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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The President & The Minister

Part Three in a Series
Part One: They Came to Crawford.
Part Two: Camp Casey and Casey Kelley

The President

In the historical narrative, there exist moments in time that are made profound by what didn't occur rather than what did, where the symbolism of an event overshadows the simplicity of its details. Here, at Camp Casey, at the unlikely confluence of politics and protest, of media and message, such a "non-event" event was about to transpire.

For Cindy Sheehan's simple request was going to be met. The president of the United States was coming to Camp Casey.

Having arrived earlier in the morning and just completed an interview with a protester, I responded to a warning cry saying that the president was on his way to a fundraiser and was due to pass by any minute.

I ran down the service road, turned right and stopped at the top of the triangle to get my bearings. In front of me was a sea of activity.  Everyone was running about, grabbing signs, moving cars, aiming television cameras, raising boom mics, pointing, ordering and  shouting. It reminded me of a film set, complete with actors, directors, extras, cameras and crew preparing to shoot the pivotal on-location scene of an action movie. The pressure was on, however, because, unlike a movie, there would be only one take.

Time was short, so I quickly glanced over the landscape for a vantage point.

The far side of Prairie Chapel Road was immediately ruled out. Access was blocked by waist-high yellow police tape stretched along the camp-side edge of the road. A scattered formation of 10 to 15 officers - some state police, some local, as well as a smattering of agents with  "Secret Service" not so secretly etched in white block letters across their bullet-proof vests - fell into intimidating place on the opposite side of the tape.

Leaning over the stretched yellow barricade from the camp side like anxious extras, the protesters were fidgeting with their hand-made signs, glancing back and forth, awaiting  instructions.

The bottom point of the triangle contained the epicenter of activity where the crew hoped to get the money shot. The three women from the camper were frantically directing and positioning the guest stars, the Gold Star Families for Peace members. Waving their arms and chattering into their head sets, the camper women ordered everyone to stand 10 feet back to allow the throng of press cameras an unfettered view of the leading lady, Cindy Sheehan. She was placed downstage center.

Adding to the symbolic impact of this small moment in time, the mothers clutched the white cross memorials to their fallen sons as though they were the physical manifestation of all their pent-up sorrow, anger and disappointment, a choice no set decorator could have matched.

Even the sun seemed to cooperate, by providing the perfect lighting angle: high, but just a bit behind the cameras to eliminate shadows and allow for crisp, open-aperture footage, the kind that pops off the screen during an otherwise drab, in-studio cable news show.

As if cued by an unseen producer, the helicopter reappeared from seemingly nowhere and hovered high overhead, the blades clacking away, adding to the tension.

As I took my chosen position behind the protesters and up the hill, my caustic mind added the strains of "Adagio for Strings" as a private soundtrack.

All was ready, poised for the final "Action!" from the director.

Then, it happened. Down Prairie Chapel Road, an eerily silent procession of swiftly moving vehicles came snaking into view. Two state police cars, five huge black American-made SUVs with equally black-tinted windows, another police car, an ambulance and three final police cars for good measure, each within a few yards of each other in formation, sped past the taunting protesters, weeping family members, whirring cameras, coiled policemen and, most important of all, a pleading Cindy Sheehan.

This moment in time was over in less than 30 seconds. Sheehan had gotten her wish...sort of.  President Bush did leave his ranch, travel to Camp Casey and, I imagine, saw the grieving mother from Vacaville, Calif. But her longed-for meeting lacked one key detail...he did not stop.

During the next 24 hours, the carefully captured images of this meeting that didn't happen were bounced off countless satellites and broadcasted to millions of people around the world, its symbolism overshadowing the simplicity of its details.

The Minister

As so often happens when events baffle the human spirit, people turn to the comfort of shared ceremony in an attempt to make sense of the senseless. Thus, the second event of the day on Camp Casey's calendar was a non-denominational religious service. Three members of the clergy had accepted an invitation to meet with the families, offer prayers and play host to a hastily assembled tapestry of religious observations. They had arrived that morning and had spent a few short moments developing a game plan.

Immediately following the president's drive-by close encounter, the humble brown grass and dirt of the triangle was transformed into a temporary open-air house of worship. The unscripted service was part prayer, part pain, part purge and completely personal.

I was torn between intruding on an event so obviously meant for others, and giving the grieving families their privacy.  I chose the latter.  I stepped away and witnessed from a short distance the physical residue of shared raw emotion. Hugs, tears and finally kneeling - and in Cindy Sheehan's case, the touch of her fingers to her forehead, then to her heart, then to each of her shoulders in a rite familiar to all Catholics.  I couldn't hear what was said between them all.

I did, however catch the benediction firmly delivered by the youngest of the clergy:

"May God bless you with DISCOMFORT...
At easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships,
SO that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with ANGER...
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless you with TEARS...
To shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war.
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them
And turn their pain into JOY.

An may God bless you with enough FOOLISHNESS...
To believe that you can make a difference in this world,
So that you can DO what others claim cannot be done.


After the service I caught up with the man who delivered the benediction. We were standing in the same soothing shade on the service road where I'd first met Casey Kelley. As I pulled out my notepad, he immediately assumed the demeanor of a man accustomed to being interviewed.

His name was the Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA.

"But I'm also a former six-term, 12-year Congressman from Pennsylvania," he said, almost by rote. He gave the impression that, to him, interviews were a necessary evil.

"As general secretary, I represent 45 million Christians," the minister said. "The National Council of Churches has more than 100,000 local congregations and our members include a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, historic African-American and Living Peace churches.

"I'm also involved with We fight fear, fundamentalism and Fox TV with a commitment to peace, prosperity and the Planet Earth." I raised my eyebrows and asked him to repeat that phrase, because I thought it was something he wanted quoted. He smiled and did so slowly. He was warming up.

"We raised over $200,000 to shoot and run a 30-second television commercial apologizing for the prison abuse at Abu Ghraib." Edgar said, and then he leaned in for emphasis. "We ran it exclusively on Arab television stations."

Why did such a busy man come to Crawford?

Softening his tone, he said simply, "Because Celeste Zappala emailed me and asked. I had met with her after she had lost her son. She's one of the founders of Gold Star." He paused and wiped his face with a handkerchief.

I asked him how she was doing.  He inhaled to speak, then stopped. After a short moment, he told me a story.

"I have a friend who is a minister who years ago lost a son to AIDS. I saw my friend recently and asked him how he was doing, and he said, `I wish I had had this tragic death earlier in my ministry. You see, I always thought death would heal in a month or two, but even now, everywhere I go and everything I do, I am reminded of my son. How am I doing?  I'm a better minister now, because I know the wound never completely heals.'"

I looked up from my pad and silently thanked the Rev. Edgar. He nodded and walked down the road to join his friend - and the reason for his presence in Crawford, Texas.  

Rev. Edgar and Celeste Zapalla

Part Four - Mothers and Daughters and Sisters.

Special Contributions from the following ePluribus Media members:
SusanG, Peg Keeler (bedarra), Standingup, Cho, Timroff

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