Wes Moore is the chief executive of the Robin Hood Foundation, one the nation’s largest anti-poverty groups, and the author of “The Other Wes Moore.”
My grandfather was born in South Carolina, the child of Jamaican immigrants who were new to the United States. When he was just 6, he and his parents fled back to Jamaica. They were chased away by the Ku Klux Klan.
But my grandfather, the Rev. Dr. James Thomas, was the proudest American I have ever known. He refused to let hatred dictate his life, and he vowed to return to the United States. He moved back here with his new wife and became the first black minister in the history of the Dutch Reformed Church. More importantly, he was a fixture and a leader in his community in the Bronx for more than 30 years.
He died in 2005 while I was serving in Afghanistan, and I wonder what he would have to say about the resurgence of white supremacy today, the horror of the hatred wielded by groups who tried to keep my family out of this country, but I think I know the answer.
He had this sermon that has always stuck with me. He talked about life as a relay race. Our job, he would say, is to carry the baton as far as we could and then pass it on. He most often told this story in the context of Moses bringing the people to the banks of the Jordan River, but no farther. I’ve always thought about it in terms of the role my grandfather played after my father died when I was 4. My grandparents welcomed my two sisters, my mother and me into their modest Bronx home when we had to move from Maryland to survive. When other black boys around me fell to drugs or to the failed crime policies of the 1980s and ’90s, Papa Jim kept me safe.
I can’t help but think about the baton sermon in the beautiful life of Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed allegedly by a white supremacist in Charlottesville.
At her memorial service on Wednesday, her mother, Susan Bro, told us how to honor her daughter’s legacy: “Find what’s wrong. Don’t ignore it, don’t look the other way,” she said. “You make a point to look at it and say to yourself, ‘What can I do to make a difference?’ ”
That’s how Heather carried her baton. She went out into the street when she saw white supremacists invade her community. She did not just stand up for what was right, she gave her life for it.
“I’d rather have my child,” her mother said, “but by golly, if I gotta give her up, we’re going to make it count.”
Those words hit me so hard — I know that sentiment so well. As a U.S. Army paratrooper and captain with the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan — notably, the famed unit that played an important role defeating fascism in World War II — I know that on the battlefield, politics disappear, and all soldiers fight for the man or woman to their left and right.
We need to carry that approach, that level of love, to the fight against inequality that is happening all around us. This is a definitive moment for our country. We can look beyond the politics of divisiveness and hatred that seek to dominate this moment. We can look to the moments we have seen that remind us of our country’s greatness — stories of love and community that stretch from fighting holes in Afghanistan to communities such as Charlottesville.
We are all affected by the hatefulness, anger and divisiveness, especially many of the 45 million Americans living in poverty today who feel hopeless and under siege. Some politicians have fanned a narrative that they are lazy and unwilling to work. Critical programs such as Medicaid and Pell Grants, designed to give them a chance at a better life, are under threat.
At the anti-poverty group Robin Hood, we’re looking for the most innovative solutions to fight poverty. We’re working with communities, the public sector and social entrepreneurs.
And as we are out in these communities that have been chronically and generationally neglected, we see how fear and uncertainty are growing. Our work and our voice must rise to meet that fear. But we know that we can’t do it alone. We need you. This is no time to stand by while so many are hurting.
In my America, our lives are all intertwined; our fates depend on one another. In moments of crisis and peril, we do everything we can to save each other. We shoulder one another’s pain. And we acknowledge, respect and work toward solving what’s causing that pain in the first place. The baton is now in our hands. How we run this leg of this race will define the country our children will inherit. Our future depends on us doing the right thing, right now.
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