Remembering the Holy Innocents

Remarks for Children of War Candlelight Service December 28, 2012 by Steve Clemens
Children are our most precious resource. They are our future as well as reminders of our past. They embody our hopes yet their vulnerability makes them available prey for those who seek domination over others.
Ten years ago this evening, Peter Thompson and I were here showing photos of Iraqi children we had met – having just returned from Baghdad three months before our war-of-choice began. We don’t know the fate of most of those children but all of them had their lives severely impacted by the actions of our nation and its military machine. So part of me comes with a heavy heart tonight, remembering their smiling faces, their eagerness to have their photos taken – wondering if they were allowed to make it to their teens and early 20s, and if so, with what physical, emotional, and psychological scars?
So the opportunity presented itself this year to return to Iraq, now that most of the US troops are gone and we are no longer at a state of war with them (although war was never declared – small comfort to those on the receiving end of bombs and bullets); some of us received a beautiful engraved invitation from the Governor of the Province of Najaf. My immediate response was “let’s go!” Originally planned for March, it didn’t happen until November after messages of disappointment that the cultural celebration we were invited to participate in had been postponed and then canceled.
Many of you know that Minneapolis is a Sister City with one of the largest cities in Iraq, the holy city of Najaf. This city is about two hour’s drive from the capital city of Baghdad and has an older, neighboring city, Kufa, which lies on the Euphrates River making it very similar to our own Twin Cities. Najaf is home to the world’s largest cemetery because it is also the location of a shrine to one of Islam’s most revered leaders, Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and many devout Shia Muslims wish to be buried near his shrine. The photos being shown tonight were taken in the Province of Najaf at schools and neighborhoods I visited last month with friends from the Iraqi & American Reconciliation Project.
When we hear the Bible story of the birth of Jesus, what follows quickly is a story of the visit of “Wise Men from the East” who have heard of a special child being born. Empires are always fearful about anyone who could disrupt the present order, especially the potential of other leaders arising who could contest their domination of others. Herod, the King appointed as a vassal ruler for the Roman occupiers of the land we now know as Palestine and Israel, owed his power and wealth to the Romans and would tolerate no opposition. If “Wise Men” traveled a great distance to “worship” at the birth of a new leader, this baby was a threat unless he was part of Herod’s “royal” family. Therefore, an order goes out from the palace to kill all the newborns. Joseph and Mary, having been warned in their dreams, quickly take their infant son out of the country. But, the story goes, many infant children did not escape the terror of an empire bent on keeping power over others – even if the victims were children under the age of two!
Many here tonight know about the war against Iraq in 1991 that was followed by 13 years of brutal economic sanctions against the Iraqi people. Some of you know how those economic sanctions destroyed much of Iraq’s economy, devaluing the currency to such a drastic degree that many children dropped out of school to try to earn a little money to help feed their families. Iraq lost many, many children, a whole generation to that cruel policy kept in place by the US and British governments. United Nations experts estimated that more than ½ million children died unnecessarily because of those policies. This service tonight is the 15th year we have gathered to remember the young victims of war. It was that cruel, relentless policy of economic sanctions which led Marie and others to begin this service of remembrance and reflection. Tonight, even as we gather, those economic sanctions are now directed toward new victims in Iran.
Most Americans think the second Iraq War is over since most US troops left Iraq last December. The past several years had witnessed far fewer deaths than the period of intense fighting by people labeled as “insurgents” which occurred primarily during 2005 to 2007. But the aftermath of war and the chaos following the devastating destruction of the nation’s infrastructure continues. Despite billions and billions of US tax dollars squandered under the promise to rebuild Iraq into a flowering democracy, there still is only intermittent electricity available from the national electrical grid which must be supplemented by neighborhood generators, privately owned, and sold to those who can afford the greatly additional charges. The water flowing from the taps is polluted and contaminated, a toxic stew for the poor who can’t afford the cost of a water-filtering device and the weekly and monthly costs of replacing filters.
But less I paint too dark a picture, there was another startling sight: Iraqis who had every right to sneer and scorn visitors from the nation which had visited them with such wanton destruction welcomed us last month with not only open arms but warm hearts. We were lavished with so much food and affection we felt like royalty. The fact that we came unarmed, as friends rather than conquerors, was deeply appreciated. I could go on about our visit but that will have to happen another time since our focus tonight is on the children.
Many of the children we met when visiting schools where the Muslim Peacemaker Team had installed water filters had not even been born before the US campaign of “Shock and Awe”. They never lived under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Although the effects of war linger, they are no longer victims but survivors who need and want partnerships with us. The older high school students and young adults in the colleges we visited were eager to try out their English with us. Many are seeking exchange programs to study abroad to widen their horizons. But there remain many challenges. Visas to come to the US are very difficult to come by and the cost is prohibitive for most who continue to struggle economically.
In a poor neighborhood we visited, the families lived in “homes” they were allowed to build as squatters - but they did not own the ground under those structures. A family that graciously welcomed us in apologized when the lights went out so we were forced to meet outside so we could see one another. As the men sat and discussed in one area, the women and children gathered by their kitchen area where they learned that some of the children did not attend school because they couldn’t afford the “uniform”-dress expected of them. 
This year, however, the thoughts of many Americans will be focused on the 20 innocent children gunned down at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut two weeks ago. And we should mourn their loss as well as the teachers and other adult school staff. Maybe this loss will help us as a people gain empathy for the other Holy Innocents victimized each week in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere by un-manned aerial vehicles, drones, with the names of Predator and Reaper as though they are part of nature’s own cycle of life and death rather than the macabre machinery of military domination.
The Biblical story of King Herod killing the Holy Innocents in his frantic attempt to destroy any possible competition to his political rule is how all empires react to threats they perceive. If we wish to stand with the Holy Innocents, we must stand in opposition to empire, the creator of more victims. The candles we light are reminders that even in the midst of darkness, we are called to bear witness to the light we have been given. Quakers are known for reminding us that everyone has a spark, a glimmer, a light within – that of God or the divine within each of us. May we fan, feed, nurture that spark within us, within each other as we remember the lives lost, the futures squandered, the hopes dashed by war and help us to recommit to stand with the survivors demanding an end to the violence – especially that visited on children. 
We remember the survivors of the empire’s violence – first Moses, escaping from the decree of the Pharaoh to kill all male Hebrew children, then Jesus, being taken to Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod; they were survivors. These children whose photos you see are also survivors. May we stand with them as we say a loud “No!” to those who seek to do them harm.

