'My country 'tis of thee ...'

Friday, September 08, 2017 - Updated: 10:54 am

When I was a first-grader, my teacher, Sister Eustelle, tried to give us a well-rounded education in reading, writing, arithmetic and religion. In each of these academic disciplines she helped us truly to come to know Jesus better. She wanted us to learn both the meaning of and the practice of the word “thank,” so that we would be able, above all, to thank God for his many blessings.

One of those blessings that Sister taught us to be grateful for is our country. She was just as eager to teach us the Pledge of Allegiance as she was to teach us the Hail Mary. She was just as adept at helping us learn to sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” as she was at teaching us the hymn “Jesus, My Lord, My God, My All.”

Things were so much simpler then. People treated faith in God with respect. People were proud to be citizens of our country. Things have certainly changed since then.

Faith, hope and love

Like many of you, I have been transfixed by news coverage of people stranded in the deluge after Hurricane Harvey. As overwhelming as I find the sight of babies atop refrigerators and elderly people in rockers with water up to their waists, I have been equally overwhelmed by the heroism of first responders, neighbors and total strangers who are risking their lives to save others.

One recent news photo showed a flooded Houston street, on which volunteers in more than a dozen tiny boats were pulling terrified people from flooding cars and rescuing them from rooftops. A brave police officer, Steve Perez, died in a flooded underpass as he tried to reach a command post so he could join the rescue mission. The U.S. Coast Guard, as always, carried out daring rescues, from both rooftops and ships damaged in the Gulf. Other branches of the military have used amphibious vehicles to reach survivors and deliver food and water to shelters.

The story of Father David Bergeron also caught my eye. He is a Catholic priest who used his kayak to bring comfort and the sacraments to survivors. Recalling the 17th century missionaries to Canada and what is now the United States, he told a TV reporter, “This is how America was evangelized — by canoe.”

As I watched all of this unfold, I was deeply conscious that I was witnessing black people rescue white people and vice versa. Hispanic and Asian people also assisted and were assisted by those who looked and spoke differently from them. Surely Democrats were saving Republicans and Republicans saving Democrats, and it’s equally certain that none of them even asked.

In the floodwaters of Texas we have seen enormous loss, but we have also seen America as its best. In the midst of our divisions over race, politics and the meaning of heritage, we have seen people risk their lives for each other across all cultural barriers, and embrace when the rescue was accomplished. Deep in the heart of Texas, we have seen faith, hope and love at work.

Perhaps you have been watching those same images. Perhaps, like me, you have asked yourself if you could throw a lifeline to someone in rising waters. Perhaps, like me, you have longed to be part of that demonstration of love, mercy and healing that is taking place deep in the heart of Texas.

Because we are family. We are all children of God, and he expects us to take care of each other.

And I am seeing that in Texas.

Cultural and regional heritage

Of course, it has happened elsewhere, after other disasters. But my perception of it is sharpened both by the enormity of the flooding on the Gulf Coast and the backdrop of hatred, bigotry and prejudice that was consuming our nation before Hurricane Harvey hit. People were not only angry with each other over important issues such as racism, but in some cases the partisans were rejecting people who agreed with them because they allegedly failed to “talk the party line.” As a nation, we’ve been stuck in a vicious cycle of blaming each other instead of working together to solve our problems.

I’m not naïve enough to think that our divisions will disappear because of our shared response to Hurricane Harvey. In fact, some of the issues at stake are far too important to set aside.

But I thought of the debate that had been joined over what it means to celebrate our cultural or regional heritage. There were some in our country who wanted to equate Southern culture with monuments to those who fought to enslave black people. That history is part of Southern heritage, just as racial prejudice is part of our own history here in southwestern Pennsylvania. It’s too easy to pin racism on those below the Mason-Dixon line when people of color in our own communities get the short end of public services and long suspicious stares from some others.

And then I looked back to my TV screen, to the bearded white men in camo gear rescuing African-American babies, and the black pastor who waded down a submerged freeway in chest-deep water, checking the flooded cars for occupants of any color.

That, I thought, is Southern culture. It’s a culture of faith, generosity and hospitality, with roots in both Africa and Europe. It’s gospel music and country music that will inspire the survivors, even as it inspires us to lend them a hand. It’s a culture that we can all celebrate because it shows the best of what it means to be an American.

We need to celebrate that culture. We need to lend a hand. We need to heal our land even as we help the survivors build a new life after the storm.

As I have taken my eyes off the TV screen and the front page of the morning newspaper, I can’t help but muse about what Sister Eustelle taught us when she helped us learn to sing “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty ...”

You and I, as people who love our nation and our church, will have an opportunity to reach out to the needy in Houston in a special collection at Masses on the weekend of Sept. 16-17. As we do so, may we especially continue to join our hands and hearts together so we can tear down the walls that divide us and help build bridges that unite us.

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