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Not Just Words

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

These are not just words. They are a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny.

--President Barack Obama in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015.

We didn't know what to expect when we arrived at the Court House in Kingston, NY last Friday morning. As we were leaving, my British-born son-in-law, Ryan, quipped wryly that he might be alone in the court room. His citizenship test and interview had taken place in Lower Manhattan which was teeming with people, but this was Kingston, a small, historic town in Ulster County. The town dates back to the 17th century Dutch period and there are many stone houses in the “stockade,” as it is called, in the old part of town. It was the perfect location to become a hyphenated Anglo-American or an American of British ancestry; the choice is always ours.

The ceremony took place in the Supreme Court of the State of NY, Hon. Mary M. Work presiding. And there were many surprises. First, the judge was a woman, an older woman—brava to that—and the Clerk of the Court, Nina Postupack, redundant to say, was also a woman, a younger woman. Brava to that, too.

Secondly, the court room was crowded: 46 soon-to- be New Americans from 30 countries, friends and family, filled the hard wooden seats. A woman handed out brochures for ESL classes and a Daughter of the American Revolution distributed American flag lapel pins. Just think about that, I thought, how that venerable elitist organization has had to change.

But, most surprising, were the thoughtful narratives from elected officials and the Judge. The most touching: Legislator Craig V. Lopez told the story of his Puerto Rican family, a hardscrabble childhood, and what it means to him to be an American. Then a local high school choir sang the National Anthem and God Bless America and the New Americans took an oath of allegiance which sounded dated, but also profound.

The next day President Obama addressed a crowd in Selma, his eloquent and elegant speech the perfect addendum to the citizenship ceremony, a reminder of how this country was formed and how much work we still have to do. The President is a good storyteller and a good writer, as were our well-educated, well-read Founding Fathers.

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