Mourning a soldier and an only son

Christians, Muslims and Jews grieve with the family of Marine Kendall D. Waters-Bay

April 05, 2003|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,SUN STAFF

The tall, thin holy man in the tassled maroon fez and brilliant red sash stood high in the sanctuary of St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Church, the long fingers of his white-gloved hands pressed firmly against his temples, and he sang a Muslim call to prayer, ancient and solemn, and his voice echoed off the high stone walls of the church, as if some ghost in a distant land were answering him.

Few of the men, women and children who had gathered for the funeral of Marine Staff Sgt. Kendall D. Waters-Bey could understand the song, delivered in Arabic by Shiek Eugene Martin-el of the Moorish Science Temple of America, but they seemed to respond to its mysterious power and recognize the beauty of the moment.

"This is a house of God," the presiding priest, Father Joe Muth, said. "This happens to be a Catholic church, but today we gather as Christians, Muslims and Jews."

Christians, Muslims and Jews all shed tears for the young Marine from Baltimore, who died in the land of sand and blood, scarred by centuries of religious and ethnic conflict.

And they reached out to his family - Waters-Bey's father, Michael, a member of the Moorish temple; the Marine's son, 10-year-old Kenneth, who called his father a hero the day after he died in a helicopter crash near the Iraq-Kuwait border; and the Marine's mother and his four sisters, who had declared the war in Iraq uncalled-for even as they grieved for their brother. For several hours at a funeral home Thursday and for more than an hour before the service yesterday, men and women filed by the flag-cloaked coffin of the Marine, and they reached for his father, who gave big and long hugs until he was exhausted, and the little boy, who greeted mourners when his grandfather no longer seemed to have the strength.

Father Muth read from scripture as babies cried in the church. "We are your children, Lord," the priest prayed. "Bring hope, healing and peace to a broken and troubled world."

Evangelist Marion Jones sang a contemporary spiritual, and as her voice soared, women in the pews started to rock from side to side and wave their hands, and soon there were ripples of applause.

"Praise the Lord," Muth said as Jones finished.

"Praise the Lord," the people responded.

"Praise the Lord," Muth said again.

"Praise the Lord!"

A cousin of the Marine, the Billboard Top 10 jazz artist Kim Waters, stepped into the sanctuary with a saxophone and summoned from some corner of his soul the most enthralling rendition of "Amazing Grace," bluesy and jazzy, plaintive then joyous. The old song was not immediately recognizable, smothered in Waters' musical clouds, but then it came through perfectly, and the people applauded. As the song fell back to Earth and ended, the pianist who accompanied Waters slipped in a phrase from Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," and the last notes lingered in a long echo.

Now men from March Funeral Home set up a projection screen and in the dim light of the church, images from Sergeant Waters-Bey's life appeared in a series of dissolves, and the people in the church were still again.

"This is the only son I had," his father had said on television the day after the Marine died. "The only son."

And here he was - a baby in 1973, a little boy in an Easter suit, a kid in school photographs that aunts and uncles might have pinned to bulletin boards, a big brother with a sister on a slide, a smiling rascal with other children on a couch.

A woman in a black dress stood in the front of the church and left down the main aisle, weeping heavily, her hand over her mouth.

The music track with the slide show grew in intensity, and "my only son" appeared as an eager teen-ager behind the wheel of a car, as a tall and handsome young man in a prom tuxedo, as a newly minted Marine in full dress, as the smiling chief of a helicopter crew, his big right hand pressed against the side of his CH-46E Sea Knight.

By now, there were tears on cheeks everywhere in the church, and the sounds of men and women weeping, then ecstatic applause as the video ended.

Father Muth noted the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. 35 years ago, April 4, 1968. Since that awful day, Muth said, "new life came to this nation in many struggling ways."

"So hold onto God," the priest said. "New life will come."

Then Marines escorted the casket of Sergeant Waters-Bey from the church. The organist played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and the family followed behind. Michael Waters- Bey walked with his arm around 10-year-old Kenneth, the sergeant's only son.

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