Several years ago, my family opened its arms to a troubled little boy I’ll call Philip.
Philip was seven. His “family of origin” story was really complicated. His need, however, was not complicated at all.
So we agreed to take him in and take him on.
We knew from the outset that his story was nowhere near as simple, his childhood experiences nowhere near as idyllic, as the agency who placed him believed or maintained. We chose to go forward anyway. It would not last (alas!), but I’d like to think we helped him on his way. We still hear from his adoptive family from time to time, and I still pray for Philip.
Philip was the third child to join our family across the “divide” of race and ethnicity. While I continue, to this day, to meditate on the implications for the children of their multi-cultural environment, I’m confident of the good that is done whenever a child in need of love, safety and security finds a home. I hope we’ve been all of that, and more, for all of our children, birth, foster and adopted.
The world looks very different to a child than it does to an adult. That’s so obvious that I probably don’t need to write it. Except . . . well, for all of my experience as a parent (34 years), I still can be surprised by the power of that truth.
This was brought vividly home to me the first time Fr. Stephan Brown celebrated the Mass we attended with Philip. Fr. Stephan is a tall man given to powerful gestures and powerful words. He can extract a chorus of “amens” from a Catholic congregation not used to call and response preaching. He can challenge, and inspire, and console, and spread joy, with equal enthusiasm and equal effect.
And Fr. Stephan, like Philip, is black.
“That’s the priest, Philip. His name is Fr. Stephan.”
“You mean I could be a priest?!?!”
“If that’s your calling, yes, you could be a priest.”
Those of us who grew up believing we could be anything we chose to become sometimes forget that such a vision of one’s personal future is not one shared by all. The understanding that one’s family is not one’s destiny, that sons of carpenters can become leaders of industry, daughters of maidservants corporate CEOs, is essential to the American mythos, but not equally shared by all Americans in belief or in practice. Many grow up not knowing the range of things to which they could aspire, in part because they never see someone who reminds them of themselves in those special roles and places.
So it matters who we see where, doing what, in the company of whom.
In the field of political theory, we sometimes refer to this as “like-me representation” or, especially when thinking of a collective body like a legislature, “mirror” representation. That is, one of the many ways of thinking about representation is to ask, Is there a representative like me?
“Like me” can mean a variety of things. As old or as young as I am. From my home state or home town. A sports fan or movie buff. A backyard barbecue aficionado or a gourmet chef.
Someone who’s skin, or hair, or pattern of speech, looks or sounds like mine.
A woman or a man.
I have six daughters. None of them, today, are interested in a career in politics. Still, because of the political interests and activism my wife and I share, all of our daughters, as well as all of our sons, have grown up around a political table talking about candidates and causes, policies and politics.
And always, there was the notion that, in theory, nothing would keep any one of them, if it was their calling, from the path of public service, appointed or elected.
But not everyone has that kind of table, and not everyone can look at our nation’s leaders and wannabes and see themselves in them.
In precisely this sense, what happened last night in Philadelphia is important. Not because Hillary Clinton will make a good or bad president if elected. Simply because, for the first time, a woman will carry the banner of a major party into the quadrennial epic contest we call the presidential election.
Does it matter?
Every bit as much as Fr. Stephan’s dark skin mattered to Philip.
I can hear one of my granddaughters saying, “You mean, I could be president?!?!”
Yes, my dear, if it’s your calling, you could be president.