2016-07-27
Celeste Zappala, a lifelong Methodist, is a member of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, in Philadelphia, and co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace. Her son, Sherwood Baker, a sergeant in the Pennsylvania National Guard, arrived in Baghdad at the beginning of 2004, serving as a member of the military security detail for the Iraq Survey Group, which was looking for weapons of mass destruction. On April 24, 2004, Sgt. Baker's unit was in Baghdad inspecting buildings when the building he was in exploded, killing him. He was 30 years old.

Talk about your son who was killed in Iraq.

Sherwood Baker came to me on Veteran's Day in 1974. He had been abandoned by his biological family, so I always say that by a random series of blessings, he became my son. He was a year old.

He joined the National Guard in 1997. At that point, he was living in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He had gone to college there and married and had a child there. He was a nursery school teacher, making next to nothing, and needed help paying off his college loans. Also, we raised our kids to be really responsible people, and to be civic-minded.

He had been sand-bagging with National Guardsman during a flood. He liked the guys, and they talked to him and recruited him. And when we talked over the idea of enlisting in the Guard, I said, this is hard, because I'm a peace activist, and that's the way Sherwood and my other two sons were raised. But he kept saying, "Mom, don't worry, the National Guard doesn't go to foreign wars. They're just here for floods and fires and disasters and riots. The worst thing that could happen is I'd have to arrest you." He also said that no Pennsylvania National Guard had been lost in combat since 1945. And he was the first.


Was Sherwood a practicing Christian?

He belonged to the Methodist Church up there [in Wilkes-Barre]. He wasn't a big attender, but he was married by a Methodist clergywoman, and whenever he was home, he went to the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, our family church.

That's the church you currently attend?

I came home today [from Texas] and rather than delaying my flight til later today, I came home last night so that I could attend church [there] this morning, because I really needed to be back at the well. And I realized how much I stand in the sanctuary of that church with everything I do. The courage it gives, the comfort it gives-I'm so grateful for my church community, and for the things I've learned from them, from the way we stand with each other and help each other and try to be God's people.

My son's oath
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  • Did Sherwood see his service in Iraq as a matter of God's will?

    No, I think what he saw was in some sense-he had taken an oath. And for Sherwood, the taking of an oath was extraordinarily serious. And we talked to him about it, and he said, "I took an oath before God" [in joining the National Guard].

    So fidelity to that promise was what made him willing to go to Iraq, even though that was not what he intended to do when he joined?

    Exactly. He knew how we felt. We never argued; we didn't talk politics with him. We couldn't burden him. He told us he had to keep a clear mind and do the job that he had to do and come home safely. And he wasn't anxious to go, but he was a big man [here, her voice breaks], and he had a job he was going to do, and he was going to try to do it as best as he could. And we promised him that we would look after his family. And we would stand with him.

    How old is his child?

    He's now 10.

    How did this tragedy in your life affect your founding of Gold Star Families for Peace?

    Right after Sherwood was deployed, which was January '04, I learned of the organization called Military Families Speak Out, which is an organization of 2,500 families with loved ones in Iraq or who have served in Iraq. I contacted them, and they are amazing people. Nancy Lessing and Charlie Richardson are parents of a young military man who has since come and gone [on his tour of duty in Iraq] and come home alive. But they with others started this organization, and they are really the best organizing people I've ever known. And this organization has grown and grown, and it turned out that others who have lost people in Iraq have become attached to Military Families Speak Out.


    And we met these others: Lyla Lipscomb, Cindy Sheehan, Bill Mitchell, Sue Neiderer, Jane Bright. And through a lot of activities we were doing in the fall, we were seeing each other at various demonstrations and speeches, and before Christmas, Cindy said she thought it would be a good idea to have an organization of Gold Star Families, and we came up with the name Gold Star Families for Peace.

    Eveything is done on the move. We started e-mailing each other, we set up a web site, and Cindy' sister took over the website. And there was no formality to it; it was a collection of people who were united in grief and commitment. And other people who had lost their kids joined up with us, and we made it open, so that people who had lost children in other wars could be part of it too. So we have a couple of Vietnam folks, and one World War II.

    The Scripture that sustains me
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  • How has your understanding of your faith affected your work with the organization?

    I'm probably the most religious person in the bunch. And for me-I try really hard to make it so that my faith defines my life. I'm a very imperfect being, I'll tell you. But I try hard. So entering this activity to try to bring an end to the war, speak the truth, and bring peace-this is not a job that you take on by yourself (she laughs). So I'm always praying and asking for God's direction, looking for signs, listening to my faith community. What I try to bring to my work is a spiritual voice, as best as I can.

