Greg Barrett is a former USA Today journalist and author of The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq. (Photo provided)
By Tanya J. Tyler
Former USA Today investigative journalist Greg Barrett will in Lexington Sunday, Jan. 20, to share a story of rescue and reconciliation in the midst of war and chaos.
His book, The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq, tells the story of how Iraqi Muslims rescued injured American Christians in 2003 during the Iraqi War. The rescued Christians returned to Iraq seven years later, in January 2010, wanting to return the hospitality and hope they had found among their rescuers.
Barrett, a 20-year veteran of newspaper reporting, says the story is counterintuitive to everything Americans were told about Iraqis and Muslims in the run-up to the Iraqi War. “We were fed from the Pentagon and Washington a steady diet of patriotism, nationalism and machismo,” Barrett said.
To dispel that notion, Christian peacemakers from several different countries went into Iraq to reside alongside the Muslims and Iraqis in Baghdad.
“They believed if their country was going to bomb another country, they should endure [the bombing] with them as their neighbors, as their brothers and sisters,” Barrett said.
Initially, he thought the peacemakers were “nutty.” But as he got to know them, his opinion changed. “I later discovered they were just incredibly courageous and I envied their character,” he said.
Barrett accompanied some of the peacemakers to Iraq when war was imminent “We wanted to put a face on who the victims of the war would be: the everyday Iraqi,” he said.
He didn’t want to be credentialed as a journalist so he wouldn’t have a “minder” attached to him and he could roam and report freely. He wasn’t sure about the reception he would get as a citizen of the country that was bombing Iraq.
“I thought I would not be well received in Iraq, that people would curse me, perhaps spit at me or, if they got a chance, maybe even beat me,” he said. “And nothing could have been further from the truth.”
Even when he was separated from his group for a tense 30 minutes in a busy marketplace, no one bothered him. One Iraqi even went out of his way to point out that his work satchel was unzipped, exposing his cache of money. “He was telling me to be careful,” Barrett said.
The story in Barrett’s book gives details of a harrowing experience the peacemakers endured. As they were driving through Iraq, their cab hit what must have been some unexploded ordnance. The car flipped into a ditch, and several of the peacemakers were badly injured. The hospital in Rutba – the only one in the area – had been bombed three days earlier by U.S. special forces out of Fort Campbell.
“By accident, I interviewed the guy who ordered the bombing,” Barrett said. “He said they were bombing what they thought was an ammo depot, but it turned out to be a shed full of fertilizer. It exploded and burned down the hospital.”
The injured peacemakers were taken to a local clinic where there was no electricity, water or anesthesia and very few medicines. Two doctors, an ambulance driver, a nurse and a physician’s assistant were the only medical personnel available to help the Christians. One of the doctors told them, “You’re safe here in Rutba. We’ll take care of you.”
“That’s the gospel,” Barrett said. “That’s good news.”
The physician’s assistant took care of one of the victims who had a serious head wound, literally pinching his head together and suturing it. As he worked he kept whispering one word over and over in Arabic: “Sorry.”
Barrett said the doctors wouldn’t accept pay for their work. “The one doctor said, ‘We don’t want your money. That’s not why treated you. We treated you because you are our brothers and our sisters. Go and tell the world about Rutba. That’s the only favor we ask of you.’”
Barrett is passionate about articulating the need for cooperation and ecumenicalism among the world’s mainstream religions. He says he had a spiritual awakening in his around-the-world reporting more powerful than his baptism at age 7.
“What was spiritually empowering for me wasn’t getting dunked in a baptismal pool,” he said. “It was in seeing the lessons implemented by Buddhists and Muslims and Christians alike. I was able to see people of all faiths practicing the lessons and implementing the lessons of Christ by helping the poor and the widows and the children and by treating one another with love and loving their neighbors. As Desmond Tutu writes in the forward to my book, ‘The divine is in all of us and is expressed through our actions.’”
People might speak different languages, but the same concerns, such as safety and education for their children and the local and global economy, dominate their lives, Barrett continued. “We have all this in common,” he said. “It’s only these superficial things that divide us and then we end up putting up these figurative walls that come from fear.”
A Pulitzer Prize nominee and winner of the 2009 Nautilus Book Award Silver Medal in the category of Conscious Media-Journalism-Investigative Reporting, Barrett’s work as a national and foreign correspondent for Gannett News Service’s USA Today Washington bureau spanned Thailand, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq.
“The Gospel of Rutba is about what happens when every day people come together,” he said. “I’ve seen it in my first book and all my reports from across the world. When just everyday people come together without their political, religious, national, cultural and economic biases, when we just meet each other on common ground and we can see what we have in common – and we have a lot more in common than we don’t – we can build dynamic relationships instead of explosive wars.”
Barrett will make three appearances while in Lexington. He will be at Embrace Church’s Epworth campus, 1015 N. Limestone St., at 9 a.m. and at Embrace’s Downtown campus at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St., at 10 a.m. He will also be at Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St., at 2 p.m.
For more information, call 859-309-3862 or visit Barrett’s website here.