PILGRIMAGES OF REPENTANCE
A few months ago I stood among the foundations of the houses and the mass graves of the people that once constituted the village of My Lai in Central Viet Nam. It is now a peaceful garden devoted to the memory of the 504 innocent villagers massacred there during four hours on the morning of March 16, 1968. An American unit of soldiers from Charlie Company walked into My Lai on that fateful day and began executing men, women, children and babies. Reports from soldiers involved in this atrocity provide evidence that Charlie Company received no return enemy fire during their time in the area.
Each grave contains the names and ages of those it holds. One grave holds eight people; the oldest is in her eighties and the youngest is only two years of age. As I walked slowly through the memorial garden, reading the names on the tombstones and trying to imagine how the laughter of the children that once echoed among the trees must have turned so suddenly to terrified screams as the gunshots rang out that morning, a light rain began to fall, like tears from heaven. The drops of falling water created growing circles of sadness in the water of the ditch where more than one hundred villagers had been herded and killed with assault rifles and light machineguns, their pleas for compassion unheard.
A young Vietnamese woman, whose relatives had died on that fateful day, shared some of her story with me. Even though she was not born when her village of My Lai became a graveyard, the pain of what happened to her family and her village is clearly etched into her eyes and her heart. Her tears occasionally joined with the raindrops as we stopped in front of the foundation of a particular house, or read the names of those buried in one of the graves. It still hurts her deeply. Yet, she showed no animosity toward me or toward America as she accompanied me along our pilgrimage through this sad history. When I told her that in 1971 I had lived only about ten miles from My Lai, she immediately asked what I had been doing. I explained that I worked with the church and had been opposed to the war. She looked at me and said, “You are lucky. Your mind is at peace.” It was an expression of forgiveness on her part, but it did not feel complete to me. The other side has yet to seek forgiveness or make serious efforts to right what has been done to this village and the people who once lived here So the process of repentance and forgiveness can not yet be completed, for forgiveness without repentance is like a precious gift left unaccepted and unopened.
Leaving the quietness of the My Lai memorial, I wondered what it would mean to the world if all of us would start making pilgrimages to places like My Lai in order to share tears and repentance with those who have suffered so much. Perhaps a time of healing and reconciliation would begin to blossom and the world would become a better place. It’s time for us to begin making pilgrimages to all those places and to all those people where we have directly or indirectly caused suffering so that the healing our societies and our world so badly needs can begin.