Happy Holidays and Other American Declarations

Posted by BRIDGES Web Team on Dec 15, 2015

Happy holidays, and other American declarations

 By David Waters of The Commercial Appeal
Posted: Dec. 12, 2015



December 06, 2015 — Bridge Builders watch members of a bilingual theater group perform at BRIDGES. Participants spent the evening learning about a variety of ethnic and religious holidays during a World of Traditions event. (Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal)

Dozen of teenagers gathered on a Downtown Memphis street corner the other day.

There were Hispanic kids. Muslim kids. Black kids. Immigrant kids. Kids from Midtown mixing it up with kids from Germantown.

Donald Trump’s worst nightmare.

The teenagers divided into smaller groups for 15 or 20 minutes, then broke up and reassembled.

Kate Jenkins, who works in the building on that corner, did her best to keep an eye on them and maintain some order.

“I was dealing with the media and a few other things, so I didn’t really have time to follow them around,” she said. “But everything went well.”

Of course it did. This sort of thing happens in Memphis every day.

People of different ages, backgrounds, traditions, incomes and neighborhoods getting together to get to know each other and find ways to support each other.

That’s what those teenagers were doing last Sunday afternoon at BRIDGES: Getting to know more about each other’s holiday traditions.

Korean Thanksgiving and Christmas in Hawaii.

The Hindu festival of light (Diwali) and the Jewish festival of lights (Hanukkah).

The Islamic New Year (Navroz) and the Chinese Moon Festival.

Happy holidays, Memphis.

Don’t fear, culture warriors. That’s not another declaration in the “War on Christmas.” It’s a statement of faith in America.

BRIDGES’ “World of Traditions” program isn’t just about encouraging tolerance (not that there’s anything wrong with it).

It’s about gaining knowledge, understanding and mutual respect.

“While they may not always agree with someone else’s beliefs,” said Cynthia Ham, BRIDGES president and CEO, “they recognize that exposure to the unfamiliar helps them get past fears and be better leaders.”

Fear is a chronic human condition. We all suffer from it, some more than others, at some times more than other times.

Verna Dozier, the lay Episcopal theologian, wrote that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt. It’s fear.

Given the current tenor of terror that has people turning to demagogues and gun dealers, rushing to close borders and minds, you’d think America was a country of little faith.

It’s just the opposite, of course.

America in the 21st Century is its own world of traditions, a place for people of all faiths and no faiths.

That can be unsettling, especially if you grew up thinking Jesus spoke the King’s English and Norman Rockwell was a churchgoing man.

Jesus spoke a Galilean dialect of Syriac Aramaic. He looked and sounded more like a Syrian than an Englishman.

Rockwell grew up in the Episcopal Church, but as an adult didn’t belong to a church or attend one.

His most famous religiously-themed illustrations— “Saying Grace,” “Freedom of Worship” and “Four Freedoms — aren’t about religion. They’re about tolerance, mutual respect and religious liberty.

Rockwell’s “Saying Grace” depicts an old woman and young boy bowing their heads in prayer before eating at a crowded diner.

“The people around them were staring,” Rockwell explained in his memoir, “some surprised, some puzzled, some remembering their own lost childhood, but all respectful.”

Mutual respect was what George Washington had in mind when he wrote a letter to a Jewish congregation in 1790, promising to “give bigotry no sanction; to persecution no assistance.”

Historian Daniel Dreisbach says Washington was describing “a distinctly American view” of religious liberty.

“Religious toleration often assumes an established church and regards religious exercise as a revocable grant of the civil state,” Dreisbach wrote in an essay in“Washington’s Rebuke to Bigotry.”

“Religious liberty, by contrast, is a natural, inalienable right located within each individual and beyond the reach of civil magistrates, subject only to the dictates of a free conscience.”

That’s not just an American view. That is America.

A place where religious liberty is a basic human right protected by all, not granted or revoked by some.

A place that gives bigotry no sanction, not even in fearful times.

A place where teenagers learn that “Happy holidays” is a perfectly American expression.