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A Conversation with Celeste Zappala

On November 9th, 2014, Germantown Mennonite awarded our 18th annual Peace Award to Celeste Zappala. We were thrilled that she agreed to accept our small recognition of her great efforts toward peace, a path that can seem to have no end in sight. Ten years previous, in April of 2004, Celeste's son, Sherwood, was killed while searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Thus began a long, arduous process for her.

Since that time, she has become a public figure, speaking out at events and rallies around the U.S., meeting with politicians and leaders, and appearing on such shows as Democracy Now! and in the Michael Moore film Slacker Uprising. She joined Military Familes Speak Out, and then, with other families of the fallen, founded Gold Star Families Speak Out.

In addition, she is a long-term resident of the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, and been an active member of First United Methodist Church of Germantown since the 1970's, working for social justice.

After she delivered her message that Sunday morning, she was good enough to answer some further questions.

Much of your anti-war activism was focused on the Bush era. Now here we are, nearing the end of the Obama administration. Has anything changed?

I had the opportunity to meet with Obama while he was still a candidate, and I told him the story of my son, and of my efforts to bring the war to an end. He told me that was his goal, too. I had hope that the end would be swift.

As we now know, that end was never really complete.

I have little faith that the U.S. will extract itself anytime this century. The damage done to the culture and stability of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, the forces let loose by our invasion, and the number of people who have been displaced and injured has created a cauldron that will not be extinguished just because the U.S. wants it to be.

In May of 2004, I said we had opened the gates of hell, and we did not know how to close them. We will never know. It is beyond the power of this country to sort out the conflicts and aspirations of the people of the Middle East.

During those Bush years, when I was most active, the policies seemed clearly destructive and indefensible. It was always our contention that the desire for war with Iraq proceeded any known cause, and therefore was a war of choice. I, too, wring my hands because a solution is beyond my understanding. I can only try to witness for the fact that more killing and more death is not going to bring Peace.

Has there been any difference in our nation's relationship with war?

I definitely think we have provided an alternate voice to the blind patriotism and jingoism of the Bush era. We gave legitimacy to those within military families and active duty who rejected the wars and protested them. Being anti-war is not a new position, but the number of military people willing to speak was a new experience in the U.S.

Taking an historical perspective, one can see the link between the hyper-nationalism following 9/11, the recoiling of many as the invasion of Iraq occurred, then the building of a resistance to that war, and the courage of the Occupy movement to respond to the false premises and outright corruption of the U.S. economic system. The current movement to protest police brutality is part of this lineage as well. Things learned along the way, realizations of inequality and a language of resistance… It all wraps itself into the next efforts for human worth and dignity.

I am but one voice on this path.

I am often comforted by the quote I offered at your Church: "It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it."

Rabbi Tarfon's admonition is often read at the Passover dinners of my very dear neighbors. I find those words most compelling, as are many ideas within Judaism. We do not get to finish the task to make the world whole, but we are not off the hook to try!

We can only try to be witnesses for our Truth, draw on the strength the Creator has given us, and be stalwart in our Faith that someday people will overcome their own darkness and find their way to a peaceful and loving World.

But how involved is the Creator, really? Does God not have the power to stop wars if God so desired?

I do not pretend to understand the "mind" of God, but if I take everything I have learned in the past 67 years, it leads me to believe that our best selves are brought forth in acts of love and generosity. That is the "Light" that the darkness cannot overcome. I think evil is when we have turned away from that spirit of light and goodness.

I also think that, for whatever reason, there are tasks placed in front of us, and that it is then our decision to rise to the occasion. We must pass through with integrity and dignity, if possible.

When Sherwood was killed, I felt that every gift I possessed had to be used to speak truth and to bring an end to the war. I was one little person whose life and center had been blown up along with my son's. My faith lead me to speak out and sustained me for the years I was so involved. I borrowed and utilized the religious language I have learned over the years. Particularly inspirational to me has been the witness of Martin Luther King.

The God I hold on to is not biblical, nor would pass anyone's formal catechism, I fear, but the God of Universal Love is revealed to me in many forms… in the poetry of the Bible, the witness of those who stand up for the rights and dignity of others, the wisdom that many religious leaders can offer, and the overpowering beauty of the natural World.

Is this conception of God the same God you believed in as a child?

My mother always said we have divinity within each of us, the power to turn to it, or turn away. So humbly and admittedly stumbling, I try to turn my being to that light of divinity as best I can discern it.

