Grandparents and a City on a Hill

I have been thinking a lot about my grandfather during my stay in the Dominican Republic. As a child, I remember my mother presenting several sides to her father. While much of it was good and spoke of how deeply our bonds of family connected us, some of what I remember came in the form of warnings. She would talk about how she had fled the restrictive Baptist culture into which she was born. Chafing from a young age against the precepts of predestination and the paternalistic approach to how you needed to be saved to be worthy of Christ’s warm embrace, she paid lip service to her parents’ faith only until she left home for college. The most educated person in her family, I remember hearing her talk about teaching her father how to read, and can still sense today how some of her drive for excellence was a desire to have more and be a more complete person than she saw in her father. I remember warnings in the car on the way to visits that if he said something narrow, overtly racist, or ignorant, I should try to respond with grace, and seek to enjoy the visit. I never remember feeling those same emotions of recoil that I felt coming from her. She also loved and took care of her father, giving him a place to stay and visiting him relentlessly in his final years. When we went to his funeral, I was afraid that I would feel little grief for a man I hardly knew, as much of what I did know seemed tainted by backwards beliefs and an antiquated world view. But at his funeral I also remember being struck by the true passion with which his pastor talked of his constant attendance at church. His dedication and years spent cleaning and maintaining the physical facility, and most of all, I was touched by the poems that my mother and his pastor read that they had found in his diaries. Simple in verse, they spoke of a love for his grandchildren, nature, and his church.

It came to me slowly that perhaps it had been unlucky that I hadn’t gotten much chance to get to know him. Among the few things I inherited from him were several thick flannel coats and his army handbook from basic training during the Second World War. I treasure those possessions. I also have always felt a deep willingness to forgive him for his faults. I do not know, but I feel it likely that many of his limitations were a reflection of the limitations he grew up with during the Great Depression. I can’t blame him for many of his misconceptions about the world and his readiness to blame others for the problems he had. I see many the same faults and limitations present in the rhetoric of the far right political movements in the United States today.

That brings me to why I keep thinking about my grandfather while I’ve been here in the Dominican Republic. The 108 year-old abuelo who lives with my host family is one strong reason. It is vitalizing to live alongside a man who has lived for so long and seen so much change in the world. More than that though, I think about my grandfather as I reflect on some of the limitations in the village here. The education system is crass and ineffectual. The poverty is deep and pervasive, every day people make decisions that will only perpetuate their poverty. But like how I didn’t blame my grandfather for his issues, I can’t help but think that this community is not at fault for their faults. I have learned here a lot about community and family, and how they use a wealth of social support and propensity for laughter to face daily hardship.

One thing that Barack Obama got so completely right about his meteoric rise to power and fame was also deeply involved in many of the reasons for the dominoes of Democratic politicians falling out of office after. He ran on a platform of Hope and Change. These two concepts are the lifeblood of communities all across the world. Here in Derrumbadero, they will once again have running water by year’s end, and the main street was paved last year for the first time. Each step forward is accompanied by a similar step backwards or sideways, but through it all the people rely on each other, their faith in God, and an underlying hope for the future. It is only when we let our conviction for change rest on unattainable goals instead of gritty realities that we lose the ability to connect our present circumstances with our potential for growth. Politicians in the United States have many powerful voices competing for their time and attention, and filling their coffers with dollars that dictate policy. In order to rise again as a party, Democrats need to counter Donald’s vision of Fear and Change by revitalizing their own of Hope and Change, and then work relentlessly at making small changes that show that hope. It is only when we look to the future as a place for us all to gain through concord and community that we can be the City on a Hill that makes up the core of the American Dream.

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