Perfecting a Vision, Pursuing a Dream
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are
carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”—Matthew 11:28
Reading these words of Jesus during July, the month we celebrate American Independence Day, I’m reminded of Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore;
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Several years ago I had the opportunity to live for a month in Washington, DC, spending hours at a time with our sons in the Smithsonian museums and visiting the great monuments and shrines to the visionaries who founded our country.
One warm evening we sat on the high steps of the Capitol and listened to Judy Collins sing “Amazing Grace.” As her lovely voice rang out, “Through many dangers, toils and snares, we have already come…,” we gazed toward the Washington Monument and beyond that, the Lincoln Memorial, and I thought of the dreams of the founders of our country.
These holy visions of freedom lived only in dreams before the dream-come-true of America. Our founders were Utopians, trying to create heaven on earth, but the dreams were flawed because their realization was exclusive: In our young nation I could not have voted, nor could my Hispanic sons, nor could people without property. But a good vision is worthy of appropriation, so women and people of color and the poor struggled and fought and gained the rights we take for granted today.
Just in my lifetime our country has made great strides toward living out those original ideals. Our children may find it hard to imagine a world where a black child drank from a different water fountain or attended a separate school or sat only in the back of a bus or theater or church. Our daughters cannot imagine a university education being realistic only for their brothers.
Our family also visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It felt like a holy place, oddly quiet for a museum, like a shrine. One exhibit memorialized the passengers of the St. Louis, which sailed in 1939 with 937 passengers, most of them Jewish people trying to flee Germany for Cuba (the United States’ strict quotas precluded their coming here). Only twenty-two were allowed entry. Cuban officials claimed the remaining passengers’ visas, bought from corrupt German officials, were invalid. For five days the ship lingered in the waters within sight of Florida and freedom as the passengers petitioned for sanctuary, but they were sent back to Europe. At least 250 died under Nazi occupation.
The essential dignity given to one is given to all. Over time we’ve learned there are no borders when it comes to human dignity—no borders of race or gender or national origin or religion or wealth.
On Independence Day, our nation celebrates the conviction and the vision of those who founded our country. As much as we feel burdened by a struggling economy and the threat of terrorism, still we are a place of refuge longed for by many. As we celebrate the progress we’ve made toward the realization of our founders’ ideals for all citizens, perhaps we can also pray for the wisdom and the courage and the generosity to help others realize the dream of America.
The passengers of the St. Louis never saw the statue Emma Lazarus called Mother of Exiles. I wonder if any of them knew her poem. Emma Lazarus was Jewish.