“In America, the home of the free, there are more walls keeping people in or holding people out than in almost any other nation. After more than one hundred and fifty years of living in an atmosphere supposedly charged with liberty and equality, we have come to the conclusion, it would seem, that while all men are created equal, some are created more equal than others.”
My father wrote these prophetic words in a sermon seventy years ago, in 1947, two years after the end of World War II, two years before I was born. He was a young pastor in a Presbyterian church in Oneida Castle, New York, speaking truth to power, unafraid.
My dad professed to be a Christian. At the end of his life he told me he didn’t know if God existed or if Jesus were really the son of God but it didn’t matter to him. He loved the story and that story was the way he lived his life. If my dad were alive today he would have something to say to Christians who advocate building a wall, refusing to aid the most desperate of refugees, taking away health care from the most vulnerable, excluding people from the rights that all humans deserve simply by being human. He would repeat what he said in 1947.
“We can keep these walls or we can tear them down. . .
But I cannot call you Christian if you choose to keep the walls standing.”
Someone once asked me, in all seriousness, how I could be a liberal if my father was a minister. How could I believe in gay rights, universal health care, shelter for immigrants and refugees, a compassionate foreign policy, restorative justice?
How could I not? My father believed that we are asked to bear witness to the suffering of the world, not compound it. He would never deny a person love, compassion, food, health care, or shelter because of their ethnicity, color, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, age, or ability. Instead he would feel their pain and demand that we feel their pain too.
“More of us must bear in mind what other people have to bear in their hearts.
More of us must feel the lashes that cut into the souls of other people.”
“Is there hunger in the world? Then let’s do something about it. Is there distrust of other peoples? Then let’s do something about it. Is there need for more love among neighbors right here in our community? Then let’s do something about it. Many of you have asked what you could do for the church. Here is your answer. Do something about these problems. Do something about public health, about international co-operation, about race relations. Do something about this great problem of living together. It will be solved, not in churches, but in shops and movies, buses and businesses, schools and streets and homes. It will be solved not by anyone else but by you.”
I watched my dad speak, march, protest, and do something about social injustice every day of his life; fighting to integrate the local movie theater, marching for civil rights at the statehouse in Frankfort, KY, boycotting grapes, marching against the Vietnam War, or doing something simple like working to change the dress code for women at the college where he worked so they didn’t have to wear skirts while sledding during a snow storm. Day after day, year after year, speech after speech, my dad lived his faith and convictions.
Read his words. (It was 1947 so forgive his use of gender specific terms).
“How do you stack up in this ultimate test of brotherhood? How do you react to the difference in an idea, to the form of a name, to the accent of a voice, to the color of a skin? Abraham Lincoln, a poor white man: Charles Steinmetz, unwanted immigrant; Toyohika Kagawa, son of a Japanese dancing girl; George Washington Carver, southern Negro. How do you react to the sound of a name, or the color of a skin or the slant of an eye?”
“I am not wise enough to define democracy, but what I know of democracy tells me that we cannot judge a person by his race, color, or station in life. I know enough of democracy to know that
a man is of value because he is a man, not because he is a white man.”
My dad’s young life was shaped by the depression and World War II. He watched the world at the brink of destruction in a fight against authoritarianism and dictatorship. He never lost the belief that life was tenuous and we must treat it very carefully.
“We were in danger two years ago, because there was a chance that we might lose in a fight against the totalitarian regimes of the world.
We are in danger today that having defeated them we may become like them.”
How could he have known that, seventy years later, we would be in danger of losing our very planet to ecological disaster and of losing our democracy; the freedom to speak and worship as we want, the freedom to have the press investigate and speak the truth, the freedom to gather in redress of our grievances, .
“We have won the battle against the dictators of intolerance, as the lights have gone on again all over the world. But of what use are the lights all over the world if they do not
light up our hearts? Intolerance, like chicken pox, has a way of spreading. And it is spreading today. If you have been affected by itscontagion, you just throw off the disease. If you have not yet caught it, you must avoid it as you would the black plague. It is a dread disease. It cannot be fought with laws. It cannot be cured at conferences. It must be combated by you, in your own mind. And now. For intolerance is not merely un-American; it is inhuman.”
When someone asks me how I could be so liberal in my thinking and actions when my dad was a Christian minister, the answer is clear. How could I not be?
My father and my mother saw their Christian faith as the solution to the problems of the world. Whether you believe in the divinity of Christ or not, the story is one of compassion, love,
and forgiveness. It is a story of feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrants, healing the sick, visiting the lonely and imprisoned. It is a story worth living.
“It has been said that America’s number one problem is learning to live together. After all the practice we have had, we ought to know how. We thought we knew, in fact, but we don’t. And the rest of the world well knows that we don’t.”
I miss my dad every day of my life. I miss him now more than ever.