“America is the greatest country in the world,” she said.
That was U.S. District Judge Theresa L. Springmann.
Seated between the U.S. and Indiana flags, she was addressing the 54 persons from 23 different countries who were being sworn in that morning as America’s newest citizens.
This past week, I wasn’t so sure we were the greatest country.
According to polls, most Americans oppose the construction of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero. Even the usually broad-minded New Yorkers don’t like the center near the site.
I caught a distinct whiff of bigotry directed at Muslims when I first heard of the opposition. Hey, I wanted to shout. Muslims didn’t bring down the World Trade Center. That was suicidal fanatics.
Never mind the First Amendment, all that beautiful rhetoric about tolerance, respect for everyone regardless of race, religion or national origin. Cable TV’s talking heads grumbled and the next thing you knew lots of folks talked as if the Commies had crawled under our beds again.
I refuse to dwell on the weird case of the Rev. Terry Jones and his tiny Gainesville church that planned to burn copies of the Koran on 9/11. Too much has been said about that already.
In any case, those few days didn’t seem to be a good week for proclaiming our country’s greatness. Until that Friday morning in a a federal courtroom. Just think about. More than 50 people from all over the world sworn in as American citizens. That included our good friend Abdalla from Darfur. Well, observing all this I had to conclude that I Judge Springmann is right. We are pretty great. Never mind the nut cases.
What other country attracts such a diverse group of immigrants? What other country really does accommodate most all the time such a diversity? Even Fort Wayne schools here in the traditionalist heartland provide special help for kids who grew up speaking a score of other languages.
The judge reminded the audience of all the things our newest citizens had to do to win their U.S. citizenship. That took years of study, including English language lessons and American history. They had to go through a background check. And a personal interview. It all took courage, she said.
They have to swear allegiance to the country, even bear arms if only as a non-combatant. (I was glad to even pacifists can become naturalized citizens.) What about giving those millions of undocumented a shot at this, too?
Many native born citizens might have trouble making the cut. What year did the Civil War end? Who were we fighting in the Korean War? What president introduced Social Security? Get out your U.S. history books you native born!
“You dared to dream the American dream,” Judge Springmann said, again to the new citizens. That line hit a chord with me. Gave me chills. That’s right. We’re truly a land of dreamers.
The judge even made the ceremony personal. In her concluding remarks, she told us that her own grandparents had come to America as immigrants. She spoke of their dreams, their hopes, their struggles and the life they made for their descendants: doctors, teachers, business leaders and, yes, a judge. Immigrants bring such gifts, making our mosaic much more dazzling.
We all stood for the pledge of allegiance. Then we sang the Star Spangled Banner. You wouldn’t want to make a CD of that rendition of the national anthem, accompanied by a recording. But it was sung in earnest in a dozen accents. Beautiful.
At the closing, Judge Springmann invited the new citizens to join her at the judge’s bench, front of the riblue drape with the U.S. district court of Northern Indiana seal on it. She wanted to shake hands of these newly honored Americans and give them a chance to have their pictures taken.
At the insistence of our friend Abdalla, my wife and I joined him, his wife, daughter, two sons and the judge for the photo opportunity. And we all celebrated this milestone.
As we made our way to the door, I glanced at the photographs of the judges who had presided over this courtroom. Faces I recognized from my days with the paper looked back. There were others from long ago, before my journalism career. Lots of heartwarming stories unfolded under that vaulted ceiling.
The ceremony is held once a month, a court official told me. But he thought it was going to be changed to once every other month. He didn’t say why.
You don’t think much about how so many different seasonings get dropped into our melting pot every month, all across the country, in every state. If you’re amazed at the rapid change in technology, consider the change in the makeup of the population.
They escaped from El Salvador’s civil war. They fled oppression in Burma. They left loved ones in India for new opportunities here. They gave up the grinding poverty of Haiti. They brought with them their beliefs, their customs, their work ethic. And probably some prejudices, too.
Witnessing this profoundly moving ceremony, I knew our home-grown bigots won’t carry the day. Eventually, they’ll get their comeuppance and fade away. And the rest of us will move on. Conceived in liberty, one nation. Because that’s who we are.