When the Commander of the local American Legion post asked me to provide the Invocation and Benediction at their Memorial Day service, I didn’t really know what to expect. I don’t know why I thought that this would be a few aging vets and their families gathered around the town’s memorial to fallen soldiers. The hand-written signs that popped up a few days ago in front of my apartment declaring “No Parking, Monday 12-1 for Parade,” should have warned me that my assumptions were unfounded.
I walked over to the Legion (literally in the building behind my place) around 11:30 and started talking with folks. Dozens of Legion members in uniform, active duty soldiers, and women in the Auxiliary were buzzing around laying out food, setting up chairs, and preparing for the ceremony. Soldiers practiced retiring the flag and prepared to fire the salute. They couldn’t find their microphone, so I ran (well, walked as far as my poor ailing heart allows) to the church and grabbed our karaoke machine.
At 12:30, I walked over to the main street to watch the parade. Hundreds lined the street to watch the procession. Vets and soldiers, classic cars, fire engines, the Yough Senior High School Band, little leaguers, and flag-adorned trucks passed by. In all, the parade took maybe 10 minutes. But, for a town like Smithton, it was Macy’s on Thanksgiving.
Returning to the Legion, I saw that everyone was gathering for the ceremony. Families and children, old and young gathered all around. Suddenly I began to wonder if my words were going to be adequate for this auspicious gathering, this moment in the history of the town. Suddenly I realized the community role I was about to play in Smithton. Suddenly I thought that the next few minutes was going to define how people in town saw my congregation for the next few months, or even longer.
I delivered my invocation and returned to my seat. Several speakers and presentations followed, the band played, and we sang the national anthem. The main speaker, an impressive young man who lives two doors down from the church, spoke about remembering our soldiers throughout the year and not just on Memorial Day. I cheered inside, as my benediction was Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn’s piece on remembering the lost during spring, summer, autumn, and winter, as well as other times.
The ceremony ended and the feast began. Chicken, deviled eggs, potato salad, the best baked beans I’ve had in ages, and endless cookies. I walked through the crowd chatting. While I have experienced this ever since moving in last February, I knew that I was now cemented in the community’s mind as Pastor Jeff of that church down Second Street across from the old brewery.
I also felt proud of the work I did today. As a pacifist, it is challenging to commemorate the sacrifices of so many to causes I might find questionable – to honor the commitment, the expression of the best of human character, without condoning the violence of war. As an atheist, it is difficult to find ways to invoke the powers of the universe in ways that a largely theistic public can embrace without compromising my own beliefs. I did both today.