Is America going in the wrong direction? Should we prepare for the end of civil society?
These are questions that came to mind for me and many Americans as I lived and worked in Washington, DC, with Brigham Young University interns for the past eight months.
During this period, I had the privilege of speaking with US Senators, Members of Congress, Ambassadors, diplomats from foreign countries and representatives of the media. Conflicts, partisanship, worrying inflation and a protracted war in Europe are causing many concerns.
However, I found hope among the general public on the streets of Washington. Less often presented are the realities that Americans support courageous causes, admire the accomplishments of others, and embrace excellence. If our country wants to progress towards unity, we must exemplify these principles which embody the spirit of tolerance.
This is the brief story of my walk down an American street, DC’s M Streetwhich renewed my faith in American society.
M Street is really no different than any other avenue in the nation’s capital. It does, however, represent a ribbon in time that winds through the nation’s history as well as the highest aspirations of its citizens.
From the west, the C&O Canal, built in the 1830s, connects to the avenue proper just down the hill from the Gothic spiers of Healy Hall on the Georgetown University campus. It extends in this story to another educational institution, Howard Universitya historically black university located on Georgia Avenue in the Shaw District.
It’s not too hard to find courageous causes that Americans have embraced along the way. Just past the Francis Scott Key Bridge is the Forrest-Marbury House, where General Uriah Forrest and various local patriots regaled the nation’s new president, George Washington, with a special dinner in 1791. Many members of Forrest’s circle had provided land for the establishment of the District of Columbia.
What about the fate of this building more than two centuries later? Today, it is covered with freshly cut yellow and blue-purple flowers, expressing support for the nation whose embassy now occupies the building: Ukraine.
The stuffed animals are a reminder that children were caught up in the conflict. Poignant messages from thoughtful Americans and citizens around the world adorn the steps.
Not too far down Wisconsin Avenue, which swerves from M Street, an empty Russian Embassy stands behind an emphatic message scribbled in chalk on concrete, “PUTIN’S RETURN.” Not far away is a makeshift street sign that reads “Zelenskyy Way”. Indeed, Americans embrace noble causes.
Further down the street, between 14and and 15and avenues, stands the spiritual anchor of M Street, the nearly 150 year old Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church. Consolidated from two previous African-American churches, including one that served as a railroad station on the Underground Railroad, the church today provides spiritual guidance to its members, as well as support for civil rights .
Pastor William Lamar IV pointed out to me the “imposing theological (and communal) tradition” of the church, born out of Reconstruction, which continues to rescue its members and fight for the right to vote which, according to him, “was safer in my parents’ generation than in (our) ours”. Pastor Lamar ties the mission of the church to its location, squarely in the Black Shaw Neighborhoodwhere figures like Ida B. Wells championed the dignity of all men and women, among other notable civil rights activists.
Second, M Street embodies the American penchant for acknowledging the accomplishments of others. We do this in many ways, including how we behave as consumers. Back on the west side of M Avenue, tucked away a few blocks from Wisconsin Avenue, we findLA Burdick Chocolate Factory. Ajane, an enterprising young African-American barista, proudly served the world’s ‘second-best’ certified dark hot chocolate, whose soaring, bright notes perfectly balance the robust body of a recipe perfected in the USA.
Towards the east end of M Street, Mexican American Alfredo Solis has opened his third Latin-themed restaurant, Mariscos 1133. While we enjoy his take on Peruvian ceviche, which he explained to us, it included a creamy fusion of the condiment Peruvian, aji, with a Mexican touch of habanero peppers, he told us he came to the United States 22 years ago and continues to transit through the Americas, bringing back the best of the hemisphere for his highly successful restaurant trio. Solis is an American success story.
Finally, Americans continue to embrace excellence and beauty. Truly, it is the greatest manifestation of tolerance, when we go beyond mere acceptance to wholeheartedly appreciate those pearls of creativity that we find in all Americans.
We find a suitable example of this just off 27and and M Street, where retired University of Chicago professor John Ulric Nef and his wife, Evelyn, established a home and sanctuary for art. As much as they cultivated a taste for beautiful sculptures and paintings, they developed friendships that brought out the best in their knowledge. One of these individuals was none other than Belarusian (the current location of his hometown of Liozna) Marc Chagall.
Chagall appreciated their friendship so much that he endowed the garden of the Naves with a 17-foot by 10-foot mosaic made up of 10 slabs of Carrara marble, covered with countless tesserae of a thousand colors that tell the hopeful story of the refugees and muses of creativity,titled “Orpheus”.
The unusually optimistic painting now sits in an inconspicuous glade on the northwest side of the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden. It is only the hypothesis of this author that the four merry spectators at the bottom (facing) on the left of the mosaic are none other than Chagall, his wife and his two children. The largest group of immigrants represents those, like Chagall, who sought safety during the monstrous German Holocaust.
The overwhelming whole recalls the words of the biblical apostle Paul, whose charge may well describe what we pursue as a nation when we see the Judeo-Christian values that sustain our society:
“(W) whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever are just no matter what are pure, whatever the things are lovely no matter what are of good report; if There are no virtue, and if There are all praise, think about these things.
In the end, if Americans can limit public corruption (through well-elected men and women), tame conflict, and increase cooperation, we should be optimistic about the future. Indeed, Americans, like those in all those stories I found on M Street in the Nation’s Capital, support worthy causes, recognize excellence in others (even in the marketplace), and embrace all that is good. , if they have the opportunity to consider their best angels.
Evan Ward is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University where he teaches courses in world history.