Celeste Zappala was one of several speakers at the March 16 Christian Peace Witness for Iraq service at the National Cathedral. This is the prepared text of her message that evening.
Good evening, brothers and sisters in Christ. I am Celeste Zappala, of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia, of Military Families Speak Out, and sadly, of Gold Star Families Speak Out, because I am the mother of a fallen soldier.
My son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, was killed in Baghdad on April 26, 2004. I am here tonight as a witness to the true cost of this war, and I am joined this night by others who have lost their sons to the betrayal and madness that is the war in Iraq.
I honor these young ones:
Alex Carbonaro, son of Gilda and Fulvio
Thomas Sweet, son of Liz and Tom
Alexander Arrandando, son of Carlos and Melida
Please hold these families in prayer.
I have been in this cathedral one other time, and it was for the funeral of Alex Carbonaro in May last year. Hundreds filled the seats you sit in and wept with his wife and his parents. On a beautiful spring day Alex was laid in to the sacred ground of Arlington – and just beyond his grave, the earth was being prepared to receive the bodies of the newly dead and those to come.
Three thousand, two hundred and three American families. We are all part of the ever-growing, sad fellowship of families who have met their worst fear when they opened their front door.
“Are you Sherwood Baker’s mother?” said the man with medals on his chest on the rainy night that death came to my door.
“Yes, I am the mother”- of my sweet and noble son who always made me laugh, who was there if you needed help, and who more people than I could ever have imagined called their best friend.
“Yes, my son” – Sherwood, a musician, a disc jockey, a case worker for mentally challenged adults, a faithful husband, the tenderest father you could ever know, and a soldier in the Pennsylvania National guard.
“Are you Sherwood Baker’s mother?” “Yes,” I said, and fell to the ground, while somewhere outside of myself I heard someone screaming and screaming.
Tonight we are here in the National Cathedral, the altar of the nation. We lay before God the sorrow that lives in us all because of this war. Since Sherwood died protecting the Iraq survey group as they looked for the weapons of mass destruction, 2,483 more American lives have been lost, and how many limbs and how many eyes and how much blood? And what happens to the souls of soldiers who have picked up their friends in pieces, or fearfully fired in to a moving car – to discover a shattered Iraqi family a moment later?
In Iraq, shamefully, no one could say how many children and old people have died. Those counts are only kept in the hearts of those who have loved them – please hold these people in your heart. An Iraqi mother searches a morgue for the familiar curve of the hand of her child beneath a pale sheet; an American father watches his son beheaded on video tape; an Iraqi child wakes up in a shabby hospital in excruciating pain and without his arm; an American girl writes letters to her dead soldier father; a young vet wraps a garden hose around his neck and leaps away from the nightmares that beset him.
And an ocean of tears spreads across both countries, along with the numbers: 1,950 us kids lost a parent, 25,000 wounded and struggling through the VA system, scores and scores of suicides – 500,000 and more dead Iraqis, 2 million refugees …
A wail rises from the throat of all who love these people and shakes our hearts as it reaches for the crucified open arms of Jesus. We are here tonight as the church: Each one of us are witnesses to this war and to our own complicity in it – when were we silent and should have spoken, whose eyes would we not meet to face the truth? Now we are prostrate at this altar, begging, “Lord, help us. War is our failure to love you, and peace is your command. Peace is not the easy way out, its creation is the most confounding – the hardest – thing we can do. Help us.”
We lay our souls – broken, open – before you and question: How do we follow your command to love each other? Surely it can not be by mindlessly sending the children of others off to kill people we do not know.
And though I know nothing, I say: No amount of logic or protest will bring my son back to me, or any of the lost ones home, yet I ask the Lord to help us. We lay this grief before the Lord – our souls broken, open – ready to rise to witness; ready to rise to love God’s world to peace.
Bless you and thank you.