Sunday afternoon, I took a long walk beside the Potomac River. I began in Georgetown, walked past the boat house, having its last big weekend; past Kennedy Center; headed toward the Lincoln Memorial; and then, on a whim, across Memorial Bridge, toward Arlington Cemetery, toward the state in which I grew up. I suddenly felt a vast freedom: here I was, crossing a border, just for the heck of it, no line visible, but still there in a different history, different culture, different ways of life. I turned left, walked along the river and gazed across at the monuments; then I turned around and went home.
The fact that I can do that is triumph. It did not happen by accident; it happened because people have worked hard for hundreds of years to keep this country together. The original colonies here were not even settled by the same nations. Our stories tend to focus on the British colonies, but the truth is that the colonies spoke different languages, had different laws, and served different crowns — and, before that, had been the lands of different tribes. Some even traded hands, more than once. Last summer, I was in Castine, Maine, which seems to have been a battleground for more than hundred years: French, Dutch, English, Iroquois — all wanted it. All spilled blood for it. Today, a church graces the land of the fort at which so many perished.
I love that. I love it that swords have become prayerbooks, that horror has become peace.
I am holding onto that image, these days, when we are inundated with pictures and stories of refugees, seeking a place of freedom and safety. At the start of the settlement of ancient Israel, the Hebrews are instructed to celebrate the harvest, and they are told: take a basket of the first fruits of your land, and bring it to the Temple and place it in the hands of the priests, saying, “My father was a wandering Aramean,…but the Lord brought us into this place and gave us this land…So now I bring the first fruits of the land that you, O Lord, have given me.” We who are people of faith — Jews, Muslims, Christians — we are all the spiritual descendants of a Syrian migrant, a man looking for a place to call home.
He left Canaan and went toward Haran, until he found a place where the neighbors would allow him to settle. And he was not alone. The Bible focuses only on his family, but history tells us that thousands of people were moving around the Middle East. The world had become unsettled, and the story of our ancestors is the story of people coping, just barely coping, and of God making room for them.
Peace happened. Home happened. But not by accident. They had to work for it.
And when they did, they found they were on God’s side.