GA News: Display seeks to open eyes to war, peace

SAN JOSE, July 22 – The woman stood in the bright afternoon sun, her head bowed, tears streaking her face. A Presbyterian minister – who had never met her before, who was in town for General Assembly and happened to be walking by – opened his arms and pulled her into a comforting embrace. Before long, tears streaked his face too.

The woman, Dolores Kesterson, stood on the edge of a labyrinth laid out on a plaza in downtown San Jose – a labyrinth made of boots around the edges, each one representing a man or woman from California who had served in the military and was killed in the war with Iraq.

At the center of the labyrinth were shoes representing civilian casualities in Iraq – red rubber boots, athletic shoes, fuzzy slippers.

One pair of boots in the display bore the name of Kesterson’s son, Erik, who served in the U.S. Army and was killed on Nov. 15, 2003 in Mosul.

This display – laid out on June 22 just a few blocks from the San Jose Convention Center, where the 218th General Assembly is meeting June 21-28 – is called “Eyes Wide Open” and is a project of the American Friends Service Committee that has been setting up similar displays around the country. This time, it was sponsored by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Fellowship and the Presbytery of San Jose Peace & Justice Task Force, among other groups.

So far, 422 Californians serving in the military have been killed in Iraq, said Karen Meredith, representing Gold Star Families Speak Out. Her son, Kenneth Ballard, was the 100th of them to die – killed in May 2004 at age 26. “On Memorial Day, I got the knock on the door” that no family ever wants to get, she said.

Attached to the boots representing Ballard were photographs of him as a baby; making cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving when he was four; looking handsome at 21.

Since his death, Meredith said, she has worked to put a human face on the casualties. Eight of the 422 Californians who have died were women, she said – her voice breaking as she read their names.

The youngest casualties were 18, the oldest was 50.

One was killed only a month after his son was born.

Two were brothers. When one died, his brother went to complete the work his brother had started, Meredith said. Then he was killed too.

One mother, hearing on the news of a violent incident in Iraq, started e-mailing her son, pleading for word that he was safe, Meredith said. “Please answer me!” she begged in the last e-mail – and just as she hit the “send” button, the knock came on the door.

“Each one of these had a life that was not fulfilled, was not finished,” Meredith said. “We don’t want our children to be forgotten.”

A representative of the local chapter of Veterans for Peace said of the labyrinth: “This is sacred space.”

Rick Ufford-Chase, a former General Assembly moderator and executive director of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Fellowship, encouraged people of faith to do what they can to encourage the U.S. government to remove American forces from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to avoid provoking conflict in Iran.
And Geoff Browning, a peace advocate for San Jose presbytery, encouraged people to consider how a culture of violence has pervaded their own communities as well. “Consider the futility of violence,” Browning said – in Iraq and close to home.