My birthday wish this year is health care for everyone.
Thirty-one years ago today, I came into the world. After eighteen hours of labor, at 11:21pm, Patty Kemme pushed me into life, and she and Dan Kemme were instantly parents. Before I even took that first gasp of air and uttered my first baby cry, the circumstances of my birth determined a lot about these last 31 years.
I was born in the United States to an English-speaking family. I was born with white skin. I was born to a mother and father with college degrees. They had a strong marriage. Both grew up in loving homes with hardworking parents. Both had learned skills for financial solvency. Neither was addicted to drugs or alcohol. My dad had a steady job as a mechanical engineer. They lived in a safe suburb with a library and space to play. They had good health care and time for leisure. They planned to have children and felt ready to be parents. They had a support network of church, friends and family. All four of their parents were living. They had clothes, shelter, plenty of food and all the baby supplies that new parents could need.
As I think about the thousands of infants born around the world on June 30, 1986, I know that I was among the most privileged. From the very beginning of my life's journey, I was given an immense head start.
A few nights ago, my community friend Annie and I spent several hours in the emergency room at University Hospital in Cincinnati with a neighbor in need. The institution is a level-one trauma center and is well-known for serving Cincinnati's most vulnerable people. Sitting in the waiting room, I saw people whose circumstances of life were likely quite different than mine. If I was born into security and opportunity, they emerged into a world of poverty and barriers.
There was a woman groaning and writhing as she came off of a drug bender. A Hispanic man struggled to communicate with the intake nurse as his wife shivered in the blanket wrapped around her shoulders. A frail elderly couple leaned upon each other as they took each step, slowly and carefully, together. A woman's pregnant belly bulged out from her dirty T-shirt as she wearily dragged two other children along by their tiny hands. I tried to look at each one's face as they walked by. Some smiled; many stared blankly with hollow eyes and run-down spirits.
As Jesus was so often in the Scriptures, I was moved with compassion for these, my brothers and sisters.
Once inside the emergency center, where our friend was given a bed, we had the perfect vantage point to observe the amazing work of medical professionals. It was 10:30 p.m., and they were on their feet, fully engaged in caring for others. A nurse gently lifted our friend out of bed to help her get to the bathroom. A doctor sat by her bedside and spoke tenderly with her about her situation. A technician respectfully explained what was happening as he administered an EKG. In addition to the superb medical attention, each one took time to smile and even joke with our friend. Several of the doctors and the social worker answered Annie's and my questions clearly and patiently. I was overcome with awe by their knowledge, commitment and kindness. I wondered how they do it, night after night. I gave thanks that they each said a generous "yes" to their important vocations.
I saw Jesus, the ultimate healer and health care provider, alive in that room.
As this struggle for health and life continues twenty-four hours a day at the University Hospital, our elected officials sit in the halls of Washington and deliberate over our health care system. Those who developed the new plan, all white males, were born into privilege that even exceeds mine. It is doubtful that they ever will experience the kind of daily struggle and pain that I saw in the emergency waiting room. As in my situation, the proposed changes to health care likely will not affect their personal access to quality health care or that of their families. Their distance from and disregard for the reality of life for the vulnerable among us is sinful.
Can you imagine what Jesus might say about a plan that would deny coverage to millions of his beloved children?
In March, Joe Kennedy III responded to House Speaker Paul Ryan's calling the new bill an "act of mercy" with these words, "With all due respect to our speaker, he and I must have read different Scripture. The one that I read calls on us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless and to comfort the sick. It reminds us that we are judged not by how we treat the powerful, but how we care for the least among us."
I, too, read that Gospel, the one that, in addition to Matthew 25, contains passages like the good Samaritan, the golden rule, and Lazarus at the gate. I follow the Jesus that made no distinction among who he served and who was worthy of his love and care. On Monday, my congregation released a statement on health care asserting those values of our faith. If I am a Christian, I am for health care for all.
I reflect on the privilege life has afforded me and the corresponding responsibility to work for justice. I once heard justice described this way: In a just world, we could be born anywhere or trade places with anyone and know that we'd have the same quality of life. Until that day, we've got work to do. If I ever attribute my state in life to my own merit, shame on me. If I ever judge someone else or blame them for their state in life, shame on me. If I ever support denying others' basic human rights while I enjoy an endless supply of life's luxuries, shame on me. If ever I don't do all that I can to make the world better for all, shame on me.
On this, my 31st birthday, I pray that our country does the right thing. And I pray that each of us does what we can to ensure that happens. Please, make my wish come true: Call your senators.
[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She currently ministers at the Catholic Social Action Office in Cincinnati and as Latino ministry coordinator at a local parish.]