I approach the colossal complex known as The Riverside Church, which covers two city blocks and is situated in one of the highest points in New York City. Sound spills out from its bell-tower located some twenty stories up.
My body resonates with its pronouncement of the hour mark. I enter through heavy revolving doors into a long hall of stone, which helps to shape the soundscape and reflects history made here. Everything feels big and at the same time small. Intimate nooks and crannies suffuse the many rooms and corridors. This intimacy permeates the space, made famous and to some, infamous, as a springboard for spiritually-attuned, social activism.
Walking down the main corridor, one room stops me. Its name, "the nave." In this room in April, 1967, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers a speech, "Beyond Vietnam," in which he calls for an end to the Vietnam War, saying,
"The time has come for America to hear the truth about this tragic war . . . There comes a time when silence is betrayal . . . Millions have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. There are those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty. It's a dark day in our nation when high level authorities will seek to use every method to silence dissent. Something is happening and people are not going to be silenced. The truth must be told. "
Standing here, a great stillness of silence washes over me. I am here by invitation, asked to serve as a commissioner along with dozens of others. The gathering is called a Public Hearing of the "Truth Commission on Conscience in War." Considering the invitation weeks earlier, I hesitate, not sure if this type of gathering rings true for me. I speak with Ian, one of the organizers by phone. Our conversation relieves my concerns as he describes an event, whose format invites dialogue.
We are meeting on the second day of Spring. Following directions, I round the corner and together with several people board an elevator. We ascend to the ninth floor for an orientation (meet, munch, and mingle) for commissioners. Before the mid-afternoon meal is served, we hear about plans for the evening's four-hour program. We briefly introduce ourselves. I scan the printed program. The primary speakers are veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They will be "testifiers" this evening, reflecting on their experiences with war and conscience.
The program also lists other speakers, who will reflect on several themes including that of "Just War." While attuning to the underlying intention of this phrase, the words confuse me. I ponder them as pointers to truth and so, question the meaning of each word in the context of its relationship with the other. I scan my body. My chest begins to tighten.
Our host for the orientation invites us to eat. After getting some food, I sit at a table next to a woman who asks if anyone at the table has heard of the term, "Just Peace." No, a commissioner from Texas and I reply. She tells us that "Just Peace" refers to situations when use of force serves like a police force rather than a military force.
Now I'm really confused. My chest hurts but as I breathe into it, the muscles relax.
I'm thinking of a book by Vietnamese Zen teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn, entitled, "Keeping the Peace - Mindfulness and Public Service, and of what he says in an interview titled, This is What War Looks Like,
"When we hold retreats for war veterans I tell them they are the flame at the tip of the candle. They are the ones who feel the heat, but the whole candle is burning, not only the flame. All of us are responsible."
Thay (or "teacher" as he's known to many) also spoke at Riverside Church, on September 25, 2001, urging non-violence and reconciliation. In 1966, he encouraged Dr. King to speak out concerning the war in Vietnam. Dr. King, in 1967, nominated Thay for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Someone once asked Thay in an outburst of rage,
"What are you doing here? Why don't you just go back to Vietnam?"
He shares that,
"I had to breathe in and out many times before I could respond to such a question. . . After feeling calmer, I said, "if the roots of a tree are sick, it will not do any good to water the leaves. You need to water the roots. It's the same with Vietnam. The roots of the suffering in Vietnam are here in the West. That is why we are here."
I leave the room and catch the elevator down. I sit in the balcony above the nave and reflect in silence. Then I head outdoors. It's 3:30. The program begins at 4. I head towards Riverside Park, several blocks away. I hear sparrows chirping. I sit down on a park bench. I let go of all the thoughts and listen. My shoulders release and my breath deepens. The air feels fresh. I check my watch. Time. I walk back to the church and head back up to the ninth floor. We head down as a group and slowly assemble to enter the nave.
As we enter, many people are already seated. My eyes meet theirs in mutual acknowledgement of the importance of showing up today.
