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José Andrés mourns slain World Central Kitchen workers in National Cathedral service

<strong>Top row, from left:</strong> Palestinian Saifeddin "Safi" Issam Ayad Abutaha; Lalzawmi "Zomi" Frankcom of Australia; Damian Sobol of Poland; Jacob Flickinger of the U.S. and Canada; <strong>Bottom row, from left:</strong> Britain's John Chapman, James Kirby and James Henderson.
World Central Kitchen
Top row, from left: Palestinian Saifeddin "Safi" Issam Ayad Abutaha; Lalzawmi "Zomi" Frankcom of Australia; Damian Sobol of Poland; Jacob Flickinger of the U.S. and Canada; Bottom row, from left: Britain's John Chapman, James Kirby and James Henderson.

Updated April 25, 2024 at 2:16 PM ET

WASHINGTON — Their calling was to offer a beacon of humanity to people trapped in desperate conditions, bringing food to communities devastated by war and disaster. On Thursday, the World Central Kitchen community convened to celebrate the seven aid workers, three weeks after they were killed by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.

"They risked everything to feed people they did not know – and would never meet," said chef José Andrés, the founder of World Central Kitchen, as he addressed those gathered at the National Cathedral. "In the worst moments, the best of humanity shows up."

Andrés listed their names: Palestinian Saifeddin "Safi" Issam Ayad Abutaha; John Chapman of Britain; Jacob Flickinger of the U.S. and Canada; Lalzawmi "Zomi" Frankcom of Australia; Britons James Henderson and James Kirby; and Damian Sobol of Poland.

"They were the best of humanity," he said. "Their example should inspire us to do better – to be better."

The interfaith service wasn't open to the public, but video was streamed online. Organizers said 560 people attended — a mix of World Central Kitchen staff and workers from other humanitarian organizations, U.S. government officials and diplomats from more than 30 nations.

Each of the World Central Kitchen workers had been spurred to action in response to calamity — a volcanic eruption, a war, an earthquake, Andrés said.

His words faltered with emotion as he spoke of Frankcom.

"It always felt, from the start, that she embodied our spirit and purpose," he said. "She gave joy to others, even more than she gave food. Dancing, singing, playing with children. .... Her compassion and curiosity were infectious."

The service's officiants included the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, the cathedral's dean, and the Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. Also speaking: Rabbi Susan N. Shankman, senior rabbi of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, and Imam Talib M. Shareef, imam and president of Masjid Muhammad, the Nation's Mosque in Washington.

Behind the group stood the choir — and behind them, flags representing the seven aid workers' homelands.

The workers were heroes, Andrés said. He cited inspiration from John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.

"Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there," he said, referring to the famous speech by the character Tom Joad. "The seven souls we mourn today were there, so that hungry people could eat."

Attendees filled the main section of the cathedral's nave and its side transepts for the service, which included remembrances of the slain humanitarians, readings from Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions and prayers for peace. Musicians performing include cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The gathering included second gentleman Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Harris, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.

As of early April, at least 224 humanitarian workers had been killed in the Israel-Hamas war that began last October. According to the U.N. Security Council, the figure is "more than three times as many humanitarian aid workers killed in any single conflict recorded in a single year."

"Our losses may seem small," Andrés said, compared to other workers killed, the more than 34,000 Palestinians that the Gaza Ministry of Health says have died, and and some 1,200 Israelis killed by Hamas.

"But each of these people leave behind loved ones, who will always have them in their hearts," he added.

Israel has apologized for the attack that killed the seven workers, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying his country "deeply regrets the tragic incident."

The Israeli military says the incident violated its protocols, punishing those responsible. But World Central Kitchen says that's not enough, calling for an independent investigation and noting Israel's acknowledgement that its aid team had followed established communications procedures.

Palestinians inspect a vehicle with the logo of the World Central Kitchen wrecked by an Israeli airstrike in Deir al Balah, Gaza, on April 2, 2024. A memorial at the National Cathedral in Washington on April 25 will honor the seven WCK workers killed in the attack.
Ismael Abu Dayyah / AP
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AP
Palestinians inspect a vehicle with the logo of the World Central Kitchen wrecked by an Israeli airstrike in Deir al Balah, Gaza, on April 2, 2024. A service at the National Cathedral in Washington honored the seven WCK workers killed in the attack.

"The root cause of the unjustified rocket fire on our convoy is the severe lack of food in Gaza," the charity said. "Israel needs to dramatically increase the volume of food and medicine traveling by land if it is serious about supporting humanitarian aid."

In his remarks at the remembrance service, Andrés said the world's leaders should be expected to live by the same standards set by the slain aid workers.

"When disaster strikes, it's easy to see the dark and never the light," he said. "But the reality is this: The light will always shine through."

In a powerful moment in his speech, Andrés asked all of the current and former World Central Kitchen workers at the service to stand up — and as they did so, other attendees broke into loud and sustained applause.

He praised the workers for refusing to be indifferent to suffering, and insisting on helping others, even if it places them in great peril.

"The dishes we cook and deliver are not just ingredients, or calories," he said. "A plate of food is a plate of hope. A message that someone, somewhere, cares for you."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.