January 22, 2013
Yesterday morning, my son and I made our way to the edge of the Capitol Reflecting Pool for the 57th Inauguration of the President of the United States.
Only days before, I had been offered tickets for this invitation only area of the Mall by a contact at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. My son has been a fan of President Obama since well before the Iowa Caucuses during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, so this was an opportunity of a lifetime that he was not going to miss. With only a few days notice, we were off to D.C. for the inauguration.
I fully expected it to be an amazing and momentous moment, a once in a lifetime experience. What I didn’t expect is what I would see, and feel, standing on the mall as the President spoke.
Quite simply, I saw America yesterday.
As the President spoke, the people around me transformed his words into a picture of our strength and diversity. Gathered together before the majestic sight of the Capitol arrayed in buntings of red, white and blue, we were Black, White, Asian and Latino, Gay and Straight, Young and Old, Christian, Muslim and Jew, celebrating as one with our eyes on the future.
As the President declared, “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity”, I saw America in the nods of agreement of a young latina from California who I was standing next to. Only moments before she had been engaged in friendly conversation with a Border Patrol Agent from the Southwest, a confluence of events that did not go unnoticed.
As the President declared, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” I saw America in joyful shout and tearful expressions of a couple behind me. I turned to see two men holding hands tightly, a look of unexpected affirmation on their faces.
And as the President declared, “Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm,” I saw America in the conversation of a mother and the young five year-old boy sitting on her shoulders: “Do you see the President, honey?” “I see him, mommy!” “He’s talking about you, honey!” “He’s talking to me, mommy!”
Most of all, I saw America in a lovely, warm and funny African-American woman from Texas with whom I had been conversing before the President took his oath. She had missed the last inauguration, but there was no way she would miss this one. She had contacted both of her senators and her congressman the day after the election to make sure that she would get a ticket from one of them.
As the President invoked Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall, she applauded not just the birthplaces of the women’s and civil rights movements, but of the gay rights movement as well. When he invoked Dr. King’s words that, “…we cannot walk alone,” she cried, “Yes!” To each of the President’s calls to action, from immigration reform and marriage equality to gun control, preserving the social safety net and fighting poverty and discrimination in any form, she called out “Amen.” She was clearly overjoyed by the moment and the words.
And I saw America in her response to the cries of “Yes We Can!” at the end of his speech.
She turned and quietly said to me with a smile, “No. Not ‘Yes we can.’ It’s ‘Yes we did!’ And we are still doing it. Just like the President said, there is more to do and we are still doing it.”
I saw America yesterday. I saw her in the knowledge that there is still more to do and that we are joined together in “still doing it”.
Our journey is not complete.
“It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work. But, neither are you free to desist from it.” – Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:21