Prepare the Way

Prepare the Way. Shared Word for CSM. Second Sunday in Advent, Dec 9, 2012 by Steve Clemens
Luke 1:68-79 (Song of Zechariah)
68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because God has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 God has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David
70 (as God said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant,
73     the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear
75     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Philippians 1:3-11
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in prison or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Luke 3:1-6
3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

The Song of Zechariah, father of John the Baptizer, tells us of a rising sun which will “shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death”. Tomorrow, December 10th, is identified as International Human Rights Day and my friends in Afghanistan, the Afghan Peace Volunteers, have asked us to petition the United Nations to call for a ceasefire by all parties in the war in Afghanistan as well as taking the time to remember and mourn all the victims of war in Afghanistan over the past 33 years since the invasion of Soviet forces followed by the mujahedeen, the Warlords, the Taliban, and now the US and NATO troops. “We are tired of the killing,” they told me last Spring when I traveled to Kabul to plant trees with them.

The shadow of death: is there not a more accurate description of US unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, with the names of Predator and Raptor? Flying at great heights and visiting death and destruction on unsuspecting human targets, these killing machines purposefully sow fear and terror into the hearts and minds of those on the receiving end. It gives a whole new meaning to an Advent, a time of waiting in anticipation. Zechariah knew something about the need for deliverance from an occupying enemy – the Roman occupiers not only had troops in the Jewish homeland but had also a hand in appointing Herod and Pontius Pilate as political rulers and even the religious authorities, the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas. John the Baptizer was called to be the one to prepare the way for one who could “rescue them from the hand of their enemies”. But Zechariah’s song ends with the plea to “guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Most of us know the John the Baptist story from Sunday School – how he was imprisoned for his seditious talk. Our second reading from Philippians reminds us that another messenger is in prison: Paul is writing to this small outpost of believers in Philippi from his prison cell reminding his readers that they be filled with love as they discern what is best. Last week was the time my friend Brian Terrell, a Catholic Worker from Iowa, was ordered to report to the Federal Prison in Yankton, SD for his 6-month sentence. He was convicted for his nonviolent protest of the training of drone pilots at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri earlier this year. Brian was guilty of trying to warn the military personnel of the illegality of these weapons under International Laws but his voice, like one crying in the wilderness of US courtrooms fell on deaf ears. “He who has ears to hear …” but the words fall to the ground when deafness is chosen out of fear or arrogance. So his nonviolent witness will have to speak through his action at Whiteman as well as his presence in prison.

