An Inauguration Pilgrimage: Dreams From My Mother

By Lisa Sharon Harper 1-21-2009

090120-inauguration-mall-monumentWe waited for 30 minutes. Standing, awkward, we looked up at the board. When I arrived at Penn Station the board said train #167, enroute to Washington D.C., "25 mins late"... Five minutes later, "30 mins late." The terminal filled up, more people standing -- waiting ... and wondering if the others hovering with backpacks and napsacks and yoga mats were all waiting for the same thing.

9:30 p.m. the board flipped. 14 West. Stampede. Nearly everyone was waiting for #167. I gathered my things and ran with the crowd. An older gentleman saw my bulky bags and offered to let me into the line ahead of him. Eyes made connection. There was thanks and there was grace. I flashed my ticket to the overwhelmed security agent and I was on my way.

I descended into the bowels of Penn station in a stream of pilgrims. We were on a journey ... together.

What did we hope to see when we got there? To Lincoln's Memorial and Washington's Monument? To Obama's coronation? I'm not sure it was so much what we hoped to see -- as what we hoped to be. We hoped to be a part of history.

"It's odd," I thought, "in that moment, when Obama places his hand on the Bible, an estimated two million people will stand with Washington and Lincoln and -- at once -- we will re-live the past and we will witness a long deferred dream: America reconciling with itself."

I was born too late to witness King's 1963 coronation. Still, King's call to wield the weapon of nonviolent resistence to realize the true soul of America is etched in my memory, as if I was there:

"I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."

"I have a dream," he bellowed, "that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal...'"

My mother was 14 years old when King marched on the Mall. She asked her mother if she could go, but the answer was "No." So, she watched the events on network TV with the rest of the country.

King's speech and the county's struggles for justice made an indelible mark on my mother. Only a few years after the speech she became a founding member of the Philadelphia chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Mom was a community organizer when our nation was unraveling.

When I was 14, I was born again in a rural, white, evangelical church, in Cape May, New Jersey. Quick on the heels of my first conversion came a conversion to Republican politics. It was 1983 and Ronald Reagan was running for his second term in office. I was told I had to be a Republican to be a Christian. With faith-filled fervor, I tried to convert my mom to Jesus and Reagan. She rejected both. And our relationship was broken. I was preaching a Jesus she didn't know. He had no connection to her world or our people.

Since then, I've experienced a third conversion. I met my first Christian Democrat in New York City. He was a Nazarene from Los Angeles.

I was intrigued and mounted a decades-long investigation. "How could one be a Christian and a Democrat?" I asked. My search eventually lead me to write Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.

My relationship with my mother is healing now. Not because I am a Democrat but because I met and affirmed her Jesus. Mom's Jesus is the ultimate revolutionary and the consummate community organizer. He stood up for "the least of these." He proclaimed release for the captives and freedom for the oppressed. He changed the world.

Now, in an odd twist of providence, a revolutionary mother and a born again daughter were united in support of one president ... a president living a dream.

"So, are you coming, Mom?" I inquired one last time as my Amtrak train passed Trenton, New Jersey.

She desperately wanted to stand on that Mall. She wanted to be a witness to history. Life seemed to offer her a second chance, but her body could have the final word this time. Back surgeries, hip problems and arthritis in the kness and ankles could echo her mother's "No" from 46 years ago.

"I've decided to go," she said.

"Really?!" I couldn't believe it.

Twenty-five minutes from Philadelphia, and I knew I was going to share this dream moment with my mother.

On the morning of January 20, 2009, my mother and I walked with friends from New York Faith and Justice through mazes of barricades lining the streets of D.C. We walked slower than thirty-something-year-old feet like to move when history waits on the other side of walking. But, my friends were full of love and grace, and Mom was a trooper. Though cold and aching all over, she held my hand and kept putting one foot in front of the other.

We made our way to a proverbial mountaintop. Perched on a hill, opposite the Capitol steps, the Washington Monument was surrounded by a sea of souls, each waiting to claim their own piece of history. Each would be able to say, "I was there."

In the sea, were a mother and a daughter. We watched as our president was sworn in.

Now I sit on a Greyhound bus and watch as the New York City skyline grows closer and memories of that moment grow smaller in the rearview mirror. I cherish many memories from our nation's historic day: Rick Warren's prayer and joining the chorus of millions who prayed the Lord's Prayer, watching President Obama extend hands of reconciliation to our enemies, saying "President Obama," and sharing the day with my mother.

I asked my mom, "What was your favorite moment of the day?"

"Walking with you," she said.

Lisa Sharon Harper is the executive director of New York Faith & Justice and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.

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