Greg Barrett and his seven companions were kind of conspicuous at the border of Jordan and Iraq.
“We looked like spring breakers, a group of unarmed Caucasians,” he said of the group that included Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne in all his dreadlocked glory.
Quickly, a group of U.S. Army soldiers arrived in Humvees, and Capt. William Don Foster assured the group that if they went into Iraq they would likely be kidnapped and decapitated.
Decapitated — a word they heard several times.
The captain was legitimately concerned, Barrett said. Since he’d been in Iraq, three of Foster’s interpreters had been kidnapped and beheaded. Foster had to watch the videos.
“I was ready to turn around,” said Barrett, who remembered his wife told him before the 2010 trip not to do anything foolish. “But peer pressure is a wonderful thing. Sami said it wasn’t true.”
While it is easy to presume many Iraqis would see this Western group as synonymous with their enemies, Claiborne, Iraqi-American Sami Rasouli and their fellow travelers had different experiences.
In 2003, several of them traveled to Iraq as the United States was getting ready to invade under the pretense that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
“They were going to reside in the middle of ‘shock and awe,’ ” Barrett said. “Some people said they were suicidal. Not at all. They were courageous.”
The Americans were trying to help and show the Iraqis a different side of the United States than they were about to see.
And they survived, only to be injured in an auto accident as they were leaving the country. Just when their journey looked extremely dark, the group was rescued by Iraqi Muslims and treated and protected at a devastated clinic in the town of Rutba.
“The story of American Christians being rescued by Iraqi Muslims resonated with me because I was in Iraq in 2003 and was amazed at the kindness that I was treated with,” Barrett said.
Barrett, a longtime newspaper writer for a number of papers including the Baltimore Sun and USA Today, was in Iraq with Gannett News Service. His aim was to put a human face on the people who were about to be on the receiving end of the U.S. invasion, though he was a little apprehensive about how he would be received.
On one of his first days in Iraq, he was in a crowded market and became separated from his group.
“I was in a crowd of Iraqis, mostly men, and there was no mistaking me for an Iraqi,” Barrett said. “I am a dirty blond American.”
But the entire 45 minutes he was alone in the crowd, no one laid a hand on him except a man who told him the zipper on his bag had opened, and he was in danger of being pickpocketed.
It was one of many instances that solidified in Barrett a belief that regardless of ethnicity, religion or nationality, people are essentially the same.
And that is what he sought to chronicle in his new book, The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq, which tells the original tale and the story of Claiborne and crew’s journey back to Iraq in 2010.
The gist of his presentation is the theme of unified humanity, despite walls people put up, such as the walls between Jews and Palestinians on the Gaza Strip.
“I was there with Shane,” Barrett said. “The walls are as high as San Quentin — they are a literal manifestation of fear. We were on both sides of the wall, and everyone was really the same: they love their children, they love their friends, they want security.”
Of course, when the group returned to Rutba, there was a little fear on both sides. When they arrived, Barrett said, they were initially questioned by local officials about what they were doing there. But after they understood the mission was to say thanks and show a different side of America, Barrett said, the Americans were greeted warmly, and the mayor even gave them his security detail while they were there.
It was an experience that would not have been possible, Barrett said, if they had turned back or come armed with their own security.
“There is a huge difference in showing up with our own security detail with guns pointed saying we want to be friends and showing up with our hands extended and no guns,” Barrett said.
On the 10th anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, it’s a message Barrett and Claiborne, who has helped promote the book, want to convey.
“You can’t bomb the world into peace,” Barrett said. “You have to build dynamic relationships, not expensive wars.”