Brian Terrell isn’t the only prophet in prison. Last week also marked the first time Bradley Manning was allowed to speak in a US Courtroom after more than two years of imprisonment, 9 months of which in solitary conditions that met the definition of torture according to a United Nations rapporteur who was denied access to him. All this because he dared to bring to light the shameful deeds our nation has committed in darkness. When one blows the whistle on the lies of war, expect the wrath of the government to be visited on you. Again, not the type of visitation we wait for in our time of Advent.

But for those of us who were able to hear Bill McKibben a week ago speaking about the math of climate change, he too had a story of imprisonment for trying to bring the crisis of fossil fuels and their carbon emissions to the attention of the President during the summer of 2011. McKibben’s three days in the DC jail ironically brought much more attention to the protest than had there been no arrests at all. His friend Gus Spaeth told Bill through the cell bars that this time in jail was the most important thing he had done in his life – someone who advised Presidents, chaired committees, and had received numerous awards and recognition as Dean of the Yale Environment Studies Program, founder of the National Resources Defense Council and President Carter’s Environmental Advisor. Both men, sitting in jail, hoping and working for that spark which can light a fire for the environmental movement. A time of waiting – but being active while one waits.

Last Saturday I saw a movie, 5 Broken Cameras, documenting the nonviolent resistance of the people of Bil’in in occupied Palestine. The filmmaker as well as his brothers were dragged off to Israeli jails. His cameras were “broken” when they were hit by bullets, tear gas canisters, or fell to the ground as the cameraman was being beaten by Israeli troops.  They recognized that being jailed, shot, and possibly killed were and are a matter of course when one seeks justice in the face of illegal Israeli settlements, destruction of olive trees, and the crushing of Palestinian hopes. They, too, wait in expectation of being rescued from one’s enemies.

Our reading from Luke chapter 3 doesn’t include the words that Matthew’s Gospel does about the content of John the Baptizer’s message: “Repent, for the Kingdom or reign of God is at hand.” Clarence Jordan in his Cotton Patch translation used to say, “Change your whole way of thinking because God’s new order of the Spirit is impinging upon you.”

That is our message for Advent today. Change your whole way of thinking (and acting) because the new order is based on very different values and ideas. The new order doesn’t need drones or prisons. The new order redefines who is our neighbor, what is “security”, how to relate to an “enemy”. We see that metamorphosis, that metanonia (the Greek word translated as “repent”), in the lives and actions of my Muslim friends, the Afghan Peace Volunteers, my Catholic Worker friend, Brian Terrell, our environmental prophet, Bill McKibben, and the whistle-blowing actions of Brad Manning. The old order, the old way of domination and fear is giving way to a new reality, the in-breaking of the reign of God. These folk are helping prepare the way, just as the life and message of John did for Jesus. We remember John’s fate at the hand of Herod and we better be ready for a similar fate at the hands of the empire today if we decide to Prepare the Way for the nonviolent Christ-child to disrupt and re-order our lives. 

John’s Gospel tells us, “A light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not understand it.” What better a description for the vote a week ago in the United Nations where the US voted against a resolution in support for more recognition of a Palestinian State. Ambassador Susan Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dissembled, justifying the negative vote by claiming that all this needs to be “negotiated” between Israel and the Palestinians, knowing full well that the Netanyahu government has absolutely no intention of stopping more illegal settlements and then rejecting any “preconditions” for negotiations. So it is up to us to help shine a light into this darkness. And there is so much darkness surrounding us tonight: an environment under assault, the people of Palestine and Israel living in fear and terror, whistle-blowers in prison and facing the possibility of decades before any possible release, the hum of drones prowling the skies overhead, the continued military occupation under the guise of humanitarian intervention. And more.

