For God and Country

"The images dissolve into each other..."

"The images dissolve into each other..."

W.W.J.D. These are the letters engraved on the gold ID bracelet on the wrist of the woman seated next to me at First Baptist in Ponca City. It is July 4th and today’s program reads, as it does every Sunday, “We are a growing family, focused on loving God, loving others and making disciples of Jesus Christ.” I’m here with my friend, Sharon, who brings me, “her Jewish friend,” to this Oklahoma Baptist church as often as I allow. We watch the church-goers float down the aisle in outfits of red, white and blue. Jeweled flag pins decorate the women’s blouses. Fireworks tumble down men’s neckties. Sharon squeezes my hand.

From the street, the big red brick church, which fills a small town block, looks more like a swollen public elementary school with a steeple than a place of worship. Inside, a picture of a beatific Christ hangs above a strip of white molding that divides the wall into blocks of blue and beige. A pale blue rug covers the floor. Sunlight and blue squares fill the long rectangular stained glass windows. At the door, white-haired retirees greet men, women, and children — starched and ruddy-faced — with the notes for the day’s service.

Live music fills the chapel. The Praise Band leads the call to worship and the Praise Team leads the worship in song. Above the organist, a large white-rimmed screen slides down to project hymn lyrics. The congregation is on their feet, swaying to the music and singing with the choir. When the hymns are over, the music minister motions for everyone to be seated. He then steps up to the wooden lectern, taking a moment to look out and smile.

“Freedom,” he says, “is at a price, and our men and women are fighting the terrorists so that we can be here today.” The woman with the gold bracelet pulls a Kleenex from her purse and dabs the corners of her eyes. The organ, the piano, the Praise Band and the Praise Team are silent.

Dressed in cowboy boots, wranglers, and a Western shirt, a short, slender man in his thirties with shaggy dark hair and a moustache climbs the pale blue altar steps. The tinny sound of a synthesized violin creeps in from the speakers perched high above our heads.  The lights dim and all eyes shift to the screen where the American flag waves against a night sky of red, white and blue pyrotechnics. The singer moves the microphone closer and his gaze from the congregation to the screen. He then delivers “God Bless the USA,” the forgotten country pop tune that radio DJ’s resurrected in the days following 9/11:

If tomorrow all the things were gone
I’d worked for all my life,
And I had to start again
with just my children and my wife.
I’d thank my lucky stars
to be living here today,
‘Cause the flag still stands for freedom,
and they can’t take that away.

On the screen the images dissolve into each other: American soldiers in armored tanks.  American soldiers next to fallen buildings. American soldiers holding smiling brown-skinned children and babies. The White House. The Capitol. The Supreme Court. Snow-capped Rockies. Rolling hills. Expansive prairie. And then George Bush appears in the rubble of downtown Manhattan and firefighters carry Father Mike Judge’s crumpled and dusty body through the trenches. Men raise the flag at Iwojima. Stealth bombers soar over Navy ships anchored in teal water somewhere between here and the Persian Gulf, while blonde-haired, blue-eyed families picnic in verdant fields.

In the pews, the women clutch handkerchiefs to their noses and weep. Images of 9/11 continue to float across the screen. When the World Trade Towers implode, footage I’ve seen countless times, I feel the hairs on my arm stand on end. I choke back the sobs in a battle between grief and resentment. I want to share in their religious victory, but I feel swindled. I am a Jew and a New Yorker who doesn’t believe in their war or their Jesus. I resent their portrayal of sacrifice, but I want the love, the joy, the unity they derive from their presumed infallibility.

When the lights come back on Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and the National Guard soldiers, reservists and vets ascend the altar each with a flag in his hand. Their shoes are shiny; their caps on tight. An older man’s officer’s whites fit him snugly. The seams of his jacket are expanding to where they’ve almost come undone. I imagine his wife hunched over her sewing table the night before, releasing the white thread with her worn and curling fingers.

When Pastor Mike begins his Sunday message, I brace myself for the word “Jesus.”  I hear them call me an Israelite. I hear them call me their Jewish friend. I hear them tell me the Book says they are blessed to be in my presence. I know they are waiting for me to join them, but I know they will never let me in.

Elizabeth Rich is currently writing about desegregation in Washington, D.C. public schools.