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Carter Woolly: An American abroad reflects on losing patriots like Bush & McCain


Carter Woolly of Salisbury stands near the Capitol in Washington. Now he’s doing missionary work in Rwanda.

By Carter Woolly

Special to the Salisbury Post

There is something about the U.S. Capitol building which inspires the most beautiful sunsets. Two summers ago, while I was working in Washington D.C., I had the opportunity to attend the July Fourth celebration on the Capitol lawn.

Each year, the celebration begins right before the sun sets and concludes under the light of the midsummer fireworks. All throughout the night, the National Symphony — and its collaborators — play songs and lead the crowd in a celebration of independence.

On this particular year, an afternoon storm had blown in, threatening to put an early end to the celebrations. To avoid the storm, my friends and I ducked inside a local bar. Thankfully, the storm passed quickly and the city — which typically is unbearably hot and humid — was filled with cool, fall-like air, and the sky was bathed in an awe-inspiring purple sunset. It was the perfect night to celebrate and recognize the country I so dearly love.

On Monday night, Washington saw another beautiful sunset. As President George H.W. Bush climbed the back steps of the Capitol building for the final time, the sky over the National Mall was flush with an incredible deep purple tint.

“Now rest beneath night’s shadow the woodland, field, and meadow; the world in slumber lies. But you, my heart, awaking and prayer and music making, let praise to your creator rise.”

For those of you who may not know me well, I am a deeply patriotic person. I love my country, and I draw inspiration from a variety of role models from across the political spectrum. Since I have been in Rwanda, we have lost two of my most steadfast role models — President George H.W. Bush and Sen. John McCain. I have to admit, there is something profoundly different about being away from home when people — such as these two — pass away.

In many ways, it seems like these events are distant, perhaps even irrelevant to the time and place where I am living. I remember telling a Rwandan friend that a former U.S. president had died, to which he responded, “So sorry,” and continued on with what he was doing. It was as he should have done — news is different depending on where you live. Likewise, the events which are important to folks here are different than they are in the United States.

Yet, at the same time, while watching Bush being laid in state in the rotunda or McCain’s casket being carried down the aisle at the National Cathedral, I felt closer to my homeland than I have throughout the past three-and-a-half months. Perhaps it’s seeing images of my heroes all gathered in one place; or it’s hearing the familiar hymns and patriotic songs; or the prayers we lift up and the stories we tell; or maybe it’s the text messages my dad and I rapidly send each other whenever an event like this is taking place. These things are enough to make the hairs on my arms stand up for minutes without end. It’s beautiful, it’s haunting, it’s sad, and it’s joyful.

McCain and Bush were both Navy pilots, each of whom had been shot down in the Pacific and bravely stared death in the face, informing it that they had much more still to do in this world. As is typical of many Navy member’s funerals, the seafarer’s hymn, “Eternal Father Strong to Save,” was sung by the congregation.

I love this hymn, partially because it’s just a great tune, but also because it reminds me of my Grandfather Poppy who served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. There are many things which can draw people together — stories, sports, music, faith — and the beautiful thing is that each of these is different and unique. “Eternal Father Strong to Save” allows me to remember and feel close to Poppy, despite him passing away two years ago. Likewise, seeing the sky above the Capitol awash in purple draws me closer to my beloved home.

And all this makes me wonder, once I leave this country, “What will draw me closer to Rwanda?” I probably won’t know the answer to this question until after I leave this place. But I’ve got a lot of work still to do until then.

“Eternal Father, strong to save, whose arm does bind the restless wave, who bids the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep; O hear us when we cry to Thee for those in peril on the sea.” (Eternal Father)

A 2018 graduate of Lenoir-Rhyne University, Carter Woolly of Salisbury is serving with the ELCA in Rwanda for a year with the Young Adults in Global Mission program. He is the son of the Rev. Rhodes and Krista Woolly.


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