Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Coming together, signs of hope
“When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”
So begins the poem read at last month’s inauguration by the 22-year old Amanda Gorman that captured the nation’s imagination. She continued:
“And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we've weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished.”
Can we “find light in this never-ending shade” that for many has become the darkest midnight?
Can we come together to repair and heal a nation whose work is “unfinished?”
Hope alone is not enough. We must also face the failures and divisions of the present and past. It begins with the greatest pandemic in over 100 years. This past year was “the year global health went local,” wrote Bill and Melinda Gates in their annual foundation letter. They described the world that has been connected by a network of germs and microscopic particles that “like it or not” brings us all together.
While the virus does not recognize country borders or political parties, it does not affect everyone equally. The Gates letter notes that the COVID virus exposed pre-existing inequalities, gaps that were always there, “but we just didn’t want to see them.” Their letter continues, “People with less are faring worse than those with more. Essential workers are facing greater risks than those who can work from home. Students without internet access are falling behind students who are learning remotely. In the United States, communities of color are more likely to get sick and die than other Americans.” Black Americans are reported to be three times as likely to get the COVID virus as whites, and they as well as other minorities have less access to testing and the vaccines.
The Gates letter doesn’t give up hope but sees “an important opportunity to turn the hard-won lessons of this pandemic into a healthier, more equal future for all.” They do recognize that this will likely not be our last pandemic challenge. They write, “We don’t know when the next one will strike, or whether it will be a flu, a coronavirus, or some new disease we’ve never seen before. But what we do know is that we can’t afford to be caught flat-footed again. The threat of the next pandemic will always be hanging over our heads — unless the world takes steps to prevent it.”
Recent political division also contributes to racial disparity and even racial and religious bigotry. The recent attack on the U.S. Capitol revealed again increased anti-Semitism in our country. The shocking images from that attack included pictures of someone wearing a Camp Auschwitz shirt and another wearing a reference to “six million was not enough,” both references to the Nazi extermination camp and the millions murdered during the Holocaust. This is only the latest example of the long history of connections between white supremacist groups in America and anti-Semitism and pro-Nazi ideas. Last week was the International Holocaust Remembrance Day marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945.
That insurgency attack was not only an affront to Jews, but also to Christians who were offended by the unholy mixture of references to Jesus by the violent crowd. Sr. Christine Schenk, who worked for 20 years as a nurse midwife and is now a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, wrote of her alarm about the Jesus flags and frequent references to Jesus as they stormed the Capitol. She wrote, “I could barely take in that this was happening at the citadel of my country’s democracy — let alone that the perpetrators would justify their violent behavior by invoking the name of the Prince of Peace.”
Sr. Christine called for civic communities to join with communities of faith and religious leaders to condemn the violence and “work to end the rampant rage and division that have overpowered our nation.” She offered this prayer:
“Grant us, O God,
A vision of your world as your love would have it:
A world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor.
A world where the riches of creations are honored and shared so everyone might enjoy them.
A world where different races, cultures and creeds live in peace and harmony, with equal regard.
A world where peace is built with justice and justice is guided by love.”
The Sister’s professional career, combining health care with her religious commitment, reminds us of the important connection between these two aspects of building a healthy community. It is also a reminder of the two events dealing with religion and health coming up later this month on Feb. 22, offered in conjunction with the Office of Vice Provost for Health at Grand Valley State University. (See infobox for details.)
Returning to the Inauguration poem by Amanda Gorman, she referenced the passage from the Hebrew prophet Micah, asking us to envision the day that “everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree. And no one shall make them afraid.” It is the same passage that President George Washington referred to in 1790 when writing to the Jewish community in Newport, R.I. They had expressed concern about whether in the new nation Jews would be safe and respected. Let us claim that promise from Washington and the vision from Gorman.
Her poem concludes:
“It's because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it…
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it