My wife Grace and I are currently in the United States, visiting family and friends in several states. As we travel, what surprises us most is just how much we are surprised at what we see around us. We were born in this country and spent decades here before heading Down Under seven years ago. Seven years is not a long absence, in the scheme of things. And yet we feel like strangers in a strange land.
Wow! Just look at all the churches. And the flags. Granted, this is Dallas, and Texans are proud of their state and country and they want you to know it. There seem to be churches around every corner – mostly really big churches, but also some small ones. And the only visible difference traveling in the Northeast is the absence of state flags and the fact that the ubiquitous church buildings are older. Also, some have been put to alternative uses.
Then there were the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Shocking beyond words and beyond belief, particularly because we had just been shopping in a Dallas Walmart a few days earlier.
Traveling around Australia, our American accent immediately gives us away. As a rule, Australians are a curious lot and completely uninhibited. So we always get the same three questions: “Why does the US still have the death penalty?” “What’s up with Americans’ love affair with assault weapons?” “What about Trump?”
Now, as Australians in the United States (we are dual citizens), the initial sense of alienation puzzles us. Flags, churches, mass shootings. We’re just not used to this at all. Where have we landed? Has our birth country really changed so much in so short a time? Or has our adopted country changed us more than we realized?
Two months have passed since we landed in Dallas, and our reactions have mellowed – not unlike the lovely autumnal days of this season so dear to our hearts. Perhaps the best way to explain this is to describe something I encountered on one of my daily walks around a small property an hour’s drive north of Manhattan. The early-morning sun had just come over the ridge, shining full on a row of grape vines laden with fruit.
It had been a cold night and the dew was heavy on the cloth netting that protected the hanging fruit from the avian thieves eager to participate in the harvest. When I stood facing the sun and looking down a slope toward the vines, the grape leaves were completely invisible beneath the silvery, dew-laden cloth. What caught my attention were the ribbons of water vapor streaming up from the netting.
Then I stepped to the other side of the vines, the sun at my back. Now the netting was almost invisible; what stood out was the lovely green of the grape leaves. Most striking of all was the complete absence of any vapor streamers. Confused, I walked a few steps uphill. Sure enough, the silvery shroud was crowned with delicate wisps of mist. Two views of exactly the same subject had produced “realities” that bore little in common.
Similarly, first impressions – though very real – cannot fully describe a nation. For a nation is primarily the sum of its people, not of its media headlines, and the United States is not defined by its excessive patriotism, its religious fervor, or the frequency of its mass shootings – as shocking as these are. Thankfully, we have had time and space to meet many of its people during our travels.
On one of our first evenings in Dallas we shared a barbecue with our son’s church family. Texan-sized buns and burgers were matched by the generosity and warmth of the folks who came by, one of whom drove two hours just to spend half that time with us before driving home again.
Then, shortly after arriving in New York, we accompanied another son to a 9/11 memorial service in a small town. Replicas of the Twin Towers held the names of the five town residents who died eighteen years ago on that unforgettable September day – two firefighters and three civilians. We once lived in this town; now we had the chance to reconnect with a widow whom we had known well.
There was nothing spectacular about the evening. The sound system worked only half the time and the youthful band played only one verse each of “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful.” But the event has attracted growing numbers each year, and this was the largest gathering yet. We felt completely at home, and as the almost-harvest moon rose in a darkening sky, we felt embraced by it all. Yes, America is beautiful and is also in need of God’s blessing – as are we all.
This last point was underlined in a very different setting a couple of weeks later when Grace and I were invited to an assembly at a local high school. It had been years since we’d seen an auditorium filled with high school kids. But what made this experience unique was that the several hundred ninth and twelfth grade students were completely quiet once the speakers began talking. Is that even possible?
What so captivated the young people was the way in which the speakers – the sister of a drug overdose victim and the parents of a teenager who took his own life – reached directly into their personal lives. Searingly, but with a message that taking drugs or, worse yet, taking their lives, does not solve underlying issues. The deck may be stacked against you, but there is a way out of drug addiction and depression. And there are people around you to help you discover the gold within. There is hope!
First impressions are rarely lasting impressions, and as we reflect on our travels through nine states in that many weeks, we realize just how deeply our lives have been enriched by our many, varied encounters with people: Meeting strangers or reconnecting with longtime friends, finding fellowship around grill and table, watching the young absorb wisdom from the old and the old gain energy from the young, conversing with those who teach the children of millionaires and those who live in depressed areas savaged by declining economies and opioid addiction. These encounters represent and define America far more accurately than the headlines that blast across the world.
“Let hope keep you joyful; in trouble stand firm; persist in prayer” (Rom. 12:12, NEB). That’s what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Roman church of his day. The Roman Empire crumbled, but the church lived on. For our part, we will return to our fellow Australians refreshed and strengthened, with hope increased, not diminished. Thanks to God and to our fellow Americans. May God bless us all.