s deacon told me the freedom extended to the sign.”
Originally from Indiana, Garner has served in congregations across the Midwest and spent 10 years ministering in the United Kingdom. His wife, Maureen O’Hagan, is an ordained minister in the United Reformed Church of the United Kingdom. The couple have three daughters and five grandchildren.
The Memorial Congregational community has a membership of about 150, with 30 to 40 regular Sunday worshippers, Garner said. “Our denomination generally leans toward the more liberal side of things,” he said, “but we have members who are more conservative, too. We welcome everyone. We have respect for all. We’re an affirming church, too, which means we welcome LGBTQ.”