Obama’s Other Controversial Church
“This is a guy (former Weatherman terror-bomber Bill Ayers) who lives in my neighborhood … the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago – when I was 8 years old – somehow reflects on me and my values doesn’t make much sense.” — Barack Obama on the Campaign trail, 2008
As President Obama prepared to commemorate D-Day, the Associated Press dug up old details and photos to write a warm fuzzy story about the WW2 service record of Obama’s maternal grandfather and grand uncle. One could conclude that the actions of these two-nearly 20 years before Obama was born–are the closest Obama ever came to uniformed US military personnel prior to launching his political career.
But Obama has a much closer military connection-one he has not talked about publicly. Had a reporter asked Obama: “So what were you doing during Bill Ayers’ fugitive days?” An honest answer would be: “I was going to Sunday school at a church which had provided sanctuary to US military deserters.”
While John McCain was being tortured as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, First Unitarian Church of Honolulu — at which the elementary-age Obama would later attend Sunday school after returning from Indonesia in 1970 or 71 — was sheltering deserters and AWOLs recruited by ‘flirty fishing’ coeds from a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) group known as “The Resistance”. The deserters’ exploits were front page news for months on end in mid-1969 Honolulu. They were also proudly trumpeted by the Honolulu SDS tabloid, “The Roach“.
The contrast between the war hero POW and the Obama deserters’ church would have made a pretty good campaign commercial. But nobody in Honolulu spoke up to claim Obama’s First Unitarian connection until after Election Day. Even then it was hush-hush. As the Star-Bulletin explained December 24:
“(Rev Mike) Young, pastor of the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, could only tell his wife and a handful of church administrators that a small, private service was planned for Madelyn Payne Dunham on Dec. 23. It was very hard to keep this secret. …”
Obama’s maternal grandmother had passed away just days before the election. The story of his ties to the church began to emerge only after he attended her memorial service. They have never received wide media attention, but have been published just enough that-after being kept secret in the 2008 campaign — this chapter of Obama’s life can arguably no longer be considered a secret to be revealed in any 2012 campaign. The connection to Vietnam deserters has not been included in any of the Obama-related coverage.
Was sheltering deserters an aberration for First Unitarian Church? No. Long before anybody was thinking of Barack Obama as a Senator, much less a President, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin February 8, 2003 described First Unitarian’s 2003 golden anniversary celebration complete with “Liberal Religion for 50 Years” T-shirts:
“The bumper stickers on cars outside the church gave an insight into its members’ beliefs: ‘No War.’ ‘If you want peace, work for justice.’ ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.’“Activism for peace and human rights causes has characterized the congregation of the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu since it was organized 50 years ago. Members were instrumental in founding the League of Women Voters and activating a local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. It offered sanctuary to servicemen who went AWOL to avoid being sent to Vietnam. It helped launch the Save Our Constitution effort to fight the constitutional amendment on same-sex marriages….“After leaving Hawaii to work at the Unitarian seminary in Berkeley, Calif., (Church co-founder Rosemary) Mattson and her husband were active in the international peace movement. She escorted more than 25 tours of Americans to the former Soviet Union for people-to-people experience….”
But six years later the coverage of the memorial service did not bring out any of this information. At first there was no revelation that Obama had any relationship to the church beyond simply holding the service there. Then a January 6, 2009 article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin brings out the hidden story of Obama’s religious upbringing:
“When (UU Rev Mike) Young reminded Obama that he had attended Sunday School at First Unitarian, ‘his eyes lit up, and he said, ‘Oh that’s right!’”
In response to an email query from Hawaii Free Press Rev. Young confirmed the Star-Bulletin’s account.
Young also repeated the story in the March 28, 2009 edition of his hometown Tampa (Florida) Tribune:
When Obama was in elementary school in Honolulu, Young recounted in a telephone phone interview, either his grandmother or grandfather (there’s confusion over which one) brought him to Sunday school there for several years.The Dunhams had attended a Unitarian church in the Seattle area when Obama’s mother was a teenager. Although there’s no record of their attendance at the Honolulu church, Obama writes about it in his memoir “Dreams From My Father,” and one family who still attends the church remembers him.When Young reminded Obama at the memorial service, “his eyes lit up, and he turned to Michelle and said, ‘Hey, that’s right. This is where I went to Sunday school.’”Obama spent some time on the second floor, where Sunday school is held, but didn’t recognize anything. That’s not surprising, Young said, because the church has been renovated over the years.
