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Carrying the Light

Friends of Tom Fox remember his life, urge peacemaking work to continue after his death.

In the nearly two weeks since news of his death became public, friends of Springfield native Tom Fox have been trying to make peace with their friend’s passing.

He was no martyr, they say. Rather, he would most likely be uncomfortable with all the attention focused on his work in Iraq as part of the Christian Peacemaker Teams for the past few years.

“When Tom went to Iraq, we saw a side of him that we weren’t aware of before,” said Doug Smith, clerk of the Langley Hill Meeting of Friends, a Quaker congregation in McLean.

Fox kept a blog in which he wrote about his struggles and work in Iraq, Smith said, which provided a deeper look into a man who had a “depth of spirit” he didn’t reveal to many people.

Smith thinks it was this unassuming nature that helped Fox connect with the Iraqi people, living among them in Baghdad for three- or four-month intervals since 2003 and collecting their stories of loved ones who had been imprisoned or taken hostage.

“He was able to sit and talk with just about anyone,” Smith said. “There wasn’t anything extraordinary about him.”

FOX JOINED Christian Peacemaker Teams, a non-government organization promoting peace with headquarters in Chicago and Toronto, as an alternative to impending war after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He did not join CPT with the intent of going to Iraq, Smith said, but instead because “it was something he wanted to do. He liked that [they were] a group that tried to get into the middle of a conflict, hear all sides and find a way to bring them together.”

As a Quaker, Fox was following in “a long history of peace work and social activism,” something he ultimately gave his life for, Smith said.

The Rev. Carol Rose, a director at CPT, said she first met Fox when he began the training all volunteers go through before being assigned to one of the eight conflict zones they work in around the world.

While in the middle of one of the most dangerous places in the world, Rose said Fox “always had a peaceful presence. He was very much at home there,” despite being well aware that, as a foreigner, especially as an American, it would be best to keep a low profile.

Fox all but refused to “blend in,” she said, instead preferring to go to checkpoints around Fallujah, talking with the guards who worked there and the residents who spent hours waiting to cross to the other side.

Fox had a natural curiosity and desire to learn about the people he’d meet, said Rose.

“There was no hope in trying to keep Tom hidden, there was no way to keep him from standing out,” she laughed. “He was well-known and well-loved by his Iraqi colleagues.”

CPT's continues in Iraq, she said, despite Fox’s death and the uncertain fate of Harmeet Sooden, James Looney and Norman Kember, three coworkers who were kidnapped along with Fox back in November. Fox was the first CPT member to be killed in Iraq, she said.

IF THINGS had worked out differently, Fox could have been assigned to work in Palestine, or on a Native American reservation in Canada, or in Colombia, where other CPT workers are placed. Instead, he made himself at home in Iraq, said longtime friend Paul Slattery.

“Tom had a quiet self-assurance that this was where he wanted to go, that there were people in Iraq that were hurting and he had to go and do what he could to help them,” Slattery said.

Working in Iraq, helping to create a Muslim group based on the CPT practices, was the "high point” of Fox’s life, he said.

“If Tom had come back here and lived to retirement age, I can see him sitting in a rocking chair and looking back on his life in Fallujah and Baghdad with a smile on his face,” Slattery said.

There have been moments when Slattery said he has questioned himself, wondering if maybe he should have been more assertive of his skepticism.

"But he wanted to do this, and it was my job to support him. I don’t feel guilty, but in a way I do feel bad, that maybe in some way I wasn’t the advocate for the people who loved him and didn’t want him to do it," he said. "But that wasn’t my role."

Fox had a strong faith and an equally strong belief that he was “called” to go to Iraq, despite the dangers he knew were there, said friend Pearl Hoover, minister of the Northern Virginia Mennonite Church in Fairfax. Since Fox’s death, Hoover said part of the loss people have been feeling is the sense of love that emanated from him.

“Tom knew how to love and let someone be where they are instead of where he thought they should be,” she said.

Some people may find it difficult to understand why he felt so compelled to put himself in a war zone in the name of peace, Hoover said, but it is no different than a soldier signing up to serve his or her country.

“It is just as costly to be a peacemaker as it is to be a warrior,” she said.

THE LAST TIME Fox was in Virginia, he met with his support group at the McLean Family Restaurant to catch up, share stories and photographs, said close friend Hoyt Maulden. Something didn’t seem quite right when Fox arrived, said Maulden, but he didn’t know what it was until Fox pulled out a large, brightly colored gift bag that was “uncharacteristically loud and colorful and flashy."

Fox had brought back a hand-hammered copper plate from a market in Iraq, which he had wrapped in gift bags for the five people he kept in closest contact with while working overseas, Maulden said.

“Tom always went out of his way to do the right thing, and in this case, he wanted to do it up right and make it a special event to give us these gifts,” he said.

Memories like that one have been a comfort to Maulden since learning of Fox’s death, but he said it has been more comforting talking with people who understand why Fox was working in Iraq, why it was important to him and why it must continue.

“Tom was so ordinary in some ways, but that is what’s important to remember,” he said. “It doesn’t take a superhuman kind of person to do what he did. Tom didn’t do anything other than be faithful to what he believed in.”