The wives of African leaders meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, saw an unlikely pair of speakers on stage together last week. Current First Lady Michele Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush were there. A black woman married to a Democratic president and a white woman married to the former Republican president stood side by side as a team at the African First Ladies Summit, a gathering organized by the George W. Bush Institute. The African women in attendance found it encouraging that these two American women could stand side by side as partners working on women’s health issues in Africa. It gives them hope for reconciliation and cooperation in their own countries, countries often divided by deep political animosities.
While working with African immigrants in Italy, I discovered great affection for America among many of them. They see America as the “promise land,” a place of great opportunity where nearly anything is possible. If you can just get here, which oftentimes an enormously difficult thing to do, you can have a life where your grandest dreams for your family can be fulfilled. When talking of someone who had gotten to America they would say: “Yeah he’s sitting in America eating hamburgers all day.” In others words, he is on easy street living the good life. They imagine a scene from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Americans know that this is an idealized view of life in our country. We know that we still battle multi-generational urban and rural poverty. We know that race relations can still be tense. We know that fear of violent crime still hangs like a cloud in many of our cities. We know that the most unsafe place for a woman is in her own home. We know that our public schools sometimes fail our most needy students. We know that affordable healthcare is not accessible to many in our nation. We know that we have seniors who worked hard their whole lives and now cannot afford medicine. We know that gambling and alcohol and drug abuse routinely destroy lives and families. We know that unemployment continues to diminish lives and devastate communities. We know that deep divisions over many issues can prevent us from having meaningful dialogue. We are not naïve about our nation.
Yet a black woman and a white woman, each married to avowed political opponents, can stand together and partner for women’s health in a faraway continent. We are getting some things right around here; those African First Ladies noticed that. I often heard from my African brothers and sisters that if something can happen in America today, it could happen someday in their country. People are watching us and building or dismantling their aspirations based upon what we do here. We, as a nation, have a great responsibility to get things right, to be working to do a better job in our nation, to be building a better community, to be creating a society where people’s dreams for their children can come true. Jesus once said: “From everyone to whom much is give, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded [Luke 12:48].” We have the freedom to make our nation a better place; in many lands people don’t have that freedom. The world is watching what we are doing with this opportunity. We have a great responsibility
For the church in America, the situation is even more pointed. We are salt and light for our nation; we are to be the light of world, like a city set on a hill. We are to demonstrate how a loving God wants us to treat one another and to witness to the type of national community God wants us to build. We are to point the way to more loving communities, a more just nation, and a more nurturing world.
The world is watching us; we carry a great responsibility to honor their aspirations by how we treat one another and the type of society we build.
God bless you,