The Dunhams’ Seattle-area Mercer Island Unitarian Church was infamous as “The Little Red Church on the Hill“-Obama’s mother’s attendance there had been exposed during the campaign-and had been associated with an ambiguous reference to Obama’s grandfather Stanley Dunham in Obama’s book “Dreams from My Father” (p17).
“In his only skirmish into organized religion, he would enroll the family in the local Unitarian Universalist congregation….”
But knowing Obama’s connection to Honolulu’s First Unitarian Church, it is possible this passage refers to either church — or both churches.
Contemporary accounts of the SDS Resistance use of First Unitarian and nearby Church of the Crossroads as part of the 1968-70 sanctuary for deserters movement shows why Obama would not have wanted this information exposed.
Starting in 1966 University of Hawaii students and professors began raising funds to donate directly to the Viet Cong. By 1968 UH Manoa leftist activists had morphed into a chapter of the so-called Students for a Democratic Society and began publishing a newspaper called “The Roach.”
On October 26, 1967 Lt. Commander John McCain was shot down over Hanoi. With two broken arms and one broken leg he parachuted into Truc Bach Lake where he was dragged from the water, beaten and bayoneted.
The June 4, 1968 edition of The Roach includes “memo from the resistance”-The Hawaii Committee for Draft Resistance-which urges supporters to show up at a June 10 court hearing for “the ten arrested for loitering when they attempted to block the 29th Infantry Brigade troops leaving Fort DeRussy….” On the very next page Mao Zedong’s murderous Red Guards are described as, “…young activists full of joy who understand the potential for their society….”
In mid-1968, the Vietnamese communists realized they held the son of Admiral John McCain-commander of the Pacific Fleet, including US forces in Vietnam. The younger McCain refused an offer of early release because preferential treatment for the son of a high ranking officer would provide a propaganda opportunity for the communists. He would be held five more years.
The September 24, 1968 edition of The Roach describes Resistance leader John Witeck refusing induction right next to articles titled “Pot Talk” and “Revolutionary Orgasm.” An obscure article in the October 23 edition mentions “two marines (sic), Young C Gray and Tom Mat, who are now in sanctuary….” This ‘sanctuary’ apparently lasted four days.
The Roach, January 15, 1969, describes Gray receiving two years in the stockade after being found guilty of “‘attempting to possess’ mescaline and marijuana.” The Roach further explains: “Gray had also written some disparaging remarks about NCOs and lifers concerning their intellects and temperaments. These statements appeared in ‘A Call to Join Us’, a piece read to the congregation assembled at the Unitarian Church.”
After losing 50 pounds while receiving insufficient treatment for his injuries, John McCain was placed in a cell in December 1967 with two Americans who did not expect him to live a week. He was then locked in solitary confinement for two years beginning in March 1968. Here he endured beatings and rope binding tortures but refused to meet with anti-war delegations attempting to visit the POWs.
The August 16, 1969 Star-Bulletin shows deserters going shirtless with some of the dozens of hippy girls who had flocked to the sanctuary churches. The headline: “Hot showers for AWOLs at Church.”
By August 23, 1969 the New York Times was reporting “24 G.I. War Foes now in Sanctuary…staying at both the Church of the Crossroads and the Unitarian Church of Honolulu….” The Resistance had grown but all was not well. As The Times explained:
“One of the protesters, Seaman Arthur parker, 17, turned himself in to the authorities at Pearl Harbor yesterday after talking to an Army Chaplain.“Seaman Parker denounced the protest as ‘a movement to overthrow the government.’”
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin August 22, 1969 had much more of Parker’s story.
(Parker) arrived in Honolulu from a Great lakes, (Ill.) boot camp and … got drunk with buddies at Waikiki last Thursday night.He told of meeting a young girl the next morning who promised love and relief from the military. Parker disliked violence and war….“We were walking down the street. Man was I bombed, and these two girls came up and handed me a sheet of paper. It told about the servicemen at the church and what the Resistance stood for.“I told the girls that I didn’t like to hate and I didn’t like the war but that all I neeed was love. One of the girls said, ‘Well there’s a lot of that at the church.’ Then we just talked.“I went back to the hotel, drank three beers and a half pint of whiskey and then called the Rev Bob Warner to come pick me up….…On that day the young man from Holland, Mich., became number 18 at the Church of the Crossroads….“… It isn’t a sanctuary anymore. Its become a movement to overthrow the government and I don’t stand for that; neither do a lot of the others….“Even though I don’t like the military, I would rather be part of them than what’s down at the church. They scare me now.”
