Wednesday, January 21, 2009
"Hope Over Fear"
Yesterday, like most of us, I watched the inauguration. It was an amazing, victorious day for our country. I say this not as a Democrat. In fact I say it as a Republican voter who strongly disagrees with many of Obama's policies. But yesterday I put politics aside and celebrated. It wasn't a day for political parties. It was a day for America.
As I watched I thought of the African Americans my age and older, who lived through the Civil Rights era. Of others who recite family legends about their slave ancestors. I thought about Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King, Jr. The teenagers who braved the gauntlet of snarl and spit as they dared cross the threshold of a white high school. Those adults brave enough to cast their first vote when the pressure to "just stay home" was strong. I thought of all those people, and their children who now hear their stories, and knew that even with my strong feelings about this historical moment, I couldn't begin to understand the depth of their emotion.
Most of all I thought of a "Negro" mother from the sixties, a woman whose name I do not know. But I have never forgotten her. For her tragic story was my introduction to injustice.
I grew up in a Wilmore, Kentucky, a small town with a worldwide reach through its Christian institutions, Asbury College and Seminary. Students from many countries attended those schools. Church bishops from all over the world came to meetings there, and many of them stayed in our home. My own parents were missionaries in India for twenty years. I was born there, and we returned to the states when I was nearly three. In Wilmore my parents continued their ministry by opening their house to international visitors. I never knew who would be at our table or in a guestroom. All colors of skin were equal to me because of my parents' graciousness toward everyone. I simply didn't know any differently.
That changed one day when I was about ten years old. The Vietnam War was raging. On TV came a story from a deep southern state. A young "Negro" soldier had been killed on the battlefield, and his body had been shipped home. His mother was grieving. Then her nightmare took an unthinkable twist. The town in which she lived wouldn't allow her son to be buried in its cemetery--the son who'd died fighting for his country. That cemetery was "whites only."
I remember hearing the story, first thinking I must have heard wrong. No one could be that mean. A reporter asked the mother, "How do you feel about the situation?" She lowered her head, looking so weary. "Just ... sad."
Sad? As a child, I felt that too. But I felt so much more. A new feeling twisted my gut, an anger, a rage wrapped around that sorrow. How could anyone treat the soldier and his mother like that? How could anyone not see how unfair this was, after that young man had died for our country? Somehow, amid my youth and inexperience, I looked at that mother and knew she felt these things too. Yet all that rose from her was weariness, as if she'd borne the burden of injustice for a long, long time.
I don't know if that mother is still alive. I hope she is. Yesterday was for her.
I happen to be back in Wilmore at the moment, visiting my own mother. We watched the inauguration together. Mom's 92 now and a widow. She's a staunch Republican, never voted Democrat in her life. But she was as glued to the TV as I. That morning she'd been to the doctor because of a swollen leg. We were concerned it might be a blood clot. It wasn't, but the doctor told her to stay off her feet and keep them elevated. During the ceremony she sat in her armchair with the pop-up footrest, her leg on a pillow. I'd put two blankets over her because she was cold. But at the end of the inauguration, when the national anthem was sung, Mom swept aside her blankets and pushed to her feet. "I cannot sit while this song is being sung," she declared. And she stood, back straight, watching the TV screen and listening until the last note died away.
Yesterday was for my mom, too. For the mother who taught me that all people are created equal.
In his address President Obama said we now choose "hope over fear." That phrase links old memory and new in my mind. The stricken face of that "Negro" mother of the sixties who was denied justice--and the picture of my own mom, standing straight and proud as the national anthem was sung on an African American's inauguration day.
Tomorrow, this nation faces its future. Politics return. I will raise my voice against certain policies of President Obama, such as extending abortion. Even as I oppose other injustices, I can still rejoice that this country has come a long way in shedding its past sin of slavery and oppression against an entire race.
Yesterday was a day for all of us.