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Mother, son speak out against Iraq war

By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Feb. 6, 2008 | LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS)

Art joins worship and song as part of the 2008 Lake Junaluska Peace Conference in North Carolina.
UMNS photos by Kathy L. Gilbert.

Celeste Zappala and her son Dante are members of a distinguished order they never would have chosen.

They are part of Gold Star Families, an organization of families who have lost loved ones in the Iraq war.

Sgt. Sherwood Baker, 30, died on April 26, 2004, in an explosion while guarding people who were looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He was a son, brother and father.

Now his mother, Celeste, and his brother, Dante, speak out against the war to as many groups as possible. Both spoke to participants at the 2008 Lake Junaluska Peace Conference held Jan. 31-Feb. 2 at a United Methodist retreat center in North Carolina. More than 400 people attended.

"Today I am here as a witness to the cost of the war in Iraq," Celeste said. "I am witness to a terrible body of death. I have laid my hands on the cold hard face of my son who I loved dearly and felt the bitterness of knowing the death he died was for lies and because of lies."

One family's story

"Dante and I have come to talk to you about the long journey our family has been on. It is just one story among so many," Celeste said.

Celeste, a member of First United Methodist Church in Germantown, Pa., told participants she raised her three sons in the church and taught them to do the hard work of social justice. Her first son was adopted.

"Sherwood came to us as a 13-month-old baby on Veterans Day in 1974. For 29 years he was my oldest son."

As an adult, Sherwood became a social worker and teacher and the father of a little boy. He came to his mother in 1997 to say he was joining the National Guard because he and his family were struggling to pay off college loans and other bills. He had been recruited by friends he admired in the National Guard. He was proud of how the National Guard comes to his country's aid in times of disaster.

Celeste Zappala, whose son Sherwood Baker was killed in Iraq, addresses
peace advocates.

"He would say, 'Mom, don't worry. The National Guard doesn't go to foreign wars. Mom, don't worry. No one in Pennsylvania National Guard has been killed in combat since 1945.' I really struggled with his decision but was proud of him and trusted him," Celeste said.

The world changed after 9/11, she said. When the clouds of war were intensifying, Celeste and her church protested against going to war. But the war did happen, and Sherwood left for Iraq on March 7, 2004.

"We buried him May 4," Celeste said. "I knelt beside his coffin and vowed to him I would not be quiet. I would speak the truth for him. This war is a betrayal of our military and the democracy they have been charged to protect. I believe with my whole heart it is possible to solve human conflict without violence. I believe war is our failure to love God. Jesus told us to be peacemakers. There is no other way."

"We must reject the narrative of the media and politicians and return to the narrative of the Gospel," said Dante. "My brother believed he took an oath that was sacred and that in risking his life he could do some good for the world. I speak in my brother's name, but should I not be speaking in Jesus' name?

"Christ was a fanatic that believed you could love the world to peace," he said.

Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the church's social action agency, also addressed conference participants.

Dante Zappala speaks with participants
at the peace event.

"The war in Iraq is and has been an unmitigated disaster," said Winkler.

"The sad fact is that conditions are so bad in Iraq due to our invasion that life was better under Saddam Hussein—and that was an era of fear and misery," he said. "You have to work hard to make this a reality. To accomplish such a terrible feat, you have to spend hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions of dollars. You have to kill a lot of people and force millions from their homes into refugee status. You have to lie and cheat and steal.

"The war must end; that is why we are here this weekend," Winkler said. "The consent of the people is required for the war to continue. Let us withdraw our consent."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Video Highlights

Celeste Zapalla: "Today I am here as a witness."

Jim Winkler: "Due to our invasion, life was better under Saddam Hussein."

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