The first time that I visited Washington, DC, it was as a tourist. As I stood in awe of monuments and grand buildings, shuffled past the Declaration of Independence, and tried to take in all that the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian had to offer, I could not imagine that anyone actually lived in this city. To me as a tourist, Washington was like a marble theme park where presidents and Congress members made history of one kind or another.
A couple of months after I had moved to the neighborhood of Columbia Heights, I caught sight of the far off Washington monument down Meridian Hill and remembered how I once could not fathom being what I had become, a DC resident. I, like other staff members of the UUA’s Washington Office for Advocacy, live in DC. We go to work, go home, buy groceries, go to church, go out… and know a city that is not evident from vacation visits and media coverage. The Washington that tourists see is disproportionately white with a smattering of foreigners, and an emphasis on lawyers and the military, lobbyists and diplomats. The DC that I know as a resident is a mixture of ethnicities – Euro Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans, and others – living in neighborhoods of varying degrees of integration… policemen and nurses, shop keeps and community organizers. There are neighborhoods of extreme poverty and despair in the same city with the marble facades and luxury hotels. I live in the capital of what is still the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth and yet our school system fails its children, some neighborhoods are plagued with violence, our residents do not have true Congressional representation, and everywhere the divides created by both racism and classism are evident.
I do not mean to give the impression that everyone walks around distrusting each other. Far from it. But just like other large cities in the U.S., there are barriers in our daily lives that are perhaps more visible in DC because of the stark contrasts. But this week we watched those barriers tumble down. On Sunday, I attended the “We Are One” concert with Taquiena Boston and her sister Mishan. We met in the neighborhood of Adams Morgan for brunch and then walked down to the National Mall, an over two mile walk. Along the way, we joined hundreds of others walking there as well. And we smiled at each other and shared stories. At the concert itself, the crowd was even more diverse than the performers on stage. The spirit of unity continued through the weekend, culminating when two million people – from all over the nation including DC, from all walks of life – converged again on the National Mall. When Barack Hussein Obama completed the oath of office, people everywhere hugged the nearest person they could find, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation…. We truly were one. This spirit of good will has continued long past that one moment. People greet each other with smiles at metro stops and chat while waiting in lines.
We live in an age where self-sufficiency is valued over cooperation. Where people intentionally avoid eye-contact when passing each other on busy city streets. Only twice in my life have I experienced the loving good will that is still embracing DC right now. The other time was in New York City after September 11th, 2001. While a lot of anger was unfairly directed at Muslims following the attack, there was also an encompassing feeling of intimcacy amongst usually gruff New Yorkers. People held doors open for each other, used their car horns less, and were generally more patient and kind. In our moment of collective grief, as a nation searched for meaning out of tragedy, we could have listened to the better angels of our nature, instead of the demons of fear and self-centeredness. People were ready to serve a higher purpose, if only we had had the leader to inspire us in that direction. Instead, our president at the time told us to “go shopping” and then took us into two wars.
The inauguration of President Obama cannot erase the harm we have done in the last seven years (and for hundreds of years before that). But at least now we have a chance. May we hold on to this feeling of unity in the trying times to come.