The House I Live In – America 2009

As the country moves back to the business of picking up the pieces of the economy, it is important to reflect on the new voice that has come into the White House.

While Rush Limbaugh is uttering toxic rhetoric, we can choose to focus on the direction that is being exemplified by Barack Obama. The week that celebrated Martin Luther King Day and the inaugural events, spoke to the potential of a restored image for our nation.

What is America to me?
A name, a map, or a flag I see…
A certain word, Democracy.
What is America to me?

On January 19th, I attended an interfaith service in New York City with my son, sponsored by The Park Avenue Christian Church and The Temple of Universal Judaism. It was their 12th Annual Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration. The Polish-born Heschel marched with King in Selma, Alabama. Their birthdays were days apart.

The evening’s honoree was Dr. Akbar Ahmed, a leading authority on contemporary Islam. He served as the High Commissioner of Pakistan to the United Kingdom, and is currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington, DC. His work as a diplomat, filmmaker, author, and anthropologist is widely recognized. Ahmed has been traveling across the United States during the past twelve months, to conduct a study of American society through a Muslin prism.

The service began with children lighting peace candles, and was led by Rev. Dr. Alvin Jackson, Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, Iman Shamsa Ali and Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper. Passages from the Old and New Testaments and the Holy Qur’an were read. The music was culled from Christian Hymns, Hebrew songs, and Black spirituals. Psalm 121 was sung in Arabic.

Comments from the participating clergy referenced the need for healing and active engagement. Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor said, “We live at the dawn of a new day,” emphasizing the need for each individual to take part “in making our country what it should and could be.” Iman Shamsa Ali spoke to the congregation of “coming together courageously, in the same interests for peace.” Rev. Schaper included in her blessing a prayer for “battered women, prisoners, and immigrants,” and a hope that differences arising from “politics, religion, and class” could be left behind so that
there could be a “move into harmony, diversity, and peace.”

Dr. Ahmed’s son, Umar Ahmed, accepted the award on behalf of his father. He spoke of dialogue and friendship as the key to ameliorating conflict and turmoil, and quoted the prophet of Islam [Muhammad] who preached, “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” Dr. Ahmed, through his wide-ranging work, has been fostering intercultural understanding.

The house I live in,
A plot of earth, a street,
The grocer and the butcher,
And the people that I meet.
The children in the playground,
The faces that I see,
All races and religions,
That’s America to me.

The service ended with several verses of “We Shall Overcome,” as the whole congregation joined hands. The closing stanza was, “We shall live in peace someday.” It was hard not to think about how far the country has come from the time of the 1960’s, when the news was filled with footage of sit-ins, fire hoses unleashed against black citizens, Bull Connor and his attack dogs, and church burnings.

Two days later, a national prayer service featuring Christian, Jewish, Muslin, and Hindu participants took place at the Washington National Cathedral. Different branches from each denomination were present. With an eye to crashing through traditional barriers, the central sermon was delivered by a woman. Rev. Sharon W. Watkins (Christian Church – Disciples of Christ) related a Cherokee tale about the duality of human nature and the forces of compassion, hope and love struggling against anger, resentment, and fear. She directly addressed Obama stating, “You, as our president, will set the tone for us.”

The place I work in,
The worker by my side,
The little town or city,
Where my people lived and died.
The howdy and the handshake,
The air of feeling free,
And the right to speak my mind out,
That’s America to me.

It will be easy to fall back into the rancor and divisiveness of the previous decade, without a concerted effort to stay connected to our better selves and a larger image of a united America.

Striving for that ideal is not a new concept. In 1945, The House I Live In, a short film, was released. Frank Sinatra was featured, speaking and singing to group of urban kids about tolerance. The lyrics were written (under a pen name) by Abel Meeropol (who also wrote the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit,” made famous by Billie Holliday). A Jewish schoolteacher and activist, Meeropol adopted the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Not all of his verses made it into the film, including the one below:

The house I live,
My neighbors white and black,
The people who just came here,
Or from generations back.
The town hall and the soapbox,
The torch of liberty,
A home for all God’s children.
That’s America to me.

The song was recorded in 1947 by Paul Robeson. Patti Labelle sang her version to Frank Sinatra on his 80th birthday.

Moving forward in our evolution as citizens with a wide range of differences, “The House I Live In” makes good background music as we roll up our sleeves to get the job done.

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