It was a timed honored tradition in the little rural village. Every Memorial Day the clergy would gather in front of the old courthouse that was now transformed into a community center. Stories from old timers spoke of how every once in awhile someone locked up behind the bars in the courthouse would break out and hide in the cornfields surrounding the building, as well as the cornfields surrounding the school. Perhaps that is why the courthouse was eventually moved out of the village and into a more populated area where cornfields didn’t exist.
Every Memorial Day clergy, including myself—an accidental country pastor—would gather in front of that courthouse. We would gather with the high school band. We would gather with the Boy Scouts. We would gather with families, young and old, who came out for this timed honored tradition. We would gather with the veterans still able to gather, to remember those who died in service to our country. We would gather, then march throughout the village to each war monument, where we would stop, say a prayer, lay a wreath in front of it and listen to the gun salute.
Our march would then continue to the Revolutionary War cemetery and then into cars we would go, heading up the road out of the village to the cemetery where many a Civil War soldier rested. Back into cars and off to our last stop—the cemetery just up the other road out of the village that belonged to the Catholic church. Father Condon, a staple in the village almost as time honored as the Memorial Day march itself, would be waiting there ready to deliver the last prayer of thanks and remembrance in his thick Irish brogue.
There on the outskirts of the village, with the first signs of corn breaking through the ground beyond the cemetery, with the views of rolling green hills and mountains, with the warm breeze blowing the scent of freshly mowed fields, I observed something that would forever change my view of Memorial Day.
I observed community at its best, taking time not to use Memorial Day as a kick-off to the unofficial start of summer, but staying true to the observance of those who gave their lives so that they could have life as they know it in their little rural village.
You see it didn’t matter what differences we had or who was having a spat with whom or who held a 30-plus year grudge against so-and-so. What mattered was for at least one morning in late May we were remembering not only the costly gift of freedom. We were once again renewing an unspoken vow to stand together in community.
As a pastor I just wasn’t there to pray. I was given the privilege to stand with the community by standing by the sides of those veterans who were tasked with the responsibility of laying the wreaths.
I will forever remember the startling feeling of honor that came over me the first time I took the gnarled hand of one veteran. I actually didn’t take his hand. It was more he had to reach out and grab mine to regain a step that wasn’t as steady as he thought it would be. I caught his hand and we continued to walk. With each step we took, I could feel his hand needing to hold on tighter to mine. Each faltering and hesitant step was caught and made more secure as I gripped tighter and leaned in closer and whispered, “I’m standing by you.” And with that reassurance, I noticed his back hunched over with age straightened just a bit and a smile of many thanks graced a face etched with golden and not so golden memories.
It was then I began my own time honored tradition of making sure each time I walked with a veteran to lay a wreath at a memorial, I would take their hand, lovingly squeeze it and remind them of something we would all love to be reminded of no matter what our age.
“I’m standing by you.”
That little rural village showed me the beauty of Memorial Day that I had never seen before nor ever since. I saw a community putting aside all the things they had the freedom to do on a Monday off, so that they could stand together with those who stood up to the evils of war so many years before. I also saw future generations learning that even in times of peace, standing together should never end.
Who have you stood by today? Have you held the hand of someone who needs support to make their steps steady? Do you realize no matter where community might be—in a church, a civic group, a village, a town, a family, a school—it can only happen when we make the commitment to be there for one another and to stand together.