Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Miles Ahead

After reading so many various blog posts over the past day, I found it very heart-warming to read so many wonderful, beautiful tributes to the late, great Dr. Martin Luther King in recognition of his birthday. That, combined with the historic event which will take place today in Washington with the Inauguration of Barack Obama as our 44th President gives extra meaning to celebrating the life of Dr. King.

Full circle? Have we come full circle now with respect to race and the many issues that held for centuries here? I'd like to think so, but I know racism is still with us -unfortunately. I don't think it has quite the impact now that it had, even when I was growing up as more children are growing up in an integrated society, learning more about equality and by experiencing things differently, they are much more understanding today than ever before.

In my lifetime, I have seen many changes transpire, particularly with respect to prejudices that often existed in this country. In the little village where I live -have lived almost all my life -prejudice, bias, was quite rampant but not based on race. Rather, it was based on ethnicity and religion.

The early settlers of this community in the mid-1880s were mostly Scot/English and Swedish and as such, the overwhelming majority were also Protestant. By the early 1900s, a new wave of immigrants predominately from Slovakia, Austria and Hungary made their way to this area and those people tended to be Catholic.

Thus, early on the "war" -if you want to call it that -began between these factions here.

By the time I was born, although there were occasional marriages between the people of these different cultures and beliefs, and a little bit of friendship begun here and there, it was still something that I grew up b eing taught that I shouldn't really associate with "those" people in school or heaven forbid, socialize with them after school either.

Granted, by the time I started school in the fall of 1950, all my classmates, regardless of ethnic or religious background all spoke English though. An improvement over how things had been a mere twenty years earlier when, as a very dear old friend of mine (gone for five years now) told me, when he started attending school, he spoke only Slovak so had to learn English in his first years of schooling as well as the other classes being taught. And of course, there were no special teachers, no special programs then either to assist him in that transition either like many schools today offer if they are located in an area with lots of immigrants. Nope, he had to learn ALL of that all on his own!

I really believe the election in 1960 between President Kennedy and Richard Nixon served a very good purpose here in this little town in that it seemed to begin to bring people away from the prejudices created, instilled and pushed by the churches here too.

Early on in my life, I decided the Democratic party was the one I preferred so during the election of 1960, I was really excited over John F. Kennedy as "my" candidate. (Of course, this was before I was of age to vote but still, I had my own thoughts about him as a candidate.) I had always admired my Mom for being quite open-minded about the prejudices within these streets here. Not that she didn't still harbor some of them, but I always felt she tried to keep them out of her daily life. But in 1960, I was very upset when she told me although she very much liked Kennedy, she just couldn't bring herself to vote for him because he was -oh my, that terrible thing -a Catholic! She later told me she regretted very much not having voted for him as she eventually realized this was not near the issue that many had made it out to be.

Since 1960, this village, the people, the churches especially, have changed -and yes, for the better too! In 1972, the man who was our pastor at the Lutheran Church I've attended all my life met another man from the village -one who was an ordained Catholic priest but was during the first years our pastor was here, the priest was taking graduate classes at nearby Penn State, thus he had no parish in these parts.

But those two men, being of the same era, generation -whatever you care to call it -met and became friends. And they, recognizing jointly how the separatist attitude of old that still permeated this village was not the road that should be followed, began to work to make the community more ecumenical. In doing that, as people began to integrate little by little with joint services between many of the local churches, some of the other barriers of the ethnicity began slowly at first, then picking up speed, to disappear.

Back in the late 80s, when our church had built a new church and held the dedication ceremony for it, I knew the prejudicial issues were finally becoming a thing of the past when I went to the dedication service and saw the priest of the local Catholic church there, participating, as it were, in our service!

That process only took 100 years! Only.

A very good friend of mine who is Slovak and Catholic and I often discuss how much we missed as children because our parents -and our churches then too -adhered to the old ways, the old beliefs, the ignorance of their parents based on religion and ethnicity much of which was brought about simply because of the language gaps that existed in my grandfather and her grandfather's time.

Today, that friend and I often compare notes on ethnic traditions, even religious traditions too, that we both carry out and teach our children and grandchildren and the similarities in those traditions are much greater than are the differences.

As a young child, I remember learning a song in church and it was one of my Grandma's favorites too -with these words in it -"Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight." How I loved that song and I believed those words then -still do, for that matter -as being truth.

