At the end of a too busy summer during which our family has had hardly a moment to slow down, we are finally on vacation on a houseboat in Philadelphia. Philly has lots to recommend it, water, bike paths, delicious food, great art, so much history. We started our trip in good tourist fashion with the Liberty Bell and the Constitution. We found ourselves reminded of what great and radical ideas this country was built on and one of the National Park Rangers put it well when he said that since the Constitution was signed, we’ve been trying to live up to the ideals it espouses. Philadelphia is also close to New York. A few days ago, we drove up to Liberty Island in New Jersey and took the ferry to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island is my favorite New York attraction. The registry room with its literal and figurative echoes; the island’s proximity and distance from Manhattan’s sparkle and promise; the photographs and oral histories that are on display, all powerfully communicate the risk, hope, need, and strength that characterize immigrant experience.
Like many of you, I’ve been reading and watching the unfolding humanitarian crisis on our country’s southern border. My heart aches to think about mothers so desperate that sending their children with strangers, through desserts, hanging on trains, hiding in bushes, and crossing rivers is their only means to give their children a chance at life. What would have to be happening in my neighborhood, town, state, country to send my boys on such a journey? My boys can make each other crazy but my older son would lay down his life for his little brother. If they were forced to make such a journey, he would try his hardest to protect his younger brother but it would be a game of roulette and neither he nor I could influence the outcome. I’ve seen pictures of older siblings with their younger brothers and sisters making this crossing and I can’t help but compare… There but for the grace of God.
My heart breaks too for Americans who show no compassion. News stories about towns driving out child-filled buses and social media diatribes about false choices: taking care of our own versus taking care of “them.” Surely, this is not who these individuals are called to be. As a country, we’ve been here before. Three days ago, here in Philly, I walked past a memorial to Irish immigrants. Here’s how they were described at the time as quoted from the memorial:
Attitudes toward the Irish were typified by an English commentator who described the Irish immigrants as ‘more like tribes of squalid apes than human beings.’ A prominent Philadelphian wrote of the Irish that they had ‘revolting and vicious habits. Being of the lower order of mankind, they were repellent…
Tomorrow, we head for Boston. Tea parties, midnight rides, stories of people from so many walks of life who risked it all to create something new. The founding fathers, brilliant as they were, didn’t get everything right the first time. The rights of many were sacrificed to get all of the colonies to sign on. But hearing all of the history again reminds me that we are a nation that is more than anything an idea and a dream. And each generation is charged with moving the idea of E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One – forward. Our founding fathers have left it to us to fulfill their great work. To lift the lamp…with liberty and justice for all.