In many ways, the image of God I have held was created by my mother's beliefs which were far from traditional. My mom was a Rosicrucian, which is a sort of spiritualism that believes in reincarnation, and the Universality of a living spirit that we as humans can call God, but that more than defies easy explanation. From my mother, I heard of past lives, karma, being accountable for all of my actions and deeds, and of the faith that we as humans can never tame the Universe to fit our own explanations. I learned of another world of spirits, mysticism and mysteries from her. I was blessed by that.

Her faith in the capacity of humans to love, grow and overcome adversity was a staple, as was her practice to go into deep prayer and meditation when anyone was sick or in hardship. People would call on her to pray for them, and she would. Even now - fifteen years after her death - those of us who remember her will call on her for intervention.

My parents did send me to the local Episcopal Church, though. I think they felt it important to have a religious identity to grow up with. I went by myself - I was an only child - and was fairly devoted. I taught Sunday School, took communion on Friday mornings, and argued with my teachers… At 13, I wanted to know why the books of the Bible ended! Why was there no more direct word from God? They had no good answers for me!

As I got older, I dabbled a bit with Buddhism, visited the Sufis… but my direction was more called by my political activism and belief that nonviolence was the only way the world could be changed.

I was in college from 1965 to 1970, and became an activist in every demonstration against the war in Vietnam, as well as assisting those who were avoiding the draft by going to Canada. I studied to become a social worker, with great hopes toward changing the World.

My motivation was based on a sense of justice and fairness, as well as an obligation as a human being to serve others and be part of the collective voice for those ideals. I certainly held Martin Luther King in high regard, as I said, and vividly remember the spring of his death, then Robert Kennedy, then the riots of '68, then Chicago…there was a sense that a revolution was imminent.

By 1970, I felt I had to leave the country. After Kent State, I felt so alienated and hopeless. I left for a year and taught school in the US Virgin Islands.

How did that upbringing and those experiences eventually lead you toward attending a Methodist Church in Germantown?

I missed home too much. I had grown up in Upper Darby, left when I was 19, lived in Powelton, Center City, West Philadelphia… the usual circuit for young folks in those days. I came back to begin my career in social work, got married, had a family, and began to look for a place for my kids to have a faith community where they could grow up and find a moral center.

I joined FUMCOG – the First United Methodist Church of Germantown - in 1979. A friend had brought me. I joined not because I was a devoted Methodist, nor that I thought of Jesus as "the savior," but because I believed in the mission of the church to do justice and to love mercy.

There was an amazing Pastor there, Ted Loder. He was a poet, a scholar and a grand preacher, and I learned a great deal from him. We tackled social issues of inclusion, equality, justice for all and nonviolence. I learned more about King, Gandhi, Tolstoy, and resistance... My fellow church members were like-minded, and many had been on the front lines of civil rights and the anti-war movement.

I came to a place in my self where I saw Jesus as a revolutionary, a teacher, a world-changer, whose message at its heart is nonviolent resistance to evil and active participation in good. That may sound simplistic, and I am no cleric or scholar, but the Jesus I have chosen to follow and identify with is a Being so tuned into Universal Love, that he could become a voice and symbol for the most radical of suppositions: that we as humans can and must love each other.

That is our power. The power that somehow lies beyond our understanding in the spirit, the God, the Universal Energy of Goodness that we cannot tame or ever fully understand, but is also the inspiring, the pure and powerful spirit that is ours to learn, to seek, to long for... as well as listen to others who seek and share their truth.

Finally, you have asked us to help provide socks and mittens to refugee border children currently living at Bethany Home in Womelsdorf. What is your connection with Bethany Home?

My aunts and uncle were raised there! My grandparents were immigrants from Latvia, and they had four small children when my grandfather had been killed in an explosion. My grandmom placed my dad at the HMS School for Crippled Children - now known as the HMS School in West Philly - and the others went to Bethany Home, which had originally been started by the German Reformed Church.

Grandmom then became a cook for rich families, and they did not all reunite until the kids were older. My cousin visited the home just last Spring, and thought well of it.

In July, I read an article about people protesting the Home, because they were taking care of border children. I thought that was outrageous! Since our church had been considering how to help border children, I went to Bethany and established a connection. Then I asked the Church to donate new clothes for the kids. It was a great campaign and I was able to bring a carload of clothing and coats at the end of September. The staff said they especially needed gloves and socks, so I asked the Church for one more round.

Love one another. It was the command, the truth, all that we know and were given. And so we must try, in our own way, in our own time, to follow. It may well be we never get to find out what the answers are- and that's OK, too- but what a glorious privilege it is to try!


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