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In the summer of 1893, a 34-year old professor of English literature at Wellesley College in Massachusetts did what most Americans do in the summer; she took a vacation trip. It was her first venture to the American west. On the way she stopped to visit the 1893 Columbian Exposition – The Chicago World's Fair – where she marveled at the Fair's White City of buildings and exhibitions proclaiming America's technological successes, its business wealth and cultural sophistication.
Later, during her stay in Colorado Springs, she did the usual tourist things, including a climb of Pike's Peak to watch a sunrise. That evening, recalling her view from Pike's Peak of what she described as "the expanse of mountain ranges and sea-like sweep of the plains," she wrote what has become a favorite patriotic hymn. The author was Katherine Lee Bates, and you know her words:
The fact is that reality hardly matched those words in 1893. Just beyond the "alabaster city" of the World's Fair lay the real streets of Chicago – teeming slums filled with waves of immigrants, harsh working conditions which had ignited the Haymarket Square Riot of 1886 protesting for an eight-hour workday and which a year later in 1894 would lead to the Pullman Strike responding to drastic cuts in workers' wages. "Land of opportunity, you say," a Chicago worker snarled in those days, "You know damn well my children will be where I am – that is, if I can keep them out of the gutter."
That song has been much on our lips since September 11 of last year, and the facts of our own experience continue to ask us, as we sing those familiar words, what we are to do when reality does not match our dreams. The parade marches by with flag snapping smartly in the breeze, and a shiver of pride runs up our spine. But we know that today's "alabaster cities" do not gleam "undimmed by human tears." We live in a world menaced by terror, convulsed by animosity and prostrated by poverty and hopelessness. And the events of the past year have taught us that even in our suburban comfort we cannot escape the misery and fear that others have lived with daily for so long.
The easiest thing will be to let either our dreams or that reality shape us, but how that would distort the spirit of Katherine Lee Bates' words. If only our dreams shape our personal and social lives, we run the risk of ignoring those matters of justice, compassion and human dignity which cry out to us from the streets of our communities, from the cities and farmlands of our nation, from the far flung places of our world. But if we allow only the reality of humanity's all- too-evident misery and beastliness to shape us, we shall more than likely sink into sneering cynicism or cowering defeat. And if we were to do either, the spirits of those who lie here and in a thousand other graveyards who risked their "lives and fortunes and sacred honor" to make a dream of freedom and human dignity a reality have every right to rise up and call us cowards.
For there is a third way. We can use our dreams to shape the reality. Reality presents us only with the hard facts of circumstances and the limited results of our cleverness or our stupidity and nothing more, while our dreams push us to strive for more.
Many years after Katherine Lee Bates wrote her song, someone suggested that she write a new verse to express a new longing for world peace and the unity of human life. She declined, saying that she hoped rather that persons singing her song would imagine the words "from sea to shining sea" as beginning at the Atlantic coast but moving around the globe in the opposite direction to the Pacific coast so as to embrace the entire world. Try singing those familiar words that way and see how the dream grows.
That is what our dreams of liberty and equality and human dignity for all, undergirded by God's steadfast love and justice, tell us Memorial Day and in a world made terribly different since September 11. The dream does not match the reality, but that is all the more reason to sing with all our might. For we shall not be finished until reality matches our dreams and until God's gracious goodness not only blesses us but embraces the globe "from sea to shining sea."