Monday, November 17, 2008

Election Night Blues

I was listening to the election results, alone, my nest empty of both children, and my husband, presenting at a conference in San Francisco, an hour and a half from home. Obama was declared the President elect, and I was happy. I was a take the easy road supporter, made a few contributions on my Visa card and sported a bumper sticker on his behalf. Then McCain gave his gracious concession speech and I began to realize that this was a watershed––an or a (I heard both)––historic moment with regard to race in this country. I hadn’t given it too much thought. Race was never an issue for my family, native Californians in our Bay area melting pot.

I realized we elected a president, not a savior, but when Obama gave his speech, I was moved. I won’t say it was a victory speech. It was a hope speech, a Yes We Can speech. I believed, and felt deeply that we were, as Tom Brokaw said, entering a new era, one of possibilities. I thought about my nephew, an eighteen-year-old multi-racial child. He never knew his black father, has been ashamed of his white mother, dropped out of school. We don’t know where he’s living. I wondered if he had a T.V., and if so what difference it might make in his life to see this future president on stage, embracing the responsibility of leading America into the future.

Then the phone rang, and my seventeen-year-old daughter, a freshman at a university in Florida, called crying. At first her tears were those of joy and relief, “I can’t believe it, Obama won. For the first time in my life, I’m proud to be an American.” She talked about her trip to Europe last summer after graduation, how she felt all eyes glaring at her, the American. How she’d wished she had an accent from New Zealand that would’ve thrown them off. “But now,” she said, “I’m so proud of my country.” She sniffed. “Do you think it’s strange that I care so much and I can’t even vote? Nobody else around here seems happy.” “It’s not strange, it’s important,” I told her, “It’s your future that you care about.”

Too soon, her tears turned to those of outrage and grief. She told me about a young man watching election results in the dorm lounge. “He kept calling Obama the N word,” she said, “and then he said he hopes he’s assassinated.” During the incident she was shaking with such rage she was left mute. Her roommate confronted the young man, and my daughter spent the next two hours in her room shaking. I spent several hours on the phone with her that night. She’d never witnessed such outright racism. We live in liberal Santa Cruz County where there’s a high degree of tolerance. Her high school values and promotes diversity and has a zero tolerance policy for threats, violence and the like. We talked about prejudice and why it might exist, particularly since she was living in the South and how she might learn to stand up for her beliefs in a constructive manner. We talked about prayer, not that she does it much, but that she could pray for our president and for this young man and those like him, to be open to a new vision and way of thinking.

My daughter has landed in a harsh and alien world, and it’s a daily struggle for her to stay true to her ideals. Her passion is for a “green world” and she brought her environmental consciousness to Florida, teaching her roommates how to recycle, on a campus where recycling bins come and go, conserving water in a city with fountains and water parks galore. She’s been a voice crying for the wilderness.

I wished so much for a safe place for her. I wanted for her the companionship of peers regardless of who they voted for, who would support her in her recognition of injustice. I wanted a place where she could gather inner strength to navigate in a broken world where hatred and meanness exist, even though we wish it didn’t.

After we hung up, I realized that what I longed for her to have was a campus ministry like the Wesley Center at U.C. Berkeley. A place where young people can grow into the people they are called to be. A place where they are encouraged to be prophets, the way their minister, Rev. Tarah Trueblood, defines prophet—a person who speaks the truth about the present situation. I long for her to have a tribe to empower and sustain her in this hard work. I thank God for the gift of campus ministries, available to so many students through the United Methodist Church. We just never know how and when they’ll have an impact. After all, I never set out to raise a prophet. Do any of us?

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