Hope – A Reflection on the Inauguration

Post a Comment » Written on January 23rd, 2009     
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TACOMA, WA (January 23, 2009) – Wayne L. Smith, pastor of Harvard Campus of Praise Covenant Church in Tacoma, traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to be part of festivities surrounding inauguration of President Barack Obama. Following is his reflection of that historic event.

By Wayne L. Smith

Why have I made this journey to Washington, D.C., to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama? Why have I invested the time and money to come and stand in a mass of people for more than seven hours in freezing cold weather to watch something on a jumbotron that I could see better on a television in the comfort of a home? Why has it been such an emotional experience for me?  These are questions I have been pondering in the midst of this trip to Washington.

I am a classic baby boomer who went through my formative adolescent era during the heady days of the “Camelot” years of JFK, only to have that dream cut down by a bullet in Dallas. In my college in California I was part of a generation that became energized around the issues of love, peace and justice, protesting, mobilizing, and working to see a questionable and misguided war ended and significant issues of racial inequality addressed. But those halcyon days of some social progress were marred by bullets in Los Angeles and Memphis.

I gathered with others like myself who had worked hard for Robert Kennedy’s primary campaign in California to watch “Bobby” give his victory speech on TV and then was stunned to hear the announcer say, “The senator has been shot.” I joined with millions before the TV as we saw smoke rising from cities across our country after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as many African Americans vented their anger and frustration coming from centuries of injustices. Their hopes were raised by Dr. King’s dream, but were dashed by an assassin in Memphis.

Hope and hopelessness – the ebb and flow of this polarity washes over me and much of human history. It is out of the dashing of hope in the late 60’s and early 70’s that I came to a place of faith. I came to see that the hope of love, peace and justice were birthed in me by a sovereign God in whose image I am made. I came to realize that all the efforts towards a better world here below were certainly in keeping with his pleasure, but they were all limited and finite. And all human efforts would fall short, leading me to place my faith in Jesus Christ, depending on him to bring me and this fallen world to a place of greater wholeness and leading me to commit to the endeavor of working together with others to build a community of real love and true peace in the context of his church. To that end I devoted myself in pastoral work, endeavoring to see Christ’s kingdom of righteousness, peace and joy exhibited in and through his people, his church. In that endeavor I have seen some fruit and much frustration.  I have seen seasons of great hope and battled through seasons of great hopelessness.

Enter Barack Obama, a man of apparent integrity and great vision, calling Americans to “their better selves,” casting a vision of transcending the divisions of party, race, religion and creed and together reasonably addressing issues resulting in love, peace and justice.  That message resonated in my inner being. I have had an ongoing fascination with history and politics with a particular focus on those times when people of great character and decency have risen up and turned the course of human events in a more noble direction. I became interested in Obama from the time my daughter, then a resident of Chicago, made me aware of this remarkable man running for senator from Illinois. I began to hope that he was such a man and followed and supported his journey towards the presidency.

So I found myself strangely compelled to go to Washington to see this unlikely candidate, who spoke of the audacity of hope, inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States of America.  As I undertook this trip, I kept asking myself, “Why am I making this journey?”  The day before the inauguration – Martin Luther King Day – I decided to visit the American Holocaust Museum and found myself moved often to tears. Hopelessness was welling up in my soul. Here was so much evidence of the terrible propensity of humans to unleash so much violence and hatred upon one another. It was fitting to be there on Martin Luther King Day, remembering all the violence and hatred that has washed over African Americans on this continent in the last three and a half centuries.  Time and again in the museum I found myself bursting into tears and kept asking myself, “Why am I so vulnerable to these waves of emotion?”

