Flag display brings questions of war and peace to Greenwich

John Ferris Robben Outside of Second Congregational Church, off of East Putnam Avenue, there are 6,801 American flags on display for the next few weeks. Each flag signifies an American soldier’s life lost in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a traveling exhibition.

Outside of Second Congregational Church, off of East Putnam Avenue, there are 6,801 American flags on display for the next few weeks. Each flag signifies an American soldier’s life lost in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a traveling exhibition. —John Ferris Robben

The 6,801 American flags on display outside the Second Congregational Church are more than a salute to the country. Each flag represents a life.

Each of the flags is supposed to mark an American soldier killed in service in Iraq or Afghanistan and a list of the casualties is also posted outside the church. The flags cannot be missed either, as they are set up by the thousands in full view of East Putnam Avenue at its intersection with Maple Street.

The church is serving as the temporary host of the Field of Flags outdoor installation, which has been traveling throughout the country since 2005. The installation, which was created at Somers Congregational Church in Somers, has been throughout Connecticut as well as Virginia, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. Now it has come to Greenwich after a team of volunteers set it up, and on March 30 it was dedicated as part of the church’s regular Sunday service.

The church’s senior minister, Maxwell Grant, called the installation a “silent, patriotic and poignant” reminder of those who had served their country and the cost of war. However, during his sermon to the congregation as part of the dedication, the Rev. Grant urged them to bring their own perspective to what they saw, asking them to take the time to walk past it as they left the church that day.

“I don’t want to tell you what the installation of the flags is supposed to mean,” Mr. Grant said. “As early as yesterday morning it was already clear that the flags speak more than one message. It may be that for some of the people who see them the flags will say more about what it is we bring to the installation. They may act more as a mirror than a candle. What it is that we finally take from the flags may take longer to emerge from any of us.”

Recalling the work done to set the flags up on March 29, Mr. Grant spoke about a driver pulling over and getting out of the car because he and his wife knew several names on the list of those who had lost their lives in service. Mr. Grant said the man even shared pictures of his friends that he had with him on his phone. There was also a woman who came with her son and shared stories with Mr. Grant about having grown up in a war zone and how the way “so many people talk about war bothers her deeply.”

After the dedication, Mr. Grant spoke to the Post and elaborated on that message, saying he wanted to bring this installation to Greenwich, where it had never been before, because he wanted to spur that discussion. He reached out to the church in Somers and asked that before the program concludes in a few months the church have a chance to display it.

“We’re a congregation where there are a lot of different views about everything,” Mr. Grant said. “In a blue state/red state world, we are a very, very purple congregation. What my hope was, I think, was that people would engage wherever they started and talk to each other and ask, ‘What do you think it means?’ We have a lot of veterans in our congregation and I also had the hope that people would stop those who had served and ask them what they saw when they looked at the flags.”

To help spur that, Mr. Grant said pictures of veterans in the congregation have been placed in the church’s hallway to better allow them to be known by others. He added that he was hoping there would be discussions in the weeks to come at events like church coffee hours and also in private consultations between him and members of the congregation.

“I want to see the debate and the discussion as it evolves and see in three weeks if we’re in the exact place we started or whether having this here and living with it for a while has helped us to engage the questions of war and peace in new ways,” Mr. Grant said.

Unfortunately, the work of the volunteers setting up the flags nearly went for naught after the strong rain and windstorm that took place last Saturday, the night before the dedication. Church congregant Tony Izzi, who has played a critical role in coordinating the project, said he walked by in the morning and saw thousands of the carefully set flags broken because of the weather and he singlehandedly replaced them, a task that took close to two and a half hours.

“It looked like after a hurricane hit and all the trees are snapped in one direction,” Mr. Izzi said. “It was a lot of work this morning. But I got a system down pretty quickly and you don’t even really think about the work when you’re doing something like this. Each flag represents a life lost, and what we don’t see are the others who came home from battle but are still fighting the aftermath of it and who have suffered traumatic injuries or are struggling every day to make ends meet. Our VA hospitals are overwhelmed, and it’s hard to identify mental injuries.”

In his sermon, Mr. Grant said the installation had a personal impact on him. He said looking at his own photos of the installation going up he noticed the way the church’s statue of a Union soldier from the Civil War was in the background.

“It brought home in a new way what it is to lose, not simply so many lives but to lose each life,” Mr. Grant said. “I was reminded that each soldier lost leaves a hole in the lives of so many who remain. … This is why it is so important to remember and to witness. War and service and sacrifice and suffering, the things we ask of our young men and now our young women, too, these are things that we promise we will not forget, and yet so often we do. Unless we learn to notice and commit to remembering, then, in the words of the old hymn, time like an ever-rolling stream bears all her sons away and they lie forgotten like a dream.”

The flags will be on display at the church until Saturday, April 19, at which time the installation will be taken to the Newtown Congregational Church. After several weeks there, it will then go back to the Somers Congregational Church, where the installation will be retired with a special ceremony on June 1 at 4 p.m.

Second Congregational Church is located at 139 East Putnam Avenue.

 

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