Sometimes, it helps to step back and get a little perspective. When the anxiety of the present moment starts to feel overwhelming, it helps to put today's dramas into a bigger context.
There were very few glimmers of insight in last night's presidential candidate's debate. In the middle of ninety excruciating minutes of accusation and animosity, there was one helpful, constructive comment. A Muslim American woman named Gorbah Hamed told the candidates that Islamaphobia is on the rise in this country and asked, "how will you help people like me deal with the consequences of being labeled as a threat to the country after the election is over?" I thought it was the best question of the night, asking the candidates to connect national policy and campaign rhetoric to the lived experience of particular Americans. The two candidates gave starkly different responses. Donald Trump used the question to imply that Muslims in this country are hiding and protecting terrorists such as those who perpetrated the attack in San Bernadino, CA.
Hillary Clinton's answer began this way: "First, we've had Muslims in American since George Washington."
That one sentence went by in a flash. I doubt it will receive much comment as the debate is analyzed in the days to come. But I don't want to forget it because it reminded me of the power of the Bigger Picture. We are, and have always been, a nation composed of people of different religions, people from different cultures and countries of origin. The American story is, in part, a Muslim story.
Dan and I saw Part One of Tony Kushner's epic play, "Angels in America" at the Round House Theater in Bethesda on Saturday. The production marks the 25th anniversary of the play, evocative timing for us. We were married in my home town of St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 3rd, 1993. Immediately after our wedding we drove to New York so that I could attend a retreat that was required as part of the internship I had that year. I like to say that I spent my honeymoon alone in a Passionist Monastery, but that's not entirely true. After the retreat, I met Dan and my maid-of-honor Helena Hedman in New York City. The highlight of our weekend together was seeing Part One of "Angels in America" at the Walter Kerr theater where it had opened just a couple of months before.
It was one of the most memorable pieces of theater I've ever seen. The plot revolves around two couples whose lives and relationships are coming apart: a Morman husband and wife who beginning to acknowledge the husband's homosexuality and a gay couple, one of whom is becoming progressively more sick with AIDS. But the story does not stay small--the characters include Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg and scenes take place in the world of reality and fantasy, from New York to Antartica. The show is three and a half hours long, culminating in the arrival of an angel who crashes through the roof of the theater and announces, "The great work begins! The messenger has arrived."
Twenty-five years later, it wasn't that last scene that made the strongest impression on me, but the first. The show opens with a funeral for the grandmother of Lewis, the partner to the man who is sick with AIDS. An elderly rabbi (played memorably by Meryl Streep in the 2003 HBO adaptation of the play) gives the eulogy, admitting at the start that he didn't know the deceased personally. But he continues, saying that he knows the kind of person she was, an immigrant who brought an ancient culture with her when she immigrated to America. She worked the earth of the Old World "into the bones" of her children and grandchildren. He concludes,
You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not anymore exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is.
Collapse and chaos threaten to overwhelm the characters in Kushner's play. Lest we forget, by that point over a million Americans were infected with HIV and effective treatment was still a ways off. By 1993, the disease had killed almost 150,000 people. But by placing that story into an epic context with visitors from the past and visitors from heaven, Kushner insists that we do more than grieve or rage in response. We must link our story to the Great Voyages of our ancestors. We must recognize that we are living out not only our own little dramas, but also the Great Drama of our country, our time. We understand this chapter better when we understand the ones that came before.
But part of understanding our history is recognizing that our lives also matter. That was a powerful assertion for a gay man to make in 1993 and it still feels bold today. I admire Gorbah Hamed and every other Muslim American who will stand up in the presence of these candidates and the rest of us and insist that the story of this election and the story of our country includes the story of their lives.