When I was 12 years old, my Mama Wildmon took me on a trip to see my aunt in New York City. That was 1975. New York, as you may recall from your history class, was a very big city by then. Very big. Actually, my Aunt Helen and Uncle Harold lived in Cranford, New Jersey, which was, as I recall, about 20 miles from New York.
We landed at John F. Kennedy airport and then took a helicopter over the city to Newark where my aunt picked us up. Talk about your eyes popping out! I will never forget flying over Manhattan Island.
At that time, Memphis, Tennessee, seemed like a big city to me. I had never seen anything like this before. It was staggering, the sight of endless buildings that reached to the sky. And there it was, just outside our window, almost close enough to touch, the majestic Empire State Building. This was all kind of surreal to a young boy from Mississippi.
While we were there, Aunt Helen was nice enough to take us into New York for a city tour. My heart pounded with excitement as we got in the car that morning to go into the Big Apple. All the sights we would see. Places I had seen on television.
Only once as a kid can I ever remember being more excited, and that was walking into Busch Stadium in St. Louis to watch the Cardinals for the first time in 1973.
At one point on our New York City tour, we stopped on the southern tip of Manhattan Island and looked out over the Hudson River to Ellis Island where stood the Statue of Liberty. I remember just staring out, not quite believing I was actually seeing this monument I had heard about all my life.
When I asked if we could take the ferry to Ellis Island, Aunt Helen and Mama Wildmon looked at their watches, reminding me that we couldn't see everything in our short tour. I don't know if I should admit this or not, but I was actually about to cry at the idea of coming to New York and not visiting the Statue of Liberty. In fact, more than that, I wanted to go to the top. I let them know I really, really, really wanted to touch the statue for myself. So they let me.
Upon arrival, my grandmother, then about 65 years old, and I began walking up the stairs to the crown. There was no elevator. As we made our way about halfway up, Mama Wildmon told me to go ahead, she was not up to the climb. She would wait for me to go up and come back down. I hurried up the remaining stairs and entered the crown out of breath.
There was no one else there. I remember thinking, here I am standing in one of the most famous places in all the world, looking out over the Hudson River and New York City, all alone. All of what I had learned about American history flooded my mind. (History and Social Studies were my two favorite classes in school.) I thought mostly of all the immigrants from around the world and why they had come – and were still coming – to America.
I thought about the difference between freedom and tyranny, as much as I understood it. I thought about the words on the tablet,
"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to be free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send those, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
Quite frankly, at 12, I didn't fully understand what those words meant, but I understood the general concept. The concept that America was a land made up of generally good people who valued each individual human life like no other country in history. A land people wanted to come to. Not a land people wanted to escape from.
I am reminded of a famous quote attributed to French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville in 1840:
"I sought for the key to America's greatness and genius in her harbors … in her fertile fields and boundless fields and boundless forests; in her rich mines and vast world commerce; in her public school system and institutions of learning. I sought for it in her matchless Constitution. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great."
The Christian influence on America is being lost. In fact, if we continue this slide toward secularism and paganism, we will become like Europe. Empty churches. "Christianity Dying in Britain," read a recent headline on the Fox News website.
The future of America depends largely on the response of the church to the call of Christ. Will we be fishers of men? Will we pray for America? Will we be salt and light in our culture?
I remember that day inside the crown of the Statue of Liberty looking out in wonder. How grateful I was to be born in America. How proud I was. May the Lord help us reclaim that flame of righteousness and fear of God that made our country great from the beginning.