We arrived on the Mall in the predawn chill after a two hour power walk from 24th and M. During the walk, we passed pairs of camouflaged soldiers at each cross street, a siren-blaring police car from the DC public library (?), and hundreds of vendors hawking T-shirts, hats, keychains, and copies of the Washington Post. Since we were ticketless, my friend and I walked west along Independence Avenue looking for a numbered street with access to the Mall. At 12th Street, we turned right. A block later, we spilled out onto the Mall with 1.8 million of our closest friends. Over the next hour, we threaded our way through the ever-growing crowd and staked our claim on a few square feet of dirt four jumbotrons back.
As dawn turned to frozen morning, the sun rose from behind the Capitol dome and shone on the sandstone tower of the Smithsonian Castle off to our right. As the morning wore on, we sang and danced to the recorded concert playing on the big screens, ate granola bars, contemplated trying to make it to the porta-johns and back again, listened to the conversations around us, and wondered just how many mobile phones were vying for the closest tower’s signal. 9:00am. 10:00am. We were cold, muscle-cramped, footsore, buffeted by the crowd. But we were there, and none of our discomfort mattered.
The Marine Corps band (whose brass players I’m sure had the coldest mouths in Washington) played march after march as important people trickled onto the Capitol steps. As their importance grew, so did the crowd’s excitement. My friend and I played a game of name-that-politician (we weren’t very good). Flag-wavers practiced their craft with Jimmy Carter and the Clintons. A few ungenerous souls in the crowd booed as the soon-to-be-former president made his way on stage. Most applauded, but out of respect or relief, I couldn’t tell.
As the moment of the Obamas’ arrival neared, the Mall fell nearly silent, as if all 1.8 million of us held our breath at the same time. They appeared, and the Mall erupted with cheering, whooping, weeping, and the outpouring of all the emotion of decades and centuries of indefatigable expectancy.
In that moment and the moments to follow, I discovered an untapped well of hope inside myself. Hope, Paul tells us, along with faith and love, abides. Hope catalyzes the imagination. Hope furnishes a future for faith and love. Hope is the expectation that the boundaries of possibility are always far wider than we can perceive. On Tuesday at 12:05pm, I felt those boundaries expanding, closed my eyes, and thanked God.
President Obama spoke of a “less measurable but no less profound” indicator of the crises we face: “A sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.” As a member of that next generation, I’ve felt that nagging fear, I’ve sighed and shaken my head too many times, I’ve disengaged. Sure, I’ve done “my part” — recycled, used CFLs, donated food and clothing. But those acts always felt insignificant, tokenistic, like I was trying to take down an aircraft carrier with a .22 caliber pistol. I did “my part” not with hope, but with the memory of what hope once felt like.
After Tuesday, however, I feel like “my part” has transformed and grown and coalesced into “our part.” “On this day,” said President Obama, “we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” Hope and unity. How fundamental to the fabric of our lives as God’s children are these things. God reveals the power of unity to us in the perfect, rhythmic dance of three person’s in one God. Jesus reveals the power of hope to us in the resurrection, by which he overcame the sting of fear and death.
After my friend and I escaped the mad press of people leaving the Mall, we circled back to 24th and M by way of the frozen Potomac River. I was still cold, muscle-cramped, and footsore. But that untapped well of hope was warming me, flooding me with renewed purpose and energy. I had forgotten how good it feels to hope, forgotten that there was a time before I was beset by that nagging suspicion of our deterioration. As we tramped up the last block from L to M, I remembered the closing moments of The Shawshank Redemption. Andy Dufresne, recently escaped after 19 years of incarceration in a Maine prison for a crime he did not commit, writes to his friend: “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”