A Free Methodist Church clergywoman recounts here how she rediscovered her American patriotism from her immigrant friends. A Congolese friend particularly persuaded her. She had thought after his difficult time in substandard housing and cultural transition that he might be ambivalent about his new country. But instead he told her of his love for America. After years of poverty, war, tribal conflict (he was targeted for marrying a woman from a different tribe) and refugee camps, he and his family were finally safe. Nobody in America was persecuting him or trying to kill him.
This clergywoman recited other immigrant friends who had similarly hard lives in America with menial jobs, long hours and language barriers. They all love America. And through hard work they have prospered, becoming owners of homes where they display their American flags. They may not be rich by American standards, at least not yet, but they are immensely better off materially than in their previous lands. Yet their relative prosperity is not the chief cause of their gratitude to America, as she explains:
They come because they want to be safe. They are tired of war, and fighting, and hatred. They already know what that is like and they don’t want any part of it. They want to be active participants in a country where they can marry, raise children, go to the store, and attend community events peacefully. They have taught me hospitality inviting me into their homes for tea and homemade food giving me more honor than I deserve. At one level they are the walking wounded, victims of division and greed. At another level they are simply people like me looking for a quiet, safe place to live and love. They are my friends, my neighbors, my fellow Americans.
Living in a country of historically unprecedented safety and tolerance is typically taken for granted by most Americans. I was struck by this point recently when a friend in Liberia told me his family was held hostage by burglars who robbed his home. When I asked if the police in his village were helpful he laughed scornfully, explaining they rarely if ever respond. There is there no quick response time for dialing 911. Our circumstances in America are unusual and they are not a recent development. Concepts of liberty, legal equality and social forbearance germinated and percolated across many centuries before reaching their current state, still of course far short of nirvana, and yet refined behind the imagination of most humanity.
It should never be forgotten that our current culture of lawful liberty was achieved and refined only through the insights, sacrifices, martyrdoms, and perseverance of many, many who have gone before, guided by divine grace. Believing that every individual is ordained by God to live with dignity dates to the earliest Hebrew scripture. It conflicts starkly with the universal human propensity for tribalism, greed, exploitation and dehumanizing any who are perceived to obstruct personal desires. And yet the seeds of human dignity were planted, watered, nurtured and sustained. The consequent deep roots of American law and liberty can be hindered at times with weeds and pestilence, but they are not easily fully uprooted. They are hardy and have survived much. Like a verdant grass, they revive and spread and reclaim their full color even after drought.
My confidence in American liberty, law and tolerance is always renewed when I travel across America. On my current road trip I listened to an audio version of Ron White’s new biography of Ulysses Grant, general and president, as well as Methodist. The book’s most powerful revelation concerns Grant’s transition from apolitical to deep commitment to full equal rights for former slaves. As president he heroically fought to protect blacks in the south from Reconstruction era violence. In the short term, Grant mostly lost that battle. In the long term, he has been vindicated.
Some of the worst anti-black violence that Grant fought was in South Carolina. I recalled those dark days this week as I stopped in wonderful Greenville, South Carolina, a beautiful city whose streets were filled with people of all ages and races enjoying outdoor cafes and other entertainments. I walked by many interracial couples who happily held hands. In Grant’s day they could have been killed. In many countries in today’s world, crossing racial, tribal, and religious boundaries remains very dangerous, often lethally.
Some flee that danger to come to America. But not all can. We should pray and work for a world in which God-ordained human dignity is affirmed and protected for all, however distant that dream may seem. And we should, like this Free Methodist clergywoman, rediscover our own patriotism and gratitude for where law and liberty, however approximate, do exist, by God’s mercy.