    I get angry, and I get flippant, but this is the Scripture I hold on to: "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

    George Bush, like you, identifies himself as a Methodist. How do you think it's possible for the two of you to see your faith so differently?

    My most Christian answer on this: I guess we all have to examine our conscience. We're called to look in our hearts and follow our truth. That's all I can do; I can't speak for George Bush.

    You recently returned from Crawford, Texas, where you joined your fellow co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace, Cindy Sheehan, in the vigil outside President Bush's ranch, where you are attempting to get the president to meet with you to explain what noble cause your sons died for.


    It's been reported that you lost your luggage on the way down.


    I lost track of my luggage because on the flight from Philadelphia to Dallas I had it in my head that I had to get a Bible. I got off the plane and started looking for a bookstore, and I thought my son was looking after it, and he thought I had it. By the time we realized I didn't, the plane was gone. I arrived in Crawford with just my purse and a Bible. There was a message in that. I'm still working it out, but there was definitely a message there.

    Cindy Sheehan has, by now famously, been quoted as saying that when she met with President Bush last summer, she could see he was a "man of faith." Putting aside the politicization of that statement that's taken place recently, do you think it is possible for a person of faith to hold the positions that the president holds? For example, his critics describe his lack of humility or willingness to admit there have been any mistakes in the Iraq war.

    That's tough. Is it possible to be a person of faith and hold his positions? I believe that line of Scripture-to walk humbly, is the most important part. Because you can't hear others if you're not humble. And I try not to be self-righteous, honest to God. I really work at that and struggle with that.

    What I would say to George Bush
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  • If you met with George Bush, what would you say?

    I guess it would depend upon how long he was willing to listen to me. First, I would want him to know about my son, and have some idea of what it meant to lose him, not just for our family but for the future. I can't help but think of the future of all these young people we've lost. We're losing the best Americans [her voice breaks]-the brave, the good, the true. Who would they have been?

    I wrote a poem talking bout what light they would have given the world. I wrote it in July 2004, when the number had reached 900. Today, God help us, the number has reached 1,853.

    At the time of the 2001 inauguration, journalists trying to understand George Bush's Christian faith and how it would affect his presidency talked with ministers who had a role in his religious life. One of them, Rev. Mark Craig, of the Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, compared Bush to Moses, saying he had "brought healing and hope to the young, to the elderly, to the marginalized, to the dispossessed. That's what Moses did." And he went on to say that just as Moses was chosen by God, "Bush was chosen by God to lead the people." What do you make of that?

    I wonder if he still feels the same way. We all need to be humble enough to be able to change our opinions.

    I give that allegiance to Jesus. I don't know that I would give that description to any human being, that he was the anointed leader. I think that Jesus works through all of us in community. I really believe that it is in listening to each other, and encouraging each other's truths, and in working to be the beloved community. That's how I think God works through us. I just take a different view of anointed leadership.


    As Bob Edgar (of the National Council of Churches), who was with us in Crawford on Friday, praying with us, said a little prayer as we were huddled together, "We're the leaders we've been waiting for." And I keep thinking about the song [by Sweet Honey in the Rock] that says, "We are the ones we've been waiting for," and I think that's true.

    When you're in a moment, and you've got work to do, then you have to step up and do the work. That might entail leadership; so be it. Try to step up to it. I wouldn't think it anything other than an opportunity from the Creator; I wouldn't necessarily think of it as an anointment.

    So you don't think of it as a matter of divine selection of an individual to lead?

    I think we're all divinely inspired. It's a matter of whether we listen to that inspiration.

    Describe the prayer service that took place outside the president's ranch in Crawford on Aug. 12.

    It was an amazing event. The clergy were all Methodists. Because I'm a Methodist, and Bob Edgar, from the National Council of Churches, is a Methodist, we were able to tap into the Methodist network. At yesterday's rally [Aug. 13], we were also joined by George Regas, an Episcopal bishop from Pasadena, California, and a retired Methodist bishop. And the Rev. Diane Baker, who is a clergyperson of the United Church of Christ, in Texas. They traveled in, because I had put out a request through my denomination.

