We have been hearing a great deal about making America first, making America great again. On a recent afternoon on Main Street in our state capital, I realized that it already is — in some ways.
I was amid three days of meetings, with an afternoon interlude, so I parked free at St. Peter’s, strolled a few blocks, and went exploring.
The art museum, which I had not set foot in for a dozen years, was getting a front walk power wash. Inside, the seasonal exhibit featured costumes from vintage movies — not an intriguing topic for me. Among the second level’s permanent collections were classic 14th and 15th century paintings and carved statues depicting Biblical scenes, the Trinity, the Madonna, and various saints. The Immaculate Conception, the Annunciation, and Christ dialoguing with the Samaritan woman were there amid marble heads of Roman plutocrats, paintings of European nobles and colonial daughters, and one landscape featuring an unidentified Native American tribe. Buddha and several bodhisattvas were there. One young African American had his portrait near that of an Anglo American girl. The American artists included some born in Germany and Russia, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish.
The galleries were tastefully kept, and donors of valuable art works — including a doctor originally from Winnsboro — were honored on wall plaques. The works were well displayed.
A bit down the street, Starbucks featured Ethiopian Chelektu coffee. I was grateful that people give nuns gift cards.
We are great, I thought, in our cities, our arts, our varied menus, and our cosmopolitan makeup.
What I also noticed was that those at the museum’s reception desk, at its store counter, and guarding the galleries seemed to appreciate the art but looked as though they would likely never attain fame or fortune. The baristas at the coffee shop were pleasant, likely USC students who had to skrimp and thus had added jobs to their course loads. There were also people along Assembly Street who were hanging out, wearing grubby old clothes, carrying plastic bags, and smiling through broken teeth.
We are not so great at raising those sometimes termed the underclass. Their artwork was on the sidewalks, in the blue dye a few had fancifully touched to their hair, in the arrangement of goods in shopping carts one or two of them had heisted, and chalked on the boards at Starbucks. I had a hunch that the sign outside inviting everyone in to warm up with hot chocolate did not have the unwashed in mind.
I pray that somewhere along the way we decide that all of them are great. I pray that we figure a way for them to live well too. After all, the ones who were first in the attention of prophets like Isaiah and Amos and our Messiah, too, were the ones everyone overlooked.
America will truly be first and truly great if we acknowledge, honor, and elevate the ones who wash the sidewalks or rarely get to wash at all.