Four days later the following Letter to the Editor appeared in the Star-Bulletin:
SIR: Whereas the Congregation of the Unitarian Church of Honolulu acted on October 18, 1968, to adopt a policy of offering symbolic sanctuary to those who in conscience oppose the machinery of war by nonviolent means, the Board of the Church, at its regular August meeting, offers its commendation on behalf of the Unitarian Church of Honolulu to the Church of the Crossroads for its courageous support of the men now in sanctuary.–Martha D. McDaniel, Secretary of the Board, Unitarian Church of Honolulu
On September 12, 1969 the Star-Bulletin reported a broadly sponsored US House resolution, “condemning ‘cruel and barbaric’ treatment of American prisoners of war in Vietnam….
“The resolution cites reports that the POWs are subjected to ‘physical torture, psychological terror, public display, neglect of health and are denied dietary and sanitary necessities. They are unable to correspond with their families and are forced to comply with propaganda exploitation.”
Just two days earlier the Star-Bulletin had interviewed Rev Donald Adams, a former associate minister of the Church of the Crossroads. Regarding the military personnel in ‘sanctuary’ Adams explained:
“I think the majority of them are probably in need of counseling and psychiatric help. After the wraps are off, you find the real internal problems. Psychologically, some men are not for the military. Its not easy in there.”
Interviewed for the same article, Church of the Crossroads member Rev. Ted Chinen explained:
“The men come for various reasons. We should look into their previous records. We may be assisting psychopathics or neurotics.”
To be considered a deserter, a soldier must be AWOL for 30 days. Eventually the City of Honolulu cited both churches for violations of zoning and health ordinances related to the use of the church buildings for ‘sanctuary’. Then on September 12 military police raided the Unitarian Church, Church of the Crossroads and nearby Wellesley Foundation arresting 12 AWOLs. As many as 15 others evaded arrest.
The Star-Bulletin September 19, 1969 editorialized:
“It seems inconsistent that these men who were so willing to face television cameras and speak up before the nation on conscience-so long as they had the protection of the ‘sanctuary’-could not see their adventure through.“That gives us reason to believe that these young men are not made of the fiber they would have had us believe.“Their evasion of the consequences, which they admittedly knew would eventually come, casts a shadow over the sincerity of their convictions.“We can be thankful that they decided to take their stand in the safe confines of a church.“Had they gone to the jungles of Vietnam, it is entirely possible that their lack of intestinal fortitude could have got someone else killed.”
While the deserters were hiding, the September 15, 1969 Star-Bulletin reports on another group of missing soldiers. A delegation of four women-wives of American MIAs believed to be POWs-went to the Paris Peace Talks. In a statement released to the press they wrote:
“Our husbands have been missing from eight months to four years and we are hopeful North Vietnamese representatives will tell us if we are wives or widows.”
The November, 1969 edition of the Hawaii Free People’s Press -- successor to The Roach -- recounts the story of a Schofield Barracks deserter who had a different type of relationship with women. The article titled “Fock the draft” begins with the testimony of underground Schofield Barracks stockade escapee Bobby Jay Norton:
“Some five or six months ago I was charged with rape which I did not commit. The girl that charged me with the intentions of rape was pregnant when she came to Hawaii, so instead of her letting her parents know of this, she thought that she could come here and charge rape on someone….“While we were driving in Waikiki she started screaming louder and louder, so I told her that if she didn’t be quiet that I was going to slap the s**t out of her.“As we came to a stop sign she jumped out of the car and started running down the street crying. I started to go after her but I decided that I had had enough of her crying so I decided to let her go.“The next day I was informed by some friends that I was being looked for by the H.P.D. and some M.P.s….I had previously gotten out of an assault on a chick.”
Above this was an untitled piece by “Private Partz” and a cartoon of a naked general swallowing people whole and defecating them out as soldiers.
These activists eventually won their war against America in Southeast Asia. They and those who admired them are now our professors, our journalists, our ministers, moviemakers, and politicians. One of their understudies is President of the United States.
In 1973 and 1974 Nixon withdrew US troops from South East Asia. When the US war ended the real killing began. The Democrat-controlled Congress cut off US funding to the South Vietnamese and Cambodian governments. By April of 1975 Pol Pot took over Cambodia and began murdering as many as 3 million Cambodians. The Vietnamese communists murdered as many as 1.6 million people and forced millions more into exile as “boat people.”
Those deaths and the domestic political means which made them possible are the most accurate reflection on the generation of activists who raised Barack Obama and created his values.
Andrew Walden edits hawaiifreepress.com.
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