The Alabama Shakespeare Festival is starting a new tradition with a celebration on the 3rd of July in the lovely park area around the theater. There will be music, fireworks, all kinds of festivity. And 50 people who have been nominated because they represent the diversity that defines Montgomery (though our temptation is to reduce ourselves to one or two monochromatic tones) will take turns and read the Declaration of Independence. Those fifty people will also participate in a conversation during the fall, about how this rather extraordinary regional theater can continue to unfold and discover its mission and work in such an extraordinarily complex time we live in.
I will be one of those 50 people.
I wept when I got the invitation and they were tears very much like the ones I shed on the day I became a citizen of this country. I had rocked along in the USA for 15 years, first here on a student visa, and then, after marrying Sherod, as a permanent resident. One day in late 1992, when I was complaining about some political issue or another, Sherod stopped me and said, “Look: until you become a citizen and start voting, I don’t want to hear any more belly aching from you.” GULP!!!!
I began the process with enormous trepidation. There’s the fear, perhaps irrational, that you will be turned down. There’s the magical thinking: you can really have it both ways, be a resident in one country and citizen of another, and not have to make any choices. In those days neither Colombia nor the USA permitted dual citizenship so it really was a defining choice I had to make.
The process of naturalization is hard too: the finger printing, the extensive questionnaire that asked me if I had ever participated in an anarchist or communist party elsewhere in the world, if I had HIV/AIDS or had ever been a prostitute because if I said yes to any of that, I was automatically disqualified from becoming a citizen. I listed all the addresses where I’d lived for more than 3 months from the moment I got to this country 15 years earlier (I had a lot to give: Lynchburg, Fairfax, New Orleans, Sewanee, Nashville, Huntsville, Madison, Memphis). I took the civics test—it was oral in those days, administered by a gruff older man at INS in Memphis. The two questions I was asked were about the number branches of in the US government and the names of the two senators of Tennessee: (Jim Sasser and Al Gore).
After several months, I finally got my summons to the naturalization ceremony at the courthouse. That day, 93 of us, representing 87 nationalities, became US citizens. You can change your name during the naturalization service and only one person did, a young Vietnamese man. The new name he chose was, Happy Lucky Weinberger. My very conservative friend, Tom, and my very liberal friends, Mike and Mary, joined Sherod and me, and after the ceremony, we went to the Peabody Hotel to celebrate.
The critical moment in the ceremony comes when you take this oath: “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
There were no reservations or a purpose of evasion in the words I said, though my heart crumbled a bit, knowing I was turning my back on Colombia, the country that birthed and nurtured and grew me into early adulthood. It is no easy thing to say that renunciation and oath; I expect the small and deep sorrow of taking such a step will stay with me always.
There have been years when the patriotic festivities of the 4th have been easier, others when I have been clear-eyed about the fact that we are not yet anything near a perfect union. This year, I wondered how in heavens name I would participate because I see us becoming something so frighteningly different from the things that made America the city shining on a hill for one who was an idealistic and determined young woman, when I came all by myself to America.
My observance of the 4th starts tomorrow, when I will participate in a march in Montgomery in support of family reunification for immigrants detained at the border. I don’t take this stand lightly—as a clergy person, I have always been very careful to respect political differences, to find ways to engage those I serve in my church only as beloved children of God. That has included limiting my political engagement to respect the plurality of political beliefs represented in the congregation I serve.
But it is evil, evil pure and simple, to take children from their mothers and fathers and put them in detention camps. It is evil to do so without having a careful reunification plan in place. It is pure evil to use little ones as pawns in political games. It is evil in its worst, most insidious, banal, and indifferent manifestation, and I will join my voice with those who say, “this cannot stand.”
Then, on July 3rd, I will carefully, and with a sense of deep honor and gratitude, read my one little part of the Declaration of Independence. I re-read the Declaration just a bit ago, in English and Spanish and it felt like a plea and a prayer, a hope against hope, for what we might return to as a nation. I suspect I will enjoy a delicious meal on the 4th, watch fireworks explode over the Alabama River, be grateful beyond words for my Alabama friends—no, my Alabama family—as we gather for the celebration.
It is because I am proud to be an American that I must acknowledge both the exquisite light and the terrible darkness that defines our country these days.