The day of the inauguration, I made my way by foot towards the National Mall and found myself freely crying as I saw the streets filling up by seven o’clock in the morning with people as far ahead as I could see.  And there I was crying when I stood body to body in the National Mall, “America’s front yard.” I had such a sense that “America” was truly gathered – white, black, brown, yellow, red, old and young, rich and poor. It was the African Americans that emotionally impacted me the most. There I was, standing in a city literally built by slave labor, looking behind me to see the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that people would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. And looking forward to see the Capitol Building all decked out in red, white and blue, anticipating the inauguration of our nation’s first black president. It was the African Americans who have sacrificed so much in so many ways who have come to witness this event that moves me so much. There they were, old and young, many with a child in tow as if to say to that youngster, “You must witness this!” These are the ones, who have been so long marginalized, but, who could say on that day, “This is my country! I am part of it. I have a right to be here and today I am proud to be an American.” I wept when Barack Obama was introduced as the President of the United States of America.  The remainder of the day I had a sudden inhalation of air in disbelief when he was referred to as President Obama – President!

That night as I went to bed I continued to ponder, “What is this emotionalism all about?” The next day I visited the Smithsonian Museum of American History and there some of the pieces began to fall into place.  When I first walked into the museum, I found myself blubbering again as I went into a darkened room to see the original “Star Spangled Banner” that survived the bombardment on Fort McKinley during the Revolutionary War, and crying as I read of the suffering at Valley Forge, and crying as I considered the sacrifices of the “greatest generation” in WWII, and crying as I looked at the exhibits depicting the meaningless and ultimately unsuccessful war in Vietnam, which so marked my formative years.

Things became clearer as I went through the Abraham Lincoln exhibit. Lincoln presided over the country at one of its darkest hours and was responsible for administering a war that resulted in the greatest per capita loss of life of any war in this nation’s history. He struggled with a great sense of despair as the war dragged on in bloody battle after fruitless, indecisive, bloody battle. Towards the end of the war, as he dedicated the cemetery at Gettysburg, he brooded whether “this nation or any nation” so flawed, so divided, so prone to evil “could long endure,” but answered his own brooding question with this proclamation of hope.

“It is for us the living . . . to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is . . . for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us; that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

There it was etched on the wall before me: hope in the midst even of the most hopeless of circumstances. It dawned on me, “That is what this trip is all about. It is an affirmation of hope. It is a declaration of hope. It is a pilgrimage of hope.”

Oh, I know that in this world we will always fall short and that the ultimate hope is found in the reign of Christ. And I know that human beings are prone to shortsightedness and self-interest. And I know this country we call the United States of America is not perfect and has perpetrated many grievous injustices. Yet God has built into this species called human beings the ability to aspire to nobility, greatness  and goodness.  We are made in the image of God and as such we can move beyond “seeing things as they are” and complaining ”why,” and come to that place of aspiring to “see things as they might be” and ask, “why not?” as Edward Kennedy said of Bobbie at his funeral.

So I believe I went to Washington to reaffirm hope, to stand for hope, at this time in our nation’s history and at this time in my personal history.

I want my daughters and their generation to know that despite the many limitations of this nation that can provoke cynicism, nevertheless this country has a great legacy of those who have nobly stood for liberty, freedom and justice, including their own grandfather who left a young wife and little baby daughter to go and do his part in the South Pacific in WWII. I want them to know that despite the reality of politics –  corrupted along with government processes dominated by moneyed interests – a man of some apparent integrity and vision, handicapped by a foreign name and heritage, by race and by humble origins can be elected president.

I want to proclaim and reaffirm my hope in people. I reaffirm that despite our penchant for comfort and control, or the domination of self-interest and prejudice, yet, built into us is the potential to long for and work for the good; the potential to come together to form a community of faith that does demonstrate God’s love and character.

And I want to proclaim and reaffirm that it is a worthy endeavor to be a “kingdom carrier,” working and living for love and peace and justice, to “dedicate ourselves to the great task remaining before us.” And I affirm my hope that the God of the universe can and does work in and through one such as me as I stand to work for the world, as it might be asking “why not?” Your kingdom come, Lord, and your will be done.

I stand for hope.

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