Most days, I tend to take the blessings of my US citizenship for granted. I grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag every morning at school. (Do they still do that? They should!) I remember my high school Spanish teacher, Dr. Alberto Valdez. A Cuban refugee, he used to stand on top of his desk, waving a tiny American flag, shouting and preaching to us that we had no idea how lucky we were to be born in the USA. We were kids – and likely thought he was a bit nuts! I grew up, I registered to vote as soon as I was eligible, and I’ve exercised that right every election. But to be honest, the privilege of being born in a country that provides me with so much freedom is not something I think about a whole lot. Like most of us, I take it for granted most of the time.
But earlier this week, I had the opportunity to witness the naturalization ceremony of a good friend, Mr. William Aludo of Kenya. And it truly made me stop and give thanks for my country and my freedom.
We arrived at the Office of Immigration and Naturalization in Charlotte a bit early. After processing through security – a lot like trying to get through airline gates – we were directed to wait in a large room filled with rows of chairs. At first, there were just a couple of other people waiting, but soon the room was filled with people! Multi-lingual conversations filled the air; this couple was speaking Spanish; another couple conversed in Vietnamese; still others spoke an Indian dialect. Men, women, boys, girls – all ages. One elderly lady hobbled with her cane. Small children tugged at their parents’ hands, sensing the excitement of the day.
The people were all “shades of tan” from very dark to very light – beautiful diversity! Most were dressed in “nice” clothes – like they were going to church. I saw only a very few folks there wearing jeans. One young lady carried a huge bouquet of flowers.
As I marveled at all of these people, I realized that each one of them had a story, a history, that led them to that particular moment. I wondered how they came to the United States, what circumstances led to their decision to seek citizenship here.
An INS officer entered the room with a stack of papers and asked all of the citizen candidates to line up with their papers. They were escorted out of the room. A few moments later, another officer asked those of us who were family members and friends to follow her to the swearing in ceremony.
We entered a large room to the beat of a rousing Sousa march. The 86 citizen candidates were already seated in the center of the room, clutching small US flags. Family and friends sat on the sides. Smiles and cameras flashed simultaneously, lighting up the room. After a brief welcome, the lights dimmed so we could watch a video entitled “The Faces of America.”
That video moved me. It began with a photograph of the Statue of Liberty and the words, “Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses…” Black and white photos of people who came to our country years ago, seeking refuge, seeking freedom. It hit me, then, that my own family members once were immigrants themselves. Someone just a few generations ago in my own lineage arrived in this country, seeking a new and better life. I gave thanks to God for those great-great-grandparents, whoever they were. My eyes misted over as I tried to imagine how they felt, being strangers in a strange new land, full of hope for opportunities.
After the video, the INS officers began calling out the countries represented by the new citizens, and they stood when their former country’s name was called. Albania... Botswana... Chile... Ecuador... India… Kenya… Laos… Nicaragua…Peru… Russia… Sudan… Taiwan… Vietnam… Thirty-nine different countries, all together.
They raised their right hands and repeated the Oath of Allegiance: “I hereby declare on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
Then the officer beamed and said, “Congratulations to our newest United States Citizens!” The room erupted in cheers and applause! I think every single face in