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A hopeful vision of service

Jun 01,2020 - Last updated at Jun 01,2020

I have been deeply distressed by the growing political backlash to the restrictions that many states and local governments have put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Most troubling is the extent to which the pandemic has become a partisan football, with polls showing Democrats and Republicans as divided on this issue as they are on other hot button political matters.

Reports of armed demonstrators demanding that governors open up their states, conservative church leaders insisting that they be able to reopen their houses of worship, and rank and file Republicans refusing to wear masks at work or public events, mimicking the behaviour of President Trump and Vice President Pence, all have caused me to despair. I had begun to feel as if the “better angels of our nature” had fallen silent.

Like many of you, I’m working from home. Meetings have become Zoom calls or Google chats, and there are plenty of them. For example, because we are preparing our community for the November elections and mobilising them to ensure a full count in the 2020 Census, in the past few weeks, I have had organising calls with Arab American activists in several states. I have joined planning meetings with ethnic leaders on immigration reform. And I had two national Zoom calls to launch my newest book. All of these efforts proved to be quite productive, making clear the power of new technology to bring people together.

One call, in particular, stood out both for its novelty and the lesson of hope I learned as a participant. Because we cannot gather in groups, AMVOTE, a Chicago-based group (on whose board I sit) held a “virtual Iftar”. This in itself was novel because Iftars are important communal activities. Since, we cannot be together, in person, AMVOTE made the best of a difficult situation and the result was both informative and inspiring.

In attendance, via Zoom, were the governor of Illinois, the mayor of Chicago, the president of the Cook County of Board of Commissioners and representatives of dozens of local Arab American and Muslim institutions. I was deeply moved as I listened to these organisations describing their remarkable work in response to the pandemic and heard the governor and mayor praising them for the hundreds of volunteers they mobilised to serve the needs of thousands of families and individuals in the Chicagoland area.

Since I was scheduled to give the “Iftar’s” closing remarks, I could not help but reflect on how moved I was to learn of all of the important work these groups were doing and how they had opened my eyes to a reality I knew was taking place in communities across the country, but to which I had not given the attention it deserved. Millions of Americans, and I’m sure this is happening all over the world, are in fact hearing and responding to the voices of their better angels.

The tweeting harangues of President Trump or the behaviour of the armed militants or self-serving demands of conservative preachers may be getting the headlines. But in communities nationwide, doctors and nurses daily are putting themselves in harm’s way to serve the sick and dying. Thousands of young people are volunteering to buy groceries and run errands for the elderly. And countless churches, mosques and synagogues and social service agencies are providing essential services to those in need.

So while the noisy backlash to the pandemic is dominating the news and can be depressing, it is important to lift up all of these silent heroes whose efforts, though unconnected and not the subject of headlines, cry out to be recognised. What is needed is to lift them up, knit them together, and see them as a collective response to the crisis which we are facing.

A few days after my eyes had been opened by the “virtual Iftar” I listened to the homily given by a priest friend of mine, Reverend Percy D’Silva. Reflecting on the very same issue, the selfless service of millions, he concluded his homily in an unorthodox manner by quoting the words of “We Are the World”, a 1985 song by a number of popular recording artists to raise funds to combat African famine.

“There comes a time

When we heed a certain call

When the world must come together as one

There are people dying

Oh, and it’s time to lend a hand to life.

The greatest gift of all... 

“We are the world

We are the children

We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving

There’s a choice we’re making

We’re saving our own lives

It’s true we’ll make a better day, just you and me.”

This vision of men and women acting selflessly to serve those in need is what is happening every day, in cities and towns across the country.  By lifting it up and celebrating service we point the way forward to not only winning the battle against the coronavirus, but to emerging from this war as a stronger, more compassionate country.

 

The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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