My teachers: Prime Movers, a security guard, and Mother Teresa
No part of my day gives me more hope than to read an update from one of 64 leaders of social movements with whom I have the honor to be associated. Borrowing from Aristotle, I call them “prime movers,” because it seems to me they have a generous portion of divine strength as they move others without losing their bearing. As individuals, and as a group of leaders, they’re doing more than their part to change – well, rescue – our country, in a historic crisis.
My colleagues, friends, family, and I will look back at this time as those my age look back to the churning social activism 50 years ago. Every day we heard of street riots, attack dogs and fire hoses, napalm bombing, Ku Klux Klan torturing and lynching, “the draft” to fight an endless war, grape or lettuce boycotts to support migrant workers, and a blatant liar in the Oval Office. All that was in the shadow of the assassinations of our president, our attorney general, and the predominant social activist of the century. All of which is to say, my social movement friends, I get it.
The spotlight on our country’s injustices and violence followed me when I was a young adult in Europe 1973-77. Everywhere I went, people spoke of our country with disdain.
Disdain, but not fear.
Three nights ago, leaving Concourse A at Reagan National Airport, I paused to speak to the security guard at the exit door. From her light brown skin and henna-red hair pulled back in a curly ponytail, I guessed (correctly) that she was Ethiopian. I congratulated her on the reconciliation that has just occurred between her country and neighboring Eritrea, after five decades of crazy-making war. She beamed, then thanked me, with heartfelt gratitude, in broken English.
But that happy exchange quickly shifted into a different tone and theme. “You must stop Trump. Putin is bad, bad, bad. Trump has opened the door.” Her sentences were short, pounding on someone she thought might have the power to stop a menacing monster slouching toward Bethlehem. “Putin wants power. He is not good. I love this country. I love America.” She began to cry. “Trump let Putin in. America is the strongest. Now Putin thinks he can go anywhere. Every country. No one is as strong as America. My country is not safe.” She was staring into my eyes, leaning toward me, squeezing my arm with a tight grip. A grip I feel even several days later. “Please. Please. Please. Stop him. Stop Trump. He is letting Putin in. Stop him. My country is not safe.”
“You keep talking to your friends. I’ll do what I can,” I said, reassuringly. “But remember, Trump is only one man. This is not who our country is.”
It was midnight when I got into my cab. I was too tired to work, so I put my head back and took in what had just happened. Of course she was right, I realized. Donald Trump has single-handedly increased the risk of hundreds and hundreds of millions of people who must live in countries controlled by dictators, riddled with corruption, enduring rapes and beating, with 35,000 children dying daily of preventable illnesses.
Caught up in domestic politics, I had forgotten the role of the United States of America as a beacon of justice and compassion, and by that I mean love. I’m not talking about a sanitized notion of “America’s influence in the world.” I mean America setting the high standard that allows evil to be called out and good to be exalted.
The woman at the airport was right. In not only domestic, but also foreign spheres, we are being led by a man who is much more than a menace. He is a sociopath. And he is a perpetrator.
Our nation, as it turns out, is part of “international.” That’s why as U.S. movement leaders are meeting in the streets or in my kitchen, we must also talk with the security guard at the exit door of Concourse A. For my new Ethiopian friend, my figurative “this is not who we are” has a literal meaning in her life, her family, her country, today.
If I were standing at a blackboard in front of a class, I would draw how change is not a straight line but a jagged saw. We are at a low, low point, in our history, yet I have known high ones, too: the steady hand of Ike Eisenhower, morality of Jimmy Carter, experience base of George H.W. Bush, brilliance of Bill Clinton, heroism of John McCain, dignity of Barack Obama, gutsiness of Susan Collins, courage of Hillary Clinton. Each has left behind benchmarks we know we can reach again – and go beyond. They are why we are so appalled at where we are now, and they direct us toward our aspirations.
Yet how are we to live in such confusion, surrounded by such pain, and fearful of the next infected elections? We need the momentum of action as we move heaven and earth to make enormous changes in the world, not only in November, but now.
And how shall we keep ourselves from being overwhelmed, then burning out? Let us hold tight not only to each others’ arms, but also the words of Mother Teresa: God does not call us to do great things, but to do all things with great love.