As a sign of our commitment to be people of hope and resistance, I invite all of you to light a candle with me in solidarity with the Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul and Bamiyan Province in Afghanistan, remembering all the victims of war but also to determine to help shine a light into our present darkness. After our songs and prayers, I invite you to light your candle from the Advent wreath and then join together to send a message of love and peace across the 6,873 miles and 10 ½ time zones to Abdulai and Ghulami, Zahra and Sharbanoo, Basir and Hakim and the many others waiting this Advent for an end to the war, the terror from the skies, the fear of bombs and IEDs, and the grinding misogyny enforced under the guise of religion. May our active waiting also embody a sign of hope and solidarity for them. May it be so.       

Farewell to Iraq, Day 12

Farewell to My Friends in Iraq: Day 12 by Steve Clemens

We deliberately left the last day fairly unscheduled so we could begin the process of packing – especially all the gifts we were given by the Iraqis we met. We’ve been given pens, keychains, a mirror, a crystalline sculpture, books, jewelry, prayer beads and holy Karbala mud-stones. I purchased an Iraqi flag for the student we help support at Augsburg College as well as a wall map of Iraq – labeled all in Arabic. I’ve gotten a few other small gifts but I’d rather leave any extra money I have for the work of the Muslim Peacemaker Team.

I tell my friends before another Iraqi delegation comes to Minneapolis, I will have to take a convoy driving class and practice lurching forward, slamming on the brakes, blowing the car horn, nosing out other vehicles and totally ignoring all traffic lanes – all to make our Iraqi visitors feel at home once they are in the Twin Cities. This trip has been very instructive to those of us on the IARP Board to realize how over-structured we’ve scheduled our guests when they are in Minnesota. After feeling we had little time to catch our breath here, we now have a much better understanding of the rigors we’ve put others through, especially after the recovery period from jet-lag.

It will take me some time to reflect and collect my thoughts about this experience. We’ve witnessed both some of the challenges our friends encounter as well as the myriad harbingers of hope. Najaf is both very conservative and relatively safe so it is difficult to see it as the same as the entire country. Certainly listening to Cathy Breen’s stories of visiting friends she made before the war or as refugees who have now returned has been quite sobering. Yet despite those obstacles, she still has been overwhelmed by her gracious acceptance into many homes and workplaces. The fact that she has been able to travel alone (with the help of MPT) is testament to both her fortitude, courage, and determination. Her Catholic Worker experience in New York City has helped her cope in a multitude of situations.

We’ve benefited by being an eclectic delegation for this trial run. Fletcher and Joan Hinds from Duluth brought both their experience with Kurdish delegations but also Fletcher’s high energy and ability to connect with others, especially some of the young male drivers we’ve had these 12 days. David Smith’s encyclopedic knowledge of world religions as well as Biblical history has helped all of us get a better picture from the times of Nebuchadnezzar  and Ezekiel, the Tower of Babel and early Jewish and Christian history here to couple what we are learning of Islamic and Arabic history. Joan Haan has been a godsend in connecting with new people and Deborah Kalin’s passion for the empowerment of women and her determination to help document this delegation’s experience on video are valuable additions. And Kathy McKay, the organizer, spokesperson, and leader of our group has been freeing for all of us. But none of this could have happened without the planning and commitment of Sami Rasouli and his colleagues from MPT.

We will all bring back our unique perspectives and interpretations of what we experienced here. An obvious next step is to help nurture the budding partnerships with educational intuitions both here and there as well as new business ventures and potential NGO collaborations. People in Najaf are ready to move on from the Saddam era as well as the disastrous wars and sanctions. Highway intersections are under construction, new hotels, restaurants, housing, and other developments are evident all over - yet there still is the deficit of reliable electricity, potable water, trash pick-up and disposal, … Questions about corruption in the government linger as many fear a culture of favoritism continues – only with new faces replacing Saddam or tribal sheiks. At least from our perspective, the challenges for women in the culture are significant if not monumental.

But what sticks out most for me are the broad, genuine smiles, the hugs, the kissing on the cheeks (although strictly along same gender lines!) when we connect with those who had the courage to visit us first. We have been welcomed, honored, and appreciated –so, whatever the challenges, the human spirit is rising to the occasion. I hope it will not be another 10 years before I am able to return to further experience this land and her people. If we are “sisters” as cities, we need to continue to deepen the relationship. Maybe next Spring, another delegation will come? 