The program begins. A former soldier tells us that when he applied for Conscientious Objector (CO) status, he was asked, "when was the moment of your crystalization of conscience?" He says that this was a pivotal moment for him as he realized that "crystalization" did not fit his experience of conscience continually evolving, being a fluid process. Listening, I imagine this visually. What happens to a fluid crystal? It grows. I remember this from high school.
At the time, I'm working in a lab at City College assisting a physics professor in charge of a crystal research experiment. He shows me how to grow crystals. Dipping the crystal over and over again in a solvent, it changes. The process requires great patience and attention to detail.
"All crystallization methods change the physical state of a material by transforming the system from some non-equilibrium state toward an equilibrium state."
Back in the church nave, the next testifier, also a veteran, speaks of not being able to reconcile Jesus' charge to "Love one's enemy," and "Turn the other Cheek" with his assignment to interrogate prisoners of war in Iraq. He speaks of being with a prisoner, who challenges his beliefs, caught between a rock and a hard place.
The next veteran speaks of the inconsistency between military recruitment films and his experience in Afghanistan. He speaks of the unspeakable, relating a heartwrenching scene in which children move in front of his tank. The soldiers have been told not to let anyone block their path. Anyone could be carrying a weapon. And yet. . . here he is. Here they are.
As I listen, I am there, there in that moment of not knowing what to do, when instinct and conscience become meaningless words and the only reality is now now now. I feel my chest tighten. He goes on. He says that his story really begins after he completes his military term of four years. In 2005, he starts to encounter memory. He goes to college and begins to learn other perspectives on Afghanistan and Iraq, on war.
Needing inspiration, I recall something Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said,
"A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair."
The next young man tells his story. He writes after coming home, on and on, a novel, then an analysis. Anything, he says, "to keep me in the action" of Iraq. His body is home but he is not embodied, he tells us. Finally, thanks to feedback from several friends, he realizes that his stories do not connect for those reading them because he is not embodied when he writes them. That's when he shifts and begins to feel the pain and confusion. His writing shifts. He speaks in public, unscripted, filled with emotional turmoil. His authentic voice emerges at last. That's how he truly comes home. As he speaks now, I see his fellow testifiers shaking their heads in silent acknowledgement.
The evening goes on but my head and heart are full. I need to digest what I've heard.
Just then, I notice an older woman approaching the microphone. Her tone is soft-spoken yet firm with conviction. Her voice quivers, like solid ground shifting. Her son, she says, was a national guardsman. He died in Iraq. He enlists before 2001, assuring his mother that his unit will likely never be deployed. "No national guardsman has died since WWII," he tells her while also voicing his committment to serve his country beside his fellow guardsmen should the need arise. Then Sept. 11, 2001 happens. The towers collapse. His unit is deployed in March. In April, he becomes the first national guardsman to die since WWII.
Her story is a complex tapestry of contradiction. Born to pacifist parents, their son enlists. What was his truth, I ask myself? As his mother goes on, I feel the son's presence, his torn-ness, and his family's agony and anguish.
It's in the small details that I join their story. My chest is aching.
The evening goes on. Other speakers follow the testifiers. Music intersperses, a man bellows out, "Stand by me."
After the closing words of the event host, we begin to move from the room, many approaching the testifiers. I sit for a few breaths and then, move towards the mother who spoke earlier. I thank her, our eyes meeting. I say, "what I appreciate about what you said and how you said it is that you told what happened without taking away, without simplifying the complexity." She chokes out in a near-muted voice, "it is so complex." Tears are in her eyes. I say, "that's how I could feel your son, his torn-ness, his confusion, the love you shared and which continues. It makes it real. Not easy but real." Feeling the heat of tears running down my face, I continue, "That's why I'm crying." We stand there and hold hands, tears meeting tears. We embrace.
I turn and slowly walk back down the long aisle. I hear the dissonance of many voices reverberating in the room. At the same time, listening attentively, I feel a quality of vast space permeating the vibration in my body, resonating as silence.