"Can you tell me where the votin’ place is?” The simple question from the tall, weary-looking, slightly disheveled African American man took me off-guard that Tuesday morning. As he approached me on the street as I was returning home from casting my ballot, I braced myself to be hit up for a hand-out. Instead, as I looked into his tired eyes and heard his slightly slurred voice, it hit me that this was one thirsty man asking someone who clearly had access to the well where he could find water. I pointed him in the direction of the junior high school that served as our local polling place, but even as he went on his way, he stayed with me all day.
Perhaps it was the contrast he provided to what I had witnessed earlier as I walked into the schoolyard gates to join my fellow voters, a line of about twenty people of all ages and races standing outside the school patiently waiting to enter. A well-dressed white woman pulled up to the gate in her shiny new SUV and asked to park on the school grounds so she could run in and out quickly to cast her vote. The people at the gate explained that parking there was reserved only for poll workers and school personnel but that she could park for free on the other side of the narrow, one-way street. Looking at the economically distressed neighborhood and the (briskly moving) line, she announced that she couldn’t possibly do that and that she would just have to forgo voting this year, and then she went on her way.
Granted, the immediate surroundings of this particular school are not the finest that Washington, DC has to offer. It is certainly less “gentrified” than my own Lincoln Park neighborhood, five blocks away, and it has far fewer services and businesses to offer its residents. Drug violence and street crime are also more common here, but certainly neither she nor her vehicle were in any danger, particularly on Election Day. Many of the folks who live there look more like the man I met on the way out than like me or this woman who chose not to vote out of fear for her Lexus and the “inconvenience” she might have to endure—such as standing in line for a few minutes with the mixed-race couple who were bringing their toddler son into the polls to see what Americans do on the first Tuesday in November every four years.
Of course, I don’t really know what was in her heart or mind or Blackberry that day, nor do I know the story of the man who approached me on the street. I do know, however, that when the TV networks announced at 11 pm Eastern time that Barack Obama had been elected president of the United States, millions of Americans felt that they had found the water they had long been seeking.
Many of the milestone days we remember over the past century are those marked by violence and tragedy: the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK; Pearl Harbor; the stock market crash of 1929; the onset of the Gulf and Iraq Wars. These days stick with us, not only because of the immediate traumas but also for the long-lasting impacts on our common life. 9/11/01 is perhaps even more of a terrible and ambiguous touchstone than it might otherwise have been, because it spawned not only two wars, but also intense battles over privacy, torture, and military interventionism.
Many of the “good-news” days, by contrast, such as the first man walking on the moon or the nation’s Bicentennial, are inspiring but seem to carry less emotional weight. They have less obviously enduring effects on our national psyche and are not necessarily transformative, for good or ill. The election and inauguration of Barack Obama seems to mark the end of the legacy of 9/11—if not an immediate end to the ongoing effects of the Bush administration’s policies, necessarily, then to the political mind-set that nurtured, and even celebrated, the undermining of national values and human decency. In many ways, these events have felt like the “anti-9/11.” The dates of 11/04/08 and of 1/20/09 may not stick in the mind like 9/11, but they have the potential to be remembered as the first good-news days in a long time, days that have effects as lasting as those of other, bad-news days.
Like many others, I am still haunted by memories of the emptiness of Washington’s streets that day when I walked a long five miles home through the heart of the city—empty except for police and military personnel. On a beautiful day, people holed up in their homes in fear, glued to their televisions, filled with anger, grief, and tension. By contrast, on 11/04/08, masses of Washingtonians poured out into the streets, gathering at the White House and overtaking the area around 14th and U Streets NW—home to what was once known as the nation’s “black Broadway”—an area only lately coming back from the post-King assassination riots. And on 1/20/09, nearly 1.8 million people from all over the country gathered on the Washington National Mall to witness Barack Obama take the oath of office—free from fear, free to rejoice rather than cowed by dire pronouncements or lulled by anodyne exhortations to go shopping.
As momentous, exciting, and extraordinary as Obama’s inauguration has been, perhaps the greater meaning of this day is that such an occasion will never again need to be so important. Over the next four years, as we become accustomed to seeing President Obama carrying out the duties of his office—meeting with world leaders, presiding over national celebrations, comforting citizens in tragedy, and confronting national and international crises—the racial significance of the inaugural events, which is still so fresh and great, will gradually fade. And that’s good news. There are still other barriers yet to be broken—for women, for Asians, for Latinos, for sexual minorities, and others—but with this inauguration we again were reminded that these barriers can be broken.
Nevertheless, we do rejoice in this inauguration, and, if you are like me, your eyes well up with each new story of a person who experienced or witnessed racial discrimination and now finds some redeeming power in Obama’s ascendance to the presidency. Reverend Joseph Lowery said it best in his inaugural benediction, when he quoted from James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—though I think the most apt part may be from the verse he did not cite:
Yet, with a steady
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our parents sighed?
.In commemorating these good-news days, Christians need to remember what the “real” good news comprises: good news to the poor, release to the captives, the blind recovering sight, letting the oppressed go free. That is not something that Barack Obama or any other politician can do. But with our words and our service we can hold our country accountable for policies which assure that the good news announced in this momentous election and inauguration also translates into those biblical marks of the good news coming to pass among us and in the world.
Most immediately, that means paying attention to how we conduct ourselves in the midst of our world economic crisis. With the various financial and housing market bailouts and economic stimulus packages, there has been not a small amount of loud protests from people and “experts” wondering why they, the “responsible” ones, should have to help those who did not behave so well. The temptations to meanness and lack of charity are certainly rife, and these are surely being stoked by talk radio, the blogosphere, and other media sources. Indeed, some make it seem that scorning, if not punishing, these who are now characterized as “the least among us” is our patriotic duty and what we owe future generations. And even when punitive measures are taken off the menu, it’s all too easy to back away in fear, or turn our heads in denial, or just say, “It’s not worth it.”
The temptation is always before us to pull up to the gate and decide the risk or inconvenience is too much. But, as Martin Luther said, “We are all mere beggars asking other beggars where to find bread.” Or water. Or refuge.
Or, “Can you tell me where the votin’ place is?”
David Lott has been a religious book editor for over twenty years, has worked with Fortress Press and the Alban Institute, and is editor for the lectionary aids series New Proclamation. A graduate of St. Olaf College and Luther Seminary, he lives in Washington, DC where he does freelance editing and writing.