Within hours after the election results became clear early November 9, there was talk of unity, of bringing the nation together after a long, divisive presidential campaign.
But that morning, there were other issues that had to be dealt with.
It started with my children, ages 10 and 12, who reacted with horror on hearing Donald Trump had been elected. Why? Because they feared for their friends.
My daughter was afraid her best friend would be deported to Mexico, despite the fact that her friend is an American citizen. My son was afraid something would happen to his friends. I worried not so much about those things, but at the fear those children must have been feeling. What must be going through the mind of their black classmates, their Hispanic classmates? The recent immigrants from Myanmar and Sudan? The Hispanic boy who has two moms and uses a wheelchair?
What do you tell your children in these circumstances?
I told them that we have a system in America, and that system has never let us down. We believe in that system, and we believe it will not let us down this time. Yes, sometimes that system gives us election results we disagree with, but it also keeps politicians from doing things the laws says they cannot. It may take some time, I said, but eventually we fix the things that are wrong.
I also pointed out that for the most part, nothing will change. I opened the curtains: Our neighborhood looked exactly as it had the day before. Another thing that doesn't change is who we are: Our family and friends believe in goodness. We believe in doing the right thing. We believe in treating everyone the same. That never changes.
I told them that their job was to reassure anyone frightened. To bring peace to anyone angry. To protect anyone who needed it. And to continue to choose love, no matter what.
The fact is I was telling myself those things just as much as I was telling my kids. I needed to hear those things, too. And, thanks to women religious, I got to hear those things soon after: As I and other Global Sisters Report staff talked with sisters about their thoughts on the election, I was heartened by a characteristic shared by every sister I have ever talked to. They are relentlessly hopeful. Over and over Wednesday I heard them say they would work harder, pray more, love bigger.
That helped immensely, because I also had to face two dozen college students in the freshman English class I teach at a local university. Several are African American, several are Hispanic, several are young women who were afraid of what this might mean for them; there are two LGBT students, a student from China and some from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Earlier in the semester, these students wrote essays about times when they felt they did not fit in, and their words were heartbreaking. They wrote about fearing for their life because of their sexual orientation. A black student wrote about a white father forbidding him from dating his daughter. A Saudi student wrote about crying himself to sleep after being stopped on the street by police because neighbors thought he looked suspicious. Another wrote about his time at another university where students called him a terrorist, and about roommates asking him if he beats his wife or girlfriend. An immigrant from Ecuador wrote about his bewildering days in elementary school when he didn't speak English and knew no one outside his family who spoke Spanish.
Meanwhile, Americans had just voted to elect a candidate who had said immigrants were to be looked at with suspicion or barred outright for their religion. A candidate supported by an official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan and praised by white nationalists. A candidate who boasted of treating women like sexual property for his entertainment. A candidate who chose as his running mate a governor who backed and signed into law a measure to allow religious discrimination because it would let Christians refuse to do business with gays, a governor who has fought every attempt to protect even their most basic rights.
What do I tell these students?
I told them — and myself — much of what I had told my children a few hours earlier. And we talked about how words matter, both good and bad. And I said that in times when I have been afraid, I turned to words of wisdom from the past. And we read some of those words, the ones about how America has always overcome its divisions and come together for good.
We read what Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. wrote on September 11, 2001:
Let me tell you about my people. We are a vast and quarrelsome family, a family rent by racial, social, political and class division, but a family nonetheless. We're frivolous, yes, capable of expending tremendous emotional energy on pop cultural minutiae — a singer's revealing dress, a ball team's misfortune, a cartoon mouse. We're wealthy, too, spoiled by the ready availability of trinkets and material goods, and maybe because of that, we walk through life with a certain sense of blithe entitlement. We are fundamentally decent, though — peace-loving and compassionate. We struggle to know the right thing and to do it. And we are, the overwhelming majority of us, people of faith, believers in a just and loving God.
Some people — you, perhaps — think that any or all of this makes us weak. You're mistaken. We are not weak. Indeed, we are strong in ways that cannot be measured by arsenals.
We read what Robert F. Kennedy told a shocked and horrified crowd in Indianapolis after informing them that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed:
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black. . . .
We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we've had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.
But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.
And we talked about how it was up to us to close those divides. How it is up to us to reach out and find understanding. How it is up to us — despite our fear, despite our anger, despite our mistrust — to build the bridges over the chasms between us.
And for those who doubted whether this was possible, we closed with the speech Barack Obama gave in New Hampshire in 2008:
. . . When we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready or that we shouldn't try or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can. . . .
It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.
Yes, we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can. . . .
We will remember that there is something happening in America, that we are not as divided as our politics suggest, that we are one people, we are one nation.
And, together, we will begin the next great chapter in the American story, with three words that will ring from coast to coast, from sea to shining sea: Yes, we can.
The road ahead may, indeed, be difficult. But if every generation before us has been able to come together for the good of all, then there is only one answer we can give to the question of whether we will be able to do the same: Yes, we can.
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