Column by Mary Lee Talbot
“On Aug. 28, 1963, 60 years ago next week, in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, 250,000 people heard the greatest political sermon in American history,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein.
He preached at the 9:15 a.m. morning worship service Wednesday in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “Of Hope and Fear,” and the reading for the day was from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “I Have A Dream.”
The Founding Fathers, said King, gave a promissory note to all that everyone had inalienable rights. King refused to believe that “the bank of justice was bankrupt,” and “the vaults of opportunity were empty.” He told the crowd that had gathered that day that he still had a dream, an American dream — not of material prosperity, but of inclusion and dignity for all.
“The promise of America was not just for men, but for women; not just for white people, but Blacks and Latinos and Asians, for those born here and for immigrants,” said Feinstein. “The promise was not just for Christians but for Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus; it was for people who identify as LGBTQIA+, for those who are not temporarily able-bodied. The promise of America was the great glory, the flowering of a collective dream.”
On Aug. 5, 1925, 98 years ago, there was another march on Washington, D.C. That march included 50,000 members of the Klu Klux Klan. They marched to demonize Black Americans, Jews, Roman Catholics and other people and issues they deemed “un-American.”
“They marched unmasked, with a proud sense of impunity,” Feinstein said. “At the time, their membership numbered about 5 million, or 15% of the population. Eleven governors, 16 senators and 75 members of the House of Representatives were members. To be a politician in the South, you had to join the Klan. Harry Truman turned down a membership when he realized as a judge he would have Roman Catholics come before him.”
Feinstein described American political life as a tug of war between hope and fear. “Hope opens us up, hope expands our founding principles. Hope turns segregation into tolerance, into solidarity, into a national community. Fear divides us, builds walls, slams doors; fear leads to closed minds, clenched fists and fear of the stranger.”
Immigration has always been a lightning rod in America. Who should we let in? In 1793, George Washington said America should let in both the opulent and the oppressed. Alexander Hamilton, in 1802, felt foreigners were changing the spirit of America and introducing “foreign propensities.” Feinstein noted, “And Hamilton was an immigrant.”
Every generation recapitulates the debate. Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, “The New Colossus,” urged the old world to send their tired, poor, wretched masses yearning to breathe free.
Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote “The Unguarded Gates” in The Atlantic in 1893: “Wide open and unguarded stand our gates, / And through them presses a wild motley throng— / Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes, … O Liberty, white Goddess! is it well / To leave the gates unguarded? On thy breast / Fold Sorrow’s children, soothe the hurts of fate, / Lift the down-trodden, but with hand of steel Stay those who to thy sacred portals come / To waste the gifts of freedom.”
“Whenever fear has gripped us, we turn to our leaders to call forth our better angels, and they have always arrived,” Feinstein said.
Calvin Coolidge, whom not many would call a moral hero, took on the Klan in a speech in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925. He acknowledged the call for America to be 100% American, but America was made up of various elements.
Coolidge said “if we have a union of spirit, we will have the true America” with those who were not born in the same section of the country, were not of the same denomination or religion, were not of the same racial stock. Urging Americans to look beyond race and creed, Coolidge said, “Divine Providence did not put a monopoly on character.”
Fear is a biological, autonomic process, Feinstein said. “Hope is a spiritual process, learned and practiced. Fear is about finite resources and a life context where everyone is in competition. Hope is rooted in deep religiosity from the Bible.”
He told the congregation, “Benjamin Franklin wanted to put the crossing of the Red Sea on the great seal of the United States to symbolize that we were once in our own Egypt, but in God we have overcome adversity and arrived in the promised land to proclaim liberty to the world.”
Those proclamations were made in the 17th century by the Puritans, in the 18th century by the Founders, in the 19th century by the slave narratives and in the 20th century by people like Dorothy Day, Joshua Abraham Heschel, Maya Angelou and Thomas Merton.
Feinstein quoted lyrics from “Amazing Grace” — “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see. The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures. He will my shield and portion by, as long as life endures.”
He said, “to believe in a providential God, a loving God, is to see the world filled with opportunity, to confront evil with courage and find solidarity of the human spirit. In his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that all life is interwoven.”
The political year started on Wednesday with the first Republican debate. “This one will be an unpleasant election because we are so divided,” Feinstein said. “We are not divided as Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, but those who perceive life under the light of hope and those who see life under the shadow of fear. This is the difference and it will determine the America we will bequeath to our children. We know what happens when fear overwhelms hope; we have to keep hope alive through solidarity and commitment.”
Feinstein’s homework assignment for the day was to ask the congregation to look up the “I Have a Dream” speech and read it aloud. “I have the endless chutzpah to tell you to call your rabbi, minister, priest, pastor, or imam and tell him or her: ‘I want this letter preached this sabbath. I have a dream and I want children to hear a voice of hope as this ugly political season begins.’ It is imperative to tell the truth like Martin Luther King Jr., Calvin Coolidge and George Washington.”
When he was in seminary, Feinstein would have lunch with his grandmother, his Yiddish-speaking Bubbe. She listened to talk radio all day and when he came to visit, she said, “They are so full of hate. They are ruining the country for everyone.”
Feinstein would try to pacify her and said, “They are not all like that.” She said, “Yes, they are.” He pointed to a picture of John F. Kennedy and said, “He’s not like that.” She said that “he is an exception; he is one of us.” Feinstein said, “He was an Irish Catholic.” She said, “He had a heart.”
Martin Luther King Jr.? “One of us,” she said. Caesar Chavez? “One of us,” she said. Mrs. Takahashi, the next door neighbor? “One of us.”
When World War II broke out, the Takahashis were interned in a relocation camp. Mrs. Takahashi gave the keys to their apartment to Bubbe and she cleaned the apartment every week. When they came home from the camp, Bubbe filled their refrigerator with food. When Bubbe moved, the Takahashis moved next door again.
Feinstein said, “They never gave up hope in the camps because of Bubbe. They came for the holidays. They were one of us. Of course they were one of us, as is everyone who believes in the dream. Children of all faiths, all races will sit in a circle and sing, ‘Free at last, Free at last, thank God almighty, I am free at last.’ ” The congregation rose to its feet and applauded.
Isabel Packevicz, student minister in the Department of Religion at Chautauqua, presided. Rabbi Sam Stahl, associate in the Department of Religion at Chautauqua, served as liturgist. Elaine Davis, chair of the personnel committee for the African American Heritage House and a participant in many of Chautauqua’s arts programs, read the excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “I Have a Dream.” The prelude, played by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, was “Prelude in G minor, BWV 535,” by Johann Sebastian Bach. The Motet Choir, under the direction of Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, sang a capella, “Hear My Prayer,” by Moses Hogan. Stafford played “Improvisation on ‘We Shall Overcome,’ ” by Carl Haywood, for the postlude. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the Daney-Holden Chaplaincy Fund and the Samuel M. and Mary E. Hazlett Memorial Fund.