I was 22 years old when Barack Obama was elected in 2008, fresh out of college and newly entering the adult world against the backdrop of his presidency. I’m part of a generation who came of age in the era of our nation’s first black president. Our early adulthood has been shaped by his leadership, and his legacy will be revealed in the ways we — the Obama Generation — choose to live moving forward.
Obama’s historic election taught me to believe that progress is real and that change can happen — that we, as a country, can become better and more just than we have been.
In these eight years, I have come out as queer and then watched our nation embrace federal marriage equality. I’ve also witnessed Obama’s own evolution, his growth of understanding and movement toward a supportive stance on LGBTQ justice. I have heard our president proudly and lovingly name my identity — bisexual — in his state of the union address. And I have been hopeful and grateful to know that people can learn and grow in love, and that where once was judgement can one day blossom genuine care and advocacy.
But the racist backlash against his election, and the alarming number of black deaths at the hands of our own justice system, showed me that we are not nearly as progressed as we would like to believe. There is so much work still be done. I have watched Obama respond to the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Mike Brown and so many others. I have seen the exhaustion deepen the lines in his face and heard in the careful balance of anger and resolve in his voice a call to reckon with our American sin of racism, and my own complicity in it. Our president’s resolve has cemented mine — to be a better ally to him and to all people of color.
During Obama’s presidency, I went to seminary and became an ordained pastor. As I did so, I was repeatedly inspired by our president — whose own faith is so clearly a foundation of his leadership, who gives presidential speeches that sound like sermons, who sings grace into the very heart of horrific tragedy. And I have followed his example into a life at the intersection of faith and justice, religion and politics — where our hope for a better world is made flesh and our convictions incarnated into action.
From President Obama, I have learned to be an activist, to fight for change, and to believe that change is possible even on the darkest days. I have learned to cry out against injustice and name the evils in this world for what they are, to speak bold truth about what I believe is right even when it feels dangerous.
But he’s taught me something else too, something that was on full display in his speech on Tuesday night.
At the very beginning of his speech, Obama made a point to express his gratitude to all Americans, saying “Whether we’ve seen eye-to-eye or rarely agreed at all … you made me a better president, and you made me a better man.” Over and over again, sometimes even against the boos of the crowd, Obama spoke inclusively, even of his detractors. He lifted up the experiences of all. He spoke out against racism and economic inequality even while he denounced framing that pitted these two issues against one another. He spoke to protesters and cops, to Muslims and the nonreligious. He declared plainly in his words what he has embodied throughout his entire presidency — a commitment to genuine solidarity and the conviction that “We are all in this together. We rise or fall as one.”
Barack Obama is proof that one can speak prophetic, unapologetic truth and be committed to relationship with those “on the other side.” This example has inspired and shaped me, perhaps more than anything else about him. Too often, we operate as though conversation is the enemy of justice. Obama’s presidency has embodied unwavering commitment to both. His firm stance at this seemingly paradoxical intersection has informed me as an activist, as a pastor, and as a human being. It has challenged the way I interact with those in my community, and even within my own family, with whom I can deeply disagree. It’s helped me recognize that I have a responsibility and a calling to both speak boldly and be in relationship. To be a fighter and a reconciler.
Shortly before the election in November, I had the chance to tour the White House. There I learned that outside of the Oval Office, President Obama had a painting hung named, “Watch Meeting — December 31st, 1862 — Waiting for the Hour.” It depicts a group of slaves, huddled together by firelight, waiting anxiously for the stroke of midnight when the Emancipation Proclamation would go into effect and they would be free. It was gifted to White House by the Republican party in 1976 in celebration of the bicentennial. It’s an art choice that reveals our painful history. And it shows a scene of abiding vigilance for something better. Its provenance reminds us of the ways we are all connected, even amidst our deepest differences.
This rings true for us, the Obama generation. We are a looking toward an unknown future, hoping and fighting for a better world than the one we have today. And we carry with us the challenge of Obama’s legacy — to hold fast to our convictions and to one another.