    So Bob, and Andrew Weaver , also a United Methodist pastor and writer about pastoral care, came down, and came to the camp site. Everyone was waiting for the presidential motorcade to go by taking the President to his $2 million fund-raiser [at a ranch down the road]. After the fund-raiser cars went by, we stepped back and had worship. We read the 46th psalm, and the Beatitudes, and Bob offered a prayer. We offered a little bit of quiet prayer; then we shared bread. And then we walked among the 500 wooden crosses that had been set up along the side of the road and we sang "Spirit of the Living God." At one point, we all knelt in silence for about two minutes.

    It was so important, and I think so healing to so many people. It is a kind of a circus [at the vigil in Crawford]; there is a frenzy. There are media trucks, cell phones, craziness; emotions are so intense. But having that silence, that prayerfulness, I think uplifted so many people. And we've got to keep our focus and it gave me strength. I'm so uplifted and so grateful. And I know a lot of other people there were, too. There are a lot of people there who are not necessarily religious-they're there for a million reasons, but they respect that power.

    Did George Bush have any idea that people were praying when he drove past?

    I doubt it. When we were passing, some people were shouting, but we were singing "We are gentle, loving people, and we are singing, singing for our lives."

    Did you notify the ranch that there was going to be a prayer service?

    We had put a press release out earlier, but they were not paying attention to us. It is my hope that the religious community will take a real, strong voice, because how are we going to get to peace unless the religious community is working toward this end. It's a really good time for folks to take their spirit positions.

    What do you think about the interfaith component of what you're doing?

    I'm grateful for all the faithful people, even if they don't deem themselves religious. I think that it's the spiritual power that is guiding what we do. I have spoken at Mishkan Shalom, the progressive, Reconstructionist Jewish congregation in Philadelphia. Our hearts are in the same place. And I have vigiled with the Catholic workers in Philadelphia. And I have been with the School of the Americas Watch. I work with the American Friends Service Committee, traveling with their Empty Boots display, I've been in a number of cities with them. That's where I find I can work-in the community in which I can define myself.

    Regarding the possibility of forgiveness. If you did have the opportunity to meet with George Bush, given that you consider the war in Iraq an unjustifiable war, what would your feeling be about forgiveness? Is it an important thing to strive for?

    Don't you think that forgiveness is a two-way street? Foregiveness involves both parties encountering the offense. That would have to happen.

    You said in your op-ed article in the Aug. 14 New York Daily News that as a Christian, you believe in miracles. Was the implication that you think it will take a miracle to end the war?

    No, the implication was that I think that people are capable of more than they are capable of. And Bob Edgar said that in his prayer, in closing, "I have no doubt that the President will meet with them soon, because he is a good man who knows that it is the right and compassionate thing to do. The President has said that he is also pained by the tragedy of death and injury in war, and our pastoral advice to him is that he will be greatly strengthened by this opportunity for dialog with those who have made the sacrifice."

    Wouldn't it be miraculous if there were an honest and real conversation? Wouldn't it be miraculous if this crazy little thing [the vigil in Crawford] works? And I have to tell you, one of the things I think of a lot, whenever I'm in demonstrations or vigils-I look around me and I think, "Jeez Louise, who are these people I'm standing here with?" And then I think, I wonder what it felt like when people were following Jesus? I wonder what it felt like roaming the streets of Jerusalem-raggedy bands of people, some of whom were crazy and some of whom were optimists, and some of whom were desperate to see the Messiah. People who were just going on their good will and their hope. And then I think, here we are again. We're trying to follow the spirit of Jesus again. And I think, here we are again: We're the two and the three, aren't we? And we're just as crazy, flawed and here we are, Lord.

    Are there particular spiritual practices that sustain you through this difficult time?

    Yes. There are some people who served in the American Friends Service Committee in Baghdad up until July of last year, Mary Trotochaud and her husband, Rick McDowell. They are such courageous, wonderful folks. They were doing their work in Baghdad. I gave a speech about the incident in which my son was killed, and afterward, Mary came up to me and said she knew, that day, because she was in Baghdad that day, because when those terrible incidents happened, everybody in Baghdad figured out where the people they love are at that moment.

    And she said that someone had given her a set of prayer beads, and she'd been carrying them around for months. And she didn't know what to do with them; she didn't know why she had them. But now she knew why she had them. And she gave them to me. And I carry them now. And they are a beautiful color-I call them the color of moving sand. And I hold onto them when I speak, when I give me speeches. They give me a sense of calm and connection. And now I understand why Roman Catholics, and Buddhists, use prayer beads.

    Another is I sometimes light candles, and that helps me to focus, looking at my son's picture. It's nothing astonishing, nothing people haven't been doing for a million years. And I pray.

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