Hostage in Iraq longed to wash sinkful of dirty dishes

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 29, 2006

In an interview upon his return to Canada, former hostage James Loney said there were certain things he longed for upon his release from captivity in Iraq. Among them was washing a sinkful of dirty dishes.

Now, I know what a sinkful of dirty dishes looks and feels like, and I'm not sure that would ever be among my greatest longings as a hostage. Nor do I have any idea what Loney had in mind when he said that – at least not at the time of this writing. Nevertheless, I tried putting myself in his place and came up with seven reasons of my own for including washing a sinkful of dirty dishes on a post-captivity wish list.

Canadian James Loney is one of four members of Christian Peacemaker Teams abducted last November in Baghdad and threatened with execution. One, American Tom Fox, was eventually executed, but Loney and the other two, former Montrealer Hermeet Singh Sooden and Briton Norman Kember, were freed March 23 in a joint military operation.

I'm thinking Loney may already be up to his elbows washing stacks of dirty dishes and enjoying every minute of it. Why? Here are my seven reasons:

Food. The fact that the dishes are dirty means there was food on them, lots of food, food that felt like home, food that spoke of conviviality, something so missing in his terror-filled days as hostage.

Family. The dishes are dirty because he has just had a heartwarming meal with his partner, parents and relatives. Loney's abduction happened during his second tour in Iraq. Before his departure, his father had warned him he was asking for big trouble if something went wrong. Fortunately, some things went very right, too. And washing the dishes meant the family circle remained unbroken.

Friends. No doubt Loney will be happy to wash lots of dishes dirtied by friends in his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, too. This is a praying town, and he can sip coffee in downtown cafes beneath signs saying "Prayers Answered, Welcome Home James Loney." Celebrative ribbons hang from posts and trees.

Freedom. It wasn't ribbons of happiness, but harps of sadness, that hung from the trees along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers around Baghdad 2600 years ago. Of the very area where Loney was held hostage, a writer of old once lamented:

"By the rivers of Babylon– there we sat down and there we wept . . . . On the willows there we hung our harps. . . ." (Psalm 137).

But now every dish that Loney washes resounds with the music of freedom. His mourning has been turned into dancing at the sound of cups clattering, saucers squeaking and silverware tinkling.

Faith. Loney is convinced he was doing the will of God by being in Iraq. According to one report regarding his work with Christian Peacemaker Teams, Loney wrote:

"I believe that our actions as a people of peace must be an expression of hope for everyone. My hope in practicing non-violence is that I can be a conduit for the transformative power of God's love acting upon me as much as I hope it will act upon others around me."

Perhaps the food still clinging to every dish Loney washes will be food for thought for the rest of us in understanding our own roles in transforming the world by the power of God's love.

Forgiveness. It is said that Loney and his colleagues wanted no shots fired in attempts to rescue them. They got their wish. Instead of revenge, they wanted their captors to experience another day of life in which they, too, could wash the dishes from a meal with their family and friends, and perhaps eventually even work together with others from East and West alike as non-violent liberators from the tyranny of fear and hatred.

Future. One obvious reason Loney looked forward to washing stacks of dirty dishes is his conviction that the future matters. After all, if the future doesn't matter, then why bother washing the dishes at all? Just let them pile up in the sink.

But of course, we all wash dishes for this very reason: that our family and friends will gather around the table again – and again, and again, hopefully for generations to come. That's why we use soap to wash dirt from dishes; and that's why we must practice forgiveness, if we don't want the bitter legacy of yesterday to contaminate the hopes and dreams of tomorrow.

Which is precisely why, I think, James Loney was willing to risk his life in Iraq in the first place.

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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