A COUPLE months ago, I opened an unexpected package from a parishioner serving now in the Persian Gulf. It was an American flag, folded neatly, an expression of her gratitude. The certificate said she'd flown it in a combat mission over Iraq on Christmas Day, 2009.
Before shipping out, she'd attended church services here in Santa Cruz for a year and a half. Most Sundays, she and a friend slipped out of Monterey, where they were studying at the Defense Language Institute, rode up the coast and joined us for worship. They were quiet, both of them, but always grateful, intensely grateful. I remember, especially, their smiling widely as they received the bread and cup at communion each week. Like it mattered. A lot.
Tucked in the same package was a letter. She reminded me that she'd found our church during a difficult time, a tense time. "You have no idea how much it meant for me to have some place to go to escape the stresses of the military," she wrote. "With policies like 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' in place that don't allow gays to serve openly, getting through my year and a half tour down there was emotionally difficult." We were her sanctuary, her oasis, and she had taken these gifts to heart.
Now she's flying reconnaissance flights over Iraq. And I'm looking at a folded flag sitting flat on my desk. I confess to a certain ambivalence when it comes to the American flag. Having come of age during the Reagan-North-Cheney-Bush years, I'm deeply skeptical of those who've wrapped misguided, bloody policies in the red, white and blue and then called them holy. If the first Gulf War was wrong, the second's been disastrous in almost every way.
Just the same, her flag touched some part of me that aches for patriotism, that wants desperately to love my country. "If the thought of the war is too much," she wrote, "don't think of this flag as supporting bad things. This flag, in my opinion, is for all of us who have greater dreams, better dreams for our nation and a better future forward." I get it now. If we are to be a nation, if we are to fulfill any kind of destiny, we need this flag to mean something. It has to mean something like we're only as resilient as the most vulnerable among us. Something like we're only as strong as our capacity to love and make sacrifices for one another. We need this flag to mean something more than a Blackberry in every hand and a flat screen in every living room.
Another aviator, the great French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery, once wrote that "Love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking together in the same direction." I'm not saying that's easy. Looking together in the same direction requires patience, grace, commitment, tenacity, love. But nothing else will do. Nothing else gets us moving toward meaningful health care reform or effective action on global warming. Nothing else fixes our broken school systems or our corporate-sponsored election cycles. Maybe it's time to turn off all those pundits making millions on our misery. Maybe it's time to turn to the flag again. Maybe it's time for all of us—gay, straight, black, white, Anglo, Latino, theist, atheist—to look together in the same direction. Toward the future of America.
But it's going to take a lot of love. The greater dreams always do.
DAVID GRISHAW-JONES is Senior Minister of the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Santa Cruz.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.