I am like you

There are well-meaning good-hearted people on both sides of the Ground Zero Mosque issue. I believe that, I really do.

It’s just hard right now to see that, what with the way the people are carrying on. If I were Frank Peretti writing This Presence Darkness, I might imagine that demons are dancing, delighted by all the ugly ways in which we can hate on one another.

I blame media. Insipid talk radio, incendiary yammering on the 24-7 boob tube, and a blogosphere that considers fact-checking a click over to Wikipedia.

On a trip to Seattle last week I heard one of those talk show hosts jawing on and on about how he was the lone defender of freedom for Americans and how he and his organization had filed a lawsuit to stop the building of a mosque at Ground Zero.

Fact check error one: There is no mosque planned to be built at Ground Zero.

It’s two blocks away.

But it’s hard to make an argument stick if every time a talk show host, blogger or TV personality has to say, “The mosque planned to be built two blocks from Ground Zero” rather than “The mosque at Ground Zero.”

The radio host made sure to let his listeners know that he stands between them and that wrong-headed President who favors putting the mosque at Ground Zero.

Never mind that President Obama hasn’t taken a position one way or another on whether the mosque should be built. Fact check error two: What he did say is that this country’s founding principals allow for a mosque to be built two blocks from Ground Zero.

Listen. I understand memorials. I visit the Wall in DC twice every year — Memorial Day and Veterans Day. I get why people are so emotional about them. A few years ago I asked a man who was protesting the war in Iraq to please go stand elsewhere — I suggested the steps of Congress since that’s where the war really began — because his presence at the Wall was upsetting to many of us there that day. He didn’t leave but he did move back out of sight.  

So I appreciate the emotion that has fueled this fray.

There was a time when I would have been out there holding up the placard, screaming like a banshee. Growing up I had loathed all things Vietnamese — the people, the country, the war. The way I saw it if it hadn’t been for them I would have had my father around.

Everything was so clearly defined in my “us” and “them” world. But it all got so messy that day I passed a Vietnamese Honor Guard standing in the rain at the Vietnam Memorial Wall. It was Veterans Day, 2002,  my first trip to the Wall. I went with all my biases, misconceptions and hatefulness fully intact.

When I walked past that honor guard, all my clearly defined boundaries came crumbling down. I cried that entire day. I wept not so much for the loss of my father as I wept for the years I had carried the burden that is misunderstanding. In a matter of a few short hours, I’d left behind the world of “us” and “them.”

In March 2003 I boarded a plane at LAX and flew to the country where my father took his last breath. It was there at the marketplace in Hoi An that I met a Vietnamese fellow who said to me, “I am like you.”

“In what way?” I asked.

“I, too, lost my father to that war.”

Prior to that encounter, I had not allowed myself to think of the Vietnamese children and the sufferings they had endured. Afterwards, I have looked upon every Vietnamese person as my brother, my sister, my mother, my father, my friend.

I think of them first and foremost when I think of the war in which my father died. I think of how the bodies of their soldiers were piled in heaps alongside the roadways, too numerous to bury. I think of how their widows never received any government benefits for their husbands’ deaths. I think of how these women prostituted themselves just to be able to feed their sons and daughters. I think of the European and American businessmen who allowed these women and girls to be exploited that way.

I think of the field near Dragon Mountain where Vietnamese locals watched as I built a rock memorial to honor my father. They couldn’t understand the words I spoke but I hope they understood the grace that had led me there to them.

I pray for the families who lost loved ones at Ground Zero.  I pray they come to understand what the Vietnamese taught me — that the best memorial we can build to our loved ones is not made out of concrete or stone but out of mercy and grace.  

I can’t think of any better way to do that than to build a house of worship because there is no greater answer to the hatred that fueled 9-11 than the voices of people united in prayer and praise.

Don’t stop with the mosque, build a house of worship on every block near Ground Zero. Then the demons can sit back and watch the angels dance.

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