After the sermon, my priest looks around to see if there is anyone who has something to share.
A woman stands up, imploring the congregation to help families in the congregation who are struggling with the onslaught of various cancers. A man stands up too, relaying an answer to prayer and the joy that ensues. My priest, a former teacher with twinkling eyes, scans the congregation for anyone else, then begins to pivot on his left heel to start the communion preparations. As he begins to turn around, another man seated towards the front of the congregation stands up.
He talks for a few minutes. And a strange mix of admiration and uncomfortable awkwardness ripples through the faithful. We take turns gazing at the speaker, and then glancing sideways at the person sitting next to us, trying to gauge their reaction as we temper our own.
He is talking about the war. That innocuous term that always takes on a huge, archetypal quality in our minds. The War.
He is in his 70s and is well dressed. He is sitting alone.
He talks about being a fighter pilot in World War II. And in Korea. And in Vietnam. He talks about how women weren’t allowed in back then, “but thank God they are now. Though I wouldn’t have one in the trenches with me,” he says with a hint of amusement. And then he begins to talk about how we need to support our troops in the current ensuing conflict.
I am not na/ve. I understand the reticence on the part of “the rest of the world” to support the perceived warmongering of the United States. I also know that I am in the small minority even on this campus, when it comes to supporting the disarmament and removal of the current Iraqi regime. There are not many on this campus who would so readily throw their support behind the actions of the current executive administration.
And no column that I write is likely to change your mind on the morality of this particular conflict. Columnists don’t really have that kind of power.
However, if we do go to war, and as the possibility inches more closely to probability everyday, I would urge you to at least differentiate your thinking. It is possible to disagree with the actions of an administration, and to even oppose the war itself, and still be a supportive and grateful citizen to those citizens who are fighting.
The man at the front of the congregation talks for about four minutes, urging those of us gathered to not abandon those who are headed into the brink. To remember them in our prayers. To support their sacrificial efforts. To never do anything that would lower their morale.
I miss the man as I search for him in the crowd after the service, and when I try to look him up in the church directory, he is not listed. So I wait for him after church the next Sunday and introduce myself. He tells me that his name is Jesse James.
Of course his name is Jesse James. He looks like John Wayne to me. An older John Wayne. A tired one.
We talk for a while after the service, and I ask him about his war experience. He says he has every medal a soldier could have, except for the Purple Heart.
“My plane got all shot up,” he says. “But I never got a bullet in me once.”
“I’m Irish,” he says in explanation.
He tells me that the most devastating thing to a soldier is the knowledge that his or her country is not supporting those who are fighting. That, for whatever reason, people at home are not thinking and praying.
Most of us have good and moral reasons for our position on the war. Even if the reasons are oppositional. And most of us will not change either our positions or another person’s mind. And that’s ok. Because we live in a society where, unlike Iraq, we are not killed for disagreeing with the leadership.
But whatever your position, I urge you to not abandon those who are headed east right now. We can disagree. But we must not abandon.