Day 11: Moving From Generosity to Abundance

Abundance Beyond Generosity: On The Road to Babylon on Day 11 by Steve Clemens

It was raining this morning as we left for the city of Hilla and the nearby ruins of Babylon. We were riding in a 20+ passenger bus with members of the Muslim Peacemaker Team as we headed about 45 minutes north of Najaf. Deborah, a delegate from Boston had asked Sami Rasouli a question about the structure of the Arabic language in comparison to English. Sami was explaining the difference between a “request” and an “order” when someone is asking another to do something and the conversation flowed into a discussion about our differing cultures. Because of his long-time experience both as an American and an Iraqi, Sami has been an ideal guide in helping us navigate between the two cultures on this journey of reconciliation.

Sami started talking about the culture of generosity in Iraq and gave this illustration: many individuals have approached him about hosting our American delegation. Some want generously want to take us to a restaurant and buy us a meal. The restaurant might be even a five-star rated establishment but you will still order only one meal each when you are there. Other Iraqis have asked to host us in their homes. Even though our delegation is only 7 foreigners and are accompanied by as many as 7 additional MPT members, one host had made enough food to serve 100 people! That is abundance. The host not only has welcomed us into his home, already a gesture of honor and respect, but in providing so much food so no one could possibly go hungry communicates a measure of abundance which flows out of his hospitality.

The host and his family did not eat with us – they waited until his honored guests had their fill and only then, as we gathered in another room for fruit, sweets, and tea, did the family members eat. Sami tells us that other Iraqis are vying for the opportunity to host us, outdoing one another. Here in a land without reliable energy from the national grid or clean enough water from the local treatment plant one might expect a culture of scarcity and protecting what you’ve gotten already. Of course there is some of that; Iraqis are humans and humans often fall short of the goals set by themselves and others.

We witnessed the flip side to abundance as we stopped to visit the tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel of Hebrew Bible fame. It is located in a small town between Hilla and Najaf. The grab for power and the use of authority to exercise that power over others depends on scarcity rather than abundance. After walking through the souk to get to the path to get to the site where the bones of the Old Testament prophet, exiled to Babylon, were buried, our group was halted by an Iraqi policeman who told us we couldn’t enter. After an animated back and forth between Sami, Ishan (an MPT member) and the three policeman who gathered, Sami tells us we must leave for our own security.

After returning to the bus, Sami tells us the policeman noted there were foreigners in our group and this local policeman wanted to exercise his authority by being able to tell us “No!” The excuse given was that the tomb was under repair and they were afraid we’d take pictures and make it look like the Iraqis weren’t preserving this historical site properly. Sami speculated however that the real reason might be because he saw foreigners and we might be Jews because many of the foreigners visiting are Jews. Despite all the deference given to “People of the Book” by those promoting inter-faith dialog, many ordinary Iraqis, just like typical Americans, are often influenced by negative stereotypes promoted by the media or politicians.

Another classic example of power rather than generosity/abundance was very evident at the ruins of Babylon. Across the Euphrates River, on a hill overlooking the partially excavated site of one of the most famous cities in the world, is a palace constructed by Saddam Hussein. That megalomaniac fancied himself as the new Nebuchadnezzar, and he promoted himself as the Lion of Babylon. After all, he had much of the wall of the city rebuilt during his reign to the dismay and scorn of real archeologists who wrote off the work as inauthentic. Even some of the bricks are inscribed with Saddam’s handwriting in a way to mimic the real bricks that have writing dating back to Nebuchadnezzar’s age. For Saddam, ruling a country with an iron fist wasn’t enough – he imagined himself as an historical figure. Maybe he is correct: he’s now viewed historically as someone who produced great and lasting danger and destruction to his own country.  

