It was a grueling day of history for us today. We walked through the doors of the large brick building on Ellis Island where millions of immigrants passed on the quest to find a better life in this great melting pot we call America. We saw pictures of the hollowed eyes of those who'd endured weeks in steerage like cattle, only to discover that their fate still hung in the balance of an eye check-up, or a piece of chalk marking their worn clothing. After giving up everything, carrying perhaps only a tattered suitcase, a trunk, or only the clothes on their own frames, they had passed from the waters of the Atlantic, watched wealthy passengers disembark, then made to wait. And oddly, even the pictures of those who passed out the other side, freed into their future still wore the same haunted look in their worn-out eyes. Hope and worry in equal parts in their world-worn eyes.
That's what we saw on Ellis Island this morning, after our boat ride from the Jersey side of the Hudson. From there we took another passenger ferry over to Lady Liberty herself. All those people, all those huddled masses, those steerage people who'd endured the seas, left home, country, and family sometimes forever, first saw her as a symbol that they had made it. That there was hope, that life would be better, that all would be well. I was born a citizen of this country. I never had to fight for my life, for food or home or a way of life. I've had more than three-quarters of the world. More than all those in steerage who passed through Ellis Island could even imagine. I've lived what the Statue of Liberty promised. And rarely thought about it at all. In fact, if truth be told, there have been days when I've been downright ashamed of my country. Of our arrogance in the world. We tend to be the school-yard braggarts at times, you see. And the bullies, come to think of it. We tend to show our muscle more often we need to, if you ask this peace-dreaming self.
But we've all come from somewhere. We're a nation of elsewhere. Unless we're members of an American Indian Tribe, we're all from some other place. All immigrants. One way or another, each of us was taken in. If we look back far enough on our family trees, Lady Liberty welcomed us (symbolically, at least), and Ellis Island (again, symbolically) processed us. Perhaps it was only yesterday, perhaps it was 150 years before the Revolutionary War. Nevertheless, we were weary and were told, 'Come on in!'
This is what the Kingdom of Christ does, in a more profound way, of course. We are welcomed in. Told that no matter where we come from, we are welcomed in. There are no disqualifications, either. We enter in through the doors of faith and nothing can disqualify us. This is a fundamental distinction between God's Kingdom and any earthly one.
After leaving these Islands on the Hudson River, we took another ferry over to Manhattan to Battery Park, where, having spied a spurting fountain, JP and I gave our purses to our husbands and went racing through it, between all the small children playing. We laughed and hugged each other as the cool water refreshed our overheated bodies, then we raced back through the cement sprinkler like we were every bit as young as those children. It was perhaps the best moment of the day. Then we all walked a few blocks along the battery to 'Ground Zero' where our friend and host, D, works at the World Financial Center. We gazed down at the ongoing work at the Freedom Tower, the reflecting pool, and he and his wife ML retold us their intimate, moving story of that day. That September morning, she drove him to a train in New Jersey, went home, watched the towers fall and calculated that he wouldn't have gotten there in time to be in the disaster. He rode in that train until it stopped, then spent hours trying to make his way back home with thousands of others. Because the towers were down, their cell phones weren't working, so they couldn't even communicate. When they finally met at the Trenton train station, at dinner time, they both broke down in tears.
It was chilling to stand behind that glass wall, a decade later, with the skyline still so different, cranes in the air, so much construction work happening, and think back to that September day, to the smoke, the people, the whole country covered with the smoke of it, in one way or another. To remember, to wonder. Something died that day. More than people, I think. But something of our sense of safety and sanity and place in this world.
People fought to get to this country. They believe in what I take for granted, never think twice about. And other people have died for it. And across the world, people hate this country so much, they will do inexplicable acts against it. Will die doing them. I try to make sense of such hatred. Try to make sense of such deep emotions that make people die to get here or die to destroy here. And I confess I am hopeless against the tide of such.
As I stood at the glass window looking down on what a decade ago I would have had to crane my neck to stare up at, I thought about what I'd die for. It seems to me that those who came here, risked all for life. They gave their lives for life, if that makes sense. But those who flew the planes into the towers, the Pentagon, the field in Pennsylvania, and all the other places around the world in similar acts, risk all for death. And while one is clearly good, and the other bad, I'm still not sure even the good goes far enough. It does mimic Joshua's call to the Israelites, "Choose this day whom you shall serve...life or death." But life MUST mean, can only mean JESUS. What would I die for? Jesus.
Is this true? Really? That's the question I ultimately pondered this evening. Would I die for Him? Not to have a better life, not to merely live for myself, my family, my country, the world, or any altruistic reason. But simply and utterly for Him? Would I?