Meeting America on the New Jersey Turnpike
(Posted July 6, 2017)
You can learn a lot from the rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike.
The road trip that Gary and I took last Friday to reach Baltimore and the National Synod of the United Church of Christ required us to travel the New Jersey Turnpike. It serves as an asphalt spine, sometimes six lanes, sometimes 12 lanes wide --the whole length of the Garden State. Circumstances necessitated us stopping twice at the rest stations on that Independence Day trip. And what we experienced refreshed the meaning of the holiday for us. There is probably no busier place on a Friday, when people are going away for a long weekend.
And that’s where we met America.
America was there in the bustling melting pot of the crowded rest stations, as if someone from Central Casting was about to film a story about what the country has meant for so many. America was there in the faces – Indian faces, Japanese faces, Muslim faces, African American faces, Hispanic faces and, yes, white faces. You could meet America in the red hair of a whole family of Hasidic Jews whose little ones tagged behind Momma and also Papa, the strings of his publicly worn prayer shawl flapping in the humid breeze. For a moment we remembered that folklore says that David had red hair.
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That prayer shawl was not the only sign of faithfulness among the people, tired, hungry and thirsty though they might have been. Faithful America was also in the bindi mark on the brows of the Indian family members, who I thought included at least three generations of mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and little ones walking into the rest stop. America sang her song, My Country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of Liberty, from the cross around the neck of the Latina Grandmother, and from the hands of someone holding the door for the stranger in a wheelchair. America’s faith was wrapped in an assortment of silken saris, hijabs and a few dashikis. Everybody was too busy being family to be bothered with politics. We were all there, free, on our way, getting to a place we call America.
You can be reminded of a lot when you pause for a rest stop. Most of all, it reminded me of the sonnet that Emma Lazarus wrote, and which is inscribed inside the base of a famous Lady in the Harbor. It goes like this:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Peace and freedom to you all. -- Pastor Pat Kriss