But let us return to abundance. Sami is a great storyteller. He regaled us with an account of a US soldier and a Najafi civilian resident. After an encounter at a checkpoint, the man from Najaf invited the American soldier to visit him in his home – provided he came without his uniform or his gun. When the American arrived, the Najafi invited others of his friends to come meet the American. They clambered to invite him into their own homes – again with the same conditions, no weapons, no uniform. He was feted with tea and the Iraqi hospitality and he left realizing that “the enemy” was just like himself. When the soldier returned to his barracks, he told his fellow troops about his experience and he was quickly disciplined and removed from that base. If you question who is the enemy, you can no longer be trusted to follow orders is the presumption made by officers in charge. After all, if the enemy is one you can break bread with, they actually become human rather than stereotypes. Thus abundance, generosity acted upon becomes the heart and soul of nonviolence.

Generosity. Day 10 in Iraq

Generosity: Iraq Day 10 by Steve Clemens

The dinner was held in one of Najaf’s best restaurants according to the former owner of Sinbad’s in south Minneapolis who sold his business to return to help his home nation rebuild during the war. Sami Rasouli and another member of his Muslim Peacemaker Team escorted us to the Holy Shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, about an hours drive north of Najaf if one doesn’t allow for the 4-5 checkpoints we must encounter on the 80 kilometer trip. After returning to Najaf and seated at the restaurant, Joan and I were chatting with Mohammed across the table. Mohammed mentioned to me that he had liked what I had written in my blogs which he found cross-posted on my Facebook page and then asked Joan if the “Joan Haan” on his Facebook search was her page. After she affirmed that she was, he sent her a “friend request” and they were connected on Facebook.

Joan, in her direct manner, looked at Mohammed and asked him why his name appeared as “Eng Mohammed” on her screen, commenting that it was a name she hadn’t heard before in Arabic. I said I thought it stood for “engineer” and Mohammed laughed and said, “Yes, I’m an engineer”. With so many Mohammeds, Alis, Ahmeds, etc here, other abbreviations are in order - just like one of my other new friends, Ahmed, who has tacked “Pre” on to his Facebook name because he is a Petrochemical Resources Engineer in his paying job. Then Joan suggested we talk face-to-face rather than text each other across the table. Light-hearted conversation continued through the meal and it wasn’t until the tea was served that conversation for us got serious very quickly.

Our host, a very successful contractor who has made a significant amount of money recently in helping rebuild Najaf since 2004, stood up as Sami translated. The first words were quite shocking to me: “Before you came here, the US was known as the #1 killer of Iraqis. But you came in peace. And today you did the most difficult thing in taking the time and effort to visit the Shrine of Imam Hussein. It shows that you come as friends and God is bringing us all closer together. Now children and adults [here in Najaf] can see a new face of Americans. You came and provided water filters with Sami under the Water For Peace, you sent letters to schoolchildren. Now reconciliation is happening.”

Joan leaned over the table to have better eye contact with our host. “Actually you, with your words to us have initiated this reconciliation with us. And we are so very grateful for your kind words.” All of us in the delegation are acutely aware of how dangerous this reconciling work can be – for both sides. There are those who want to keep us apart, who profit by our animosity and the weapons produced to “protect” ourselves from the other. For Iraqis, they risk being seen as collaborators with the nation whose “Shock and Awe” campaign was designed to force an immediate cowering surrender. For American peacemakers, we risk getting identified with “Muslims”, “terrorists”, and the “other”.

Only as we reach out and offer the olive branch to each other, to look across the table and see the other as our sister, our brother can that healing salve of reconciliation be allowed to help relieve the festering boil of resentment and retaliation. “Reconciliation is now happening”, our host continued. “You’ve come here to help us [with water filters, letters for peace, …], now that Sami has helped me secure a visa [for travel to the US], maybe I can come to your country and help you.” He continued, remarking about people losing homes to foreclosure and other ills in the US.

And then he gave us the invitation: next time, don’t wait for the Governor’s invitation. You don’t even need to contact the Governor – I’m inviting you, I’ll put you up. I want you to return –soon!

It was a long day. The trip to Karbala dusty. I was tired, full, ready to stretch out on my bed and think about what I could write for my blog today. In those brief minutes, with those heartfelt words, I/we were revived. Sami said in his translation, “His heart is full of love and he just keeps repeating how glad he is to be here with you.” This is what the Iraqi & American Reconciliation Project is all about: getting on with the business of healing peoples whose heart has been broken and now want to be whole again. Thank you Hussein for opening your heart to us. May we always be ready to reciprocate in kind.