The National Catholic Review
Ellen Rufft
Two strangers unexpectedly bring home the pain of war.
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We were not expecting a visitation. It was an ordinary Monday afternoon peace vigil, with only about 10 of us holding signs in front of the building that houses our provincial administration. There was an older couple who almost always came, a young woman who was there for the first time, another who works at a homeless shelter, the priest who is our chaplain and about six sisters. Traffic is always heavy at that time of day, with commuters returning home from work, and usually many people respond to our signs asking them to honk for peace. It was no different on that day.

The two previous Mondays might have seemed more fitting days for a visitation. We had been having a two-week international meeting of our religious congregation, and almost 100 sisters had joined us in the vigil on both Mondayssisters from Germany, Peru, Korea, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic as well as from several places in the United States. Some sisters were wearing the habit, others were not. It was a scene that caused traffic to move more slowly and even prompted a few drivers to ride around the block to drive past the group a second time. Two more visitors from another country might not have been quite as startling on those days.

But they did not come until this Monday, when there were only 10 of us, almost all from the States, a small, ordinary-looking group holding a variety of signs protesting the war in Iraq and advocating peace. Unexpectedly, an older woman and a young man jumped out of a car they had parked on the side of the road and ran toward us. The man appeared to be about 20 years old and was dressed in cut-off shorts and sandals. It was more difficult to judge the womans age. She was wearing a long, loose dress with a scarf around her head and under her chin; only her face and hands were visible. They came rapidly, the woman almost falling as she ran across the grass to greet us. I saw the signs and I told him, she said of the young man, that we had to come to thank you.

She was from Iraq, a medical doctor, and had just arrived in the United States to visit her son. She had not seen him since he became a student two years ago at our college. When we began to tell them how sorry we were that our country was at war in Iraq, the woman replied quickly: Dont worry. We know the difference between the American people and the American government. You are the American people. And then, almost like a mantra, she said over and over: For what? For what do they do it? Your children are dying; our children are dying. For what? I work in a hospital. I see the wounded and the dying. For what? For what? When one of our group said that the war had begun because of greed, the woman responded: If they want the oil, let them take the oil. Just leave us our children. Please leave us our children. After she thanked us several more times and said that she hoped that her son would join us in future peace vigils, they went back to the car and drove away, honking for peace as they went.

I felt something change within me at that visitation. It was not just that this woman had made the war more real for me, though she surely did that. To hear someone who had just been taking care of the victims of a war that our country had started and continues to this day, ask so plaintively, For what? was heart-wrenching. She brought the pain home to me in a way that all the news media somehow had not done. It was not even that she almost wept the words about their children dying and our children dying that most affected me, though I wept as she repeated them. Her understanding that many, perhaps most, people in the United States do not want the war in Iraq to continue, even though those in power are determined to stay the course, was a relief. But even her awareness of the distinction between us and the government was not the watershed moment for me.

It was the thank-yous that did it. It was watching this woman in her long dress race across the grass, calling ahead that she had come to thank us. It was the sight of her son running after her, smiling over his mothers excitement at seeing us with peace signs. It was such an unexpected gift, that wealth of gratitude for something that seemed to me, by comparison, such a paltry action that I felt overwhelmed with a feeling I could not identify at the time. Later, talking with some of the others who were at the vigil and listening to their description of their feelings when they heard the womans words, I was finally able to name the emotion that had arisen in me at the time.

I realized that what I had felt then was forgivenforgiven for being able to do so little. It was as though the womans thank-you was her way of saying not just that she knew those of us at the peace vigil did not agree with the position of the United States government but, even more, that she understood we felt her pain and the pain of her people. She understood that we were doing the little we could to share in that pain and to bear witness to the evil of the war, even though we did not have the power to alleviate the suffering. I cannot remember another thank-you that meant so much to me. I am hoping that I will never be the same, that the war will never seem distant to me again and that I will be more determined than ever to speak out against it. When my resolution starts to wane, I am going to revive it by remembering the sight of that gracious Iraqi woman running across the grass calling out her thank-you.

Ellen Rufft, C.D.P., is a former provincial director of the Pittsburgh Province of the Sisters of Divine Providence.

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