Am I Living the American Dream?
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.
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This opening to the Declaration of Independence is a very powerful statement that gives me goose bumps when I read it. Many of us have heard this statement at least once in our lives -- most of us, countless times. This is the statement upon which our country was built. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In fact, about 100 years after these statements were adopted into our Declaration of Independence, we decided that black Americans should be included in this dream as well. And then, 100 years after that, we adopted the Civil Rights Act that grants even more equality. All of this progress is personified today in our black president, whose example suggests that we live in a country that treats us all the same and that anyone can become whatever he or she wants to be with enough hard work.
Am I living the dream? I have been happily married for 25 years. I own my home in a neighborhood of my choosing, as well as a car and a truck for transportation. We have a modest savings account, take vacations, go to sporting events, and dine out when we choose. We have five children, one who is in college and another headed there in a year. We're members of the local YMCA. And I have satisfying work. My parents worked hard for me to live the life I am living. My grandparents and great grandparents suffered incredibly in order for me to experience this life. I am living what they dreamed -- yet I am unsettled.
Walking through my neighborhood, there are so many things to celebrate, and I take every opportunity to admire the beauty. There are also many aspects of my community that disturb me. I can't shake the feeling that something is not right. I can't help but wonder about the children around me that have no choice but to attend the local public school, which seems to be lacking in so many ways. Predatory lenders, slumlords, and pimps dominate the landscape. Trash and chemicals from the dumps and plants far out number the libraries, parks, and jobs. Convenience stores profiting from lottery tickets and malt liquor sales far outnumber grocery stores providing fruits and vegetables. The evidence suggests that things are far from equal. In fact, rather than "self-evident equality," I would offer that injustice is self-evident. I cannot rest. Life, liberty, and happiness have eluded large populations of our country.
I am on the road to the dream, but am certainly not living it. The dream is fulfilled when each person has equal opportunity. The dream is underway as evidenced in my own life, but it is surely not accomplished.
Leroy Barber is president of Mission Year, a national urban initiative introducing 18- to 29-year-olds to missional and communal living in city centers for one year of their lives. He is also the pastor of Community Fellowships Church in Atlanta, Georgia and author of New Neighbor.