As I was researching this week on the historical novel I’m writing I ran across a touching, yet tragic story that took place on a Civil War battle field.
It was December of 1862, following the Battle of Fredericksburg. Men assigned to burial details from both the Union and Confederate forces emerged onto the bloody battle field with the grim task of burying their dead. One man from each company of the 8th Ohio came out under a flag of truce to join the Rebels of the 16th Mississippi. When these soldiers returned to their respective camps that evening, it was reported that the men were “full of stories of how they had passed the day . . .,” and all had “parted on good terms and bade one another a sincere goodbye” (The Civil War Infantryman, by Gregory A. Coco, Thomas Publications, 1996).
Here were men-in-arms pitched in feverish battle. Yet they were friends and relatives only a few short months before, many having served in the U.S. military together, now separated in the bloodiest, costliest war in fatalities and injuries our nation has ever experienced (623,000 killed, and 471,000 wounded). The foul business of war, any war, but particularly a civil war, has a long-term effect.
So, recently I was out of town for eleven days on military business when the issue of a psychic coming to our community took center stage. I came home on the weekend for about twenty-four hours before heading back to New Orleans to finish my assignment. Despite doing a funeral for a ninety-three year old saint from my church who had been a missionary in India and a school teacher, plus preaching Sunday morning, I managed to get a quick look at the Ripon Record. I saw the article about the psychic coming as a guest of the Friends of the Ripon Memorial Library. I remember seeing the part about communicating with deceased loved one, and thinking, “When I get back, I’ll need to look into this.” Little did I realize what a fire storm was about to hit our town.
While in New Orleans that week I received phone calls from individuals in the community who were expressing various concerns: The Mayor has cancelled the psychic! The newspaper (Ripon Record) got it all wrong! First Amendment rights are being violated! ad nauseum. Then when I arrived home it seemed like this was the only story on everyone’s mind. I scanned the newspapers in our area, including the Letters to the Editor.
I determined to check with the people involved before I said anything. You see, I know most of the key players in this drama, working with them in various capacities for several years. I am a committee member of the Friends of the Ripon Memorial Library, and have enjoyed a very pleasant working relationship with Brigitte Long, the director. I also know Chuck Winn, Ripon’s Mayor, and have always been impressed with his reasoned approach to solving matters. I serve, or have served on different committees for the city, and am pleased to do so. Then, of course, I know Joe Franscella, the editor of the Ripon Record. We have had an excellent working relationship since I arrived in Ripon in 1998.
So after speaking at some length with these friends, allow me to offer my take on what has happened.
• The Mayor, Chuck Winn, did not cancel the psychic’s speaking engagement. What he did do was act on behalf of the citizenry, believing that using city tax dollars in support of a program that brought someone in to communicate with the dead was inappropriate. The library was certainly free to have the psychic come. The reason she did not come was because the Stockton-San Joaquin County Public Library cancelled it.
• The accusation that the Mayor “threatened” in a phone conversation with the director of the Stockton-San Joaquin County Public Library to withhold funds may or may not have happened. I was not privy to the conversation. What I can say is this: 1) As the elected mayor of our city, the mayor is well within his legal rights to act in accordance with his office. 2) The Mayor cannot arbitrarily make unilateral decisions. He can only recommend to the rest of the City Council, who then must vote yea or nay. And 3) In my dealings with the Mayor he has always demonstrated a calm, thoughtful demeanor. It would be out of character for him to huff and puff in a threatening manner.
• I personally read the news item which the Ripon Record received from the County. It states very explicitly that the psychic was going to “offer attendees a chance to communicate with deceased loved ones.” Joe Franscella did not change or manipulate the article for sensationalistic affect.
One final thought. It was said that evangelical Christian ministers raised an objection to having a psychic come to our community in a public setting to communicate with the dead. Though I was not here when this hit the fan, I would have been one of those who would have objected. Why? Because the Bible gives very clear instruction when it comes to psychics and communicating with the dead. As a Christian and a minister of the Gospel, I take seriously the teaching of God’s word.
Case in point:
• In the book of Deuteronomy chapter 18 verses 10-12, it says, “Let no one be found among you . . . who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord . . .”
As a minister I have an obligation to speak out against such things, and as long as the Lord gives me breath, I will continue to do so.
So, I say, thank you Mr. Mayor for your efforts to protect the inappropriate use of city tax dollars.
Residents of Ripon, please remember that we are neighbors, you and I. Be careful in choosing your battles. For once the battle lines are drawn and the words are spoken we may at some point need to call for a truce to recover the injured, only to walk away realizing we really do care about each other.