His suitcase unpacked for a while, the Rev. Stan DeBoe is saying the early Sunday Mass at St. Lawrence Martyr in Jessup. With the winter light filtering through windows of pastel glass, worshipers have crowded into the small brick church, waiting for Father Stan's words, his blessings.
Still, the chalice in his hands also ties him to another place and other people, half a world away. DeBoe brought the chalice back to St. Lawrence Martyr from one of his many trips to the Holy Land. The red-haired 46-year-old priest with the mischievous smile is often called away to the world's trouble spots. He is justice and peace director, both for his order, the Baltimore-based Trinitarians, and for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, an organization that represents more than 20,000 priests and brothers. In addition, DeBoe is board chairman of an ecumenical group, Churches for Middle East Peace.
A year and a half ago, DeBoe witnessed the bulldozing of ancient olive groves by Israeli forces intent on driving Palestinians from the occupied territories. He brought back the chalice, made of golden olive wood, as a way of tying his 137-year-old church and its parishioners to that troubled land. DeBoe has brought back hosts from Haiti, so parishioners could share the Communion bread used by Catholics leading very different lives.
"He always comes back here to do Mass," parishioner Chuck McCollum, a retired Air Force man, said, fondly. "When he's not traveling, he's always here."
DeBoe's parish on Jessup Road is close to the National Security Agency and Fort Meade. Many of his parishioners are intelligence workers or members of the military. They understand the complexities of conflict and peace. "They are in church for a reason," DeBoe said. "They are trying to inform themselves."
So DeBoe keeps telling them about his experiences. He tells of the Ash Wednesday he spent in a remote, impoverished village in Haiti two years ago. He and another priest were greeted as honored guests. Although Ash Wednesday is historically a day of fasting and prayer, the local people prepared a huge feast, complete with turkey.
DeBoe's first thought was that he shouldn't eat meat on the solemn holiday. Then he realized where he was -- and what the people in the village were feeling.
"They fast almost all year long. For them, it was a day to celebrate."
The story says a lot to him about experiencing the world through other people's lives.
"Whatever I say, I can only touch the tip."
Three times in recent months, DeBoe has visited Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, in the rubble of his compound in Ramallah. "The last year of house arrest has really broken him."
But DeBoe is likewise haunted by the fear that dominates the life of a young Israeli peace activist he met. "When she gets on a bus, she looks for the most suspicious person on the bus and sits next to him."
On his last trip to the Holy Land, he had five companions, all members of religious communities, including Mary Ann Zollman, a Catholic nun and president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Zollman praises DeBoe's knowledge of the region and his contacts there. And she speaks of their recent journey as a deep and prayerful one. Her colleagues witnessed so much devastation they often traveled in silence, she said, before stopping to pray.
"We were standing in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We stood in a circle, the six of us. We held hands in silence."
DeBoe also remembers the power of that moment, just before Christmas, in the place long celebrated as the birthplace of Christ.
DeBoe says he and his companions always seek out everyday people, no matter where they go. "Sometimes I'd say, 'Let's just go out to a cafe and talk.' It's dangerous, but I don't think about it. If I did, I wouldn't leave my hotel room." He said he is constantly surprised by the range of opinions he finds, the thoughtfulness of people living under such stress.
When he comes back to the United States, his testimony often reaches beyond the parish. Not long ago, he visited the White House as part of a small ecumenical delegation speaking with an official from the National Security Council about the strife in the Mideast.
He strongly objects to the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East. The president, he said, seems determined to wage war against Iraq even as the situation deteriorates between Israel and the Palestinians.
"In my gut I can't imagine this not becoming a larger war," he said. DeBoe doesn't really expect to change national policy, yet he must speak out.
Worldly Experiences He grew up outside Pittsburgh. His father died when he was 7. His mother was a school cafeteria worker. He came to the area to attend college at Towson State. It was there he realized he wanted to be a priest.
His journey into the world began 15 years ago, after he was ordained and working at the Trinitarian's provincial house in Baltimore. He was leading a quiet life, helping new seminarians. Then one day his superior asked him to do a little research on human rights. The 800-year-old order, founded to ransom Christians and Muslims who were prisoners of war during the Crusades, was seeking new ways to get involved.
DeBoe spent time talking with groups such as Amnesty International, then took a trip to China in 1989 to investigate allegations of religious persecution. He saw students conducting vigils in Beijing, but he wasn't there for the bloody uprising in Tiananmen Square that year.
In Moscow, he witnessed in 1991 the tumult that marked the end of the Communist Party's rule in Russia and the rise of Boris Yeltsin to the presidency.
Then he spent six years working on Capitol Hill as a special human rights adviser in the office of Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican. DeBoe remains a Republican, but he is no longer the right-of-center man he was when he started his travels.
He also has been troubled by much he has seen in the United States, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"There are two paths we could have taken," he said: the path of courage and renewed engagement with the world, and the path of closure and fear, of hardened hearts and borders.
He fears the nation has taken the latter path -- and played into the hands of terrorists.
"Rather than letting the terrorists control the dialogue, let's change the conditions that make terrorism possible," DeBoe said.
Although he is convinced that an attack on Iraq would not constitute a just war, he doesn't outright condemn war as evil from the pulpit at St. Lawrence Martyr. How would that make the people feel who must go off and fight, he asks? On New Year's day, DeBoe helped arrange a marriage ceremony for a young military man heading off to the Middle East.
The Jessup priest believes he must both raise his voice to try to avert a war even as he helps his parishioners prepare for one.
"In the event of war, will the people in our parish be the moral ones? If they are put in charge of a prison camp, how do they treat people? Will the general who comes to our Mass say, 'If we wait three days, something can change.' "
On a recent cold Sunday morning, at 8:30 Mass, DeBoe gives a sermon about the disciples, traveling, with their eyes open, their minds open.
And the communicants line up to receive the host and a heady sip from the chalice of olive wood.
Then the Mass has ended. Father DeBoe blesses his parishioners and bids them "go in peace."
DeBoe, far left, and Sister Mary Ann Zollman were members in a Catholic delegation that visited with Yasser Arafat, third from right, last year.