this Good Friday was unlike any other for me. it's always been my favorite liturgical celebration - i like things which are stripped bare - altars, crosses, souls. so i already knew that, in this community, my Good Friday would be meaningful. but the heights and depths that i reached last night broke me open, caused me to say goodbye to things i didn't realize i'd held tight, and made me realize that, despite the fact that many people i love won't love who i've become, i've come closer than ever before to the life i was meant to lead.
last week, i decided to participate in the 8th Day Center for Justice's Good Friday Walk for Justice. I joined friends whose passion for ending torture i really admire. Earlier this week, we gathered together to plan out the station we'd be doing. i'd felt led to volunteer as an actor, but when we were initially claiming parts, i got scared. i volunteered to read - something i'm comfortable with, something that wouldn't require much from me. but thank goodness my wonderful roomie keeps me accountable. she reminded me that that wasn't what i'd said i wanted to do. what i wanted to do was don a jumpsuit and a hood and, for a little bit, inhabit the story of a man who died too early from "suicide" at Guantanamo Bay Prison. so, i braved up and stepped into that jumpsuit and listened to the story of Salah Ahmed Al-Salami. Even though we were just practicing, the combination of listening to Salah's story and, simultaneously, being forced to kneel, then rise up, then lie down - never in charge of my movements, never fully sure of what i was seeing through the black cloth - scared me and moved me even more than i expected. i knew the day of the walk would be even more intense. i was right.
yesterday, we met at st. gert's to pray before riding the L train down to Congress & Michigan for the start of the Walk for Justice. We read one of my very favorite new poems - "O Prison Darkness," written by Abdulaziz, a prisoner in Guantanamo. During the ride, i sat and looked out the window and tried to fight my rising panic and sadness. i had no idea what today would be like and i couldn't imagine being the center of attention for so long. i don't like being stared at. it's not humility, really, just cripplingly low self-esteem. and i'd just agreed to wear a jumpsuit and hood not only during our performance, but during the entire 3 hour walk down the streets of Chicago around lunchtime on a Friday. that's a LOT of people to stare at me. but, then, thankfully, i remembered that the march wasn't about me at all. i mulled over the little i knew about the story of Salah Ahmed Al-Salami. it's heartbreaking, really, and it's so much more important than my ridiculous, petty fears.
The few of us who were donning jumpsuits gathered to pray and to remember what we were representing-men whose lives have systematically destroyed by the War on Terror, many of whom never committed a crime and were arrested because of tribal infighting, the lure of bounties, or confusion. some of them died early. all of them have scars. it began to be a scary privilege to carry their stories into the streets. we walked to a number of places representing stations, led by some really beautiful organizations - labor organizers, women in prison, indigenous rights groups.
at one location, i came face to face with what a weak christian i can be. this location was an open-air plaza with a small portion reserved for al fresco dining at a relatively fancy restaurant. our line of "prisoners" positioned ourselves near the boundary of this dining area and prepared to participate in the stations. almost as soon as folks began to sing "Wade in the Water", the waitstaff of this restaurant called the police to complain about noise violations (keep in mind, police were already escorting our group). in addition, several tables began jeering. "Shut up!" they yelled. "Nobody gives a shit." Here we were - 500 nonviolent activists, re-enacting the Passion of Christ, and there was jeering and name calling already. But, instead of feeling righteous or grateful for an opportunity to be a disciple, i felt humiliated and ashamed and some amount of guilt for ruining a rich person's lunch. which then made me feel more humiliated. if that's even a little of how Peter felt betraying Jesus, i wonder how he didn't just burst into tears. i definitely did (thankfully, the hood hid that fact). it's a horrifying thing to face how truly weak i am in the face of opposition and conflict, especially in light of the fact that i belong to a community filled with some of the strongest, bravest Christians i've ever met.
before i knew it, it was our station. i lined up behind one of our "jailers" - the whole time we were processing, i had members of our community beside me, making sure i knew where to step, offering me water, and generally making sure we were okay and safe. but walking alone to the front of the crowd, i kept mulling (as i had the whole walk) that Salah Ahmed Al-Salami had no one like that. this hood was meant to keep him from knowing what was coming next. would he be left alone? would dogs come? would he be forced to kneel and rise up and lie down, without anyone to comfort him?
for those who never heard this story, here's a relatively balanced story from BBC News. please know that what this story does not say is that these men's bodies were returned in pieces, with various body parts missing. Salah Ahmed Al-Salami was a devout Muslim. He'd memorized the whole Q'oran. What depths of misery would prompt a man of such deep faith to kill himself? We know he was one of the prisoners to take part in some of the political food fasts which ended in brutal forced-feeding by Guantanamo Bay staff. there's reason to believe he had a lawyer but had not received clearance to see him and plead his case. it's thought that he was in Pakistan not for jihad, but plead for the release of his cousin who was detained there. there's been accusations, after an in-depth investigation, that the death of these 3 men was actually accidental manslaughter after a particularly intense torture session. either way, the brutality and aloneness of Salah Ahmed Al-Salami was on my heart as I took my place in front of the gathered crowd. As rehearsed, two women pushed me to my knees, then grabbed my arms and led me around the circle and forced me into the stress position. these women are my friends but, for a second, i was frightened and filled with distress. i prayed for Salah, whose jailers were not his friends, whose death was not a play. i laid down on the ground to simulate Salah's death. i was covered with a sheet and i shut my eyes and prayed for the repose of Salah's soul. I prayed that the God of all Abraham's people watch over him and guide him home. I prayed that he see what we were doing in the light that we meant - that we were trying to keep alive his story.
i was carried off by 6 "pallbearers". Salah never got that, either. he was shipped home in pieces. his father refuses to believe a man of such faith would commit suicide and he refuses to bury Salah until an independent autopsy confirms that he committed suicide. imagine the grief that family must feel. whether or not he was a terrorist, whether he committed suicide or was accidentally tortured to death, the pain that family feels is immense and it is real.