And yet, at home, I saw my Grandmother not practicing the words of the song she professed to love as she was a very prejudiced individual of the old school -no socializing with the enemy -and the enemy to her were Slovaks and Catholics! I never dared to confront her about this issue -that was something children then just didn't do -but I made up my mind upon understanding this, that I was not going to follow in that way, nor was I going to teach that to my children, if/when ever I had any. And of all the things I tried to do, to teach my kids, that at least was one area in which I do believe I was quite successful as all three of my kids grew up accepting people for who they are, inside -not for their specific ethnicity, religion, race or sexual preferences.

In watching the programming on the television Saturday, in particular, the Obama team as they rode the train, following President Lincoln's path to Washington, I was struck by the speech President Obama gave in Baltimore, in which he spoke of the problems facing our society today -the economy, health care for all, education, -to name just a few, and his words were to remind us that he alone can not even begin to cure these ills in our country. He can present ideas, he can work on his end to finding ways that will be beneficial for the common good, but he can not do this all by himself.

To achieve any of the proposals from his pre-election speeches, from his platform, will require work on the part of us, all of us, all being constiutents in this land.

I have no idea what I can do in my tiny corner of this country to help but I do believe his words ring very true that it is not something one person alone can achieve but with everyone pulling together, then in the words of his campaign, "Yes, we can!" We can, we should, we must, all come together, forget the differences that separate us and work towards a better, greater, unifying process for our children, and for me, especially for my grandchildren, to have the best life and the best government possible.

But, in the words of Robert Frost, poet extraordinaire, there are many, many "miles to go" before we all sleep.

And, the problems facing our new president, our government today, bring home the words too of President Kennedy as he spoke 48 years ago today -telling us "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

Can we afford not to make an effort to uphold those words today?


Deb said...

Good Morning Jeni ~ Thank you for stopping by at my place. I enjoyed my visit here. Your post made me stop and think and reflect. I am excited about the change that is in the air - and I do hope that we ALL step up to the plate and take responsibility. Change will not happen unless we all work together. Enjoy your day!

Keith said...

Very good words here Jeni. My favorite part was what you wrote about the Catholic Priest attending the ceremony of the new Lutheran Church building. I put a video up on my blog about a conference in Albuqerque NM. This conference is about all Tribes coming together without being Tribal. We all worship differently, but the center is Christ. We all may have different traditions, but the center is Christ. So why not all come together once in awhile and celebrate Him together in unity? There is way too much bickering between denominations and I do not think Christ is pleased with this. He is Peace and Love, not war and hate.

Today marks a day in history that we can all be proud of. And like you said, we must all do our part to make change happen. Obama certainly cannot do it himself, nor should he. But I am praying for him and for our country to start moving in a better direction.

Great post.


Vic Grace said...

My TV cable broke so I missed the inauguration on TV but listened via internet satellite from BBC on my computer.

Dianne said...

I am watching every moment today!

RuneE said...

Seen from "outside" (but is it really "outside" in today's global village) I think that not only have you made the right choice bot for yourselves, but also for us. In addition - the election had an immense symbolic value.

I watched on BBC-News for four hours.

Suldog said...

Excellent commentary, Jeni. You may have read mine today. In it, I talked a bit about the Catholic/Kennedy thing, and compared a bit to Obama. We have, indeed, come a long, long way.

Singing Owl said...

Thank God, we do make progress, eh? Only 100 years...had to grin. Sadly true. Your experiences were very similar to mine. My dad also would not vote for Kennedy because then, of course, the pope would run the USA. ? And he too sang that chorus but the reality of our life and friends was very different. I was surprised to find myself in tears as I watched the proceedings today.

Maggie May said...

This was a very good post, Jeni. It is so different today from when I was a child, regarding race and religion and class! Thank Goodness that it is.
I was brought up to be fairly liberally minded but in our area, catholics and foreigners must have been made to feel very much in the minority. Of course we kids were friendly with everyone until the prejudices of the parents infiltrated our minds. To be born out of wedlock was a terrible thing! This probably was the most awful discrimination. I can feel a post forming in my mind!

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Theresa said...

great senitments! Yes what a wonderful day it was, and that he backed up his tough love by his actions today (wed). I do feel people have hope again!

Travis said...

I'm hopeful that we can continue to learn not to be fearful of that which is different. And I'm hopeful that we'll give up this notion that one group must have power over another.

We are different and diverse. But that doesn't mean we can't find common ground.

I'm enjoying letting my idealism run free for awhile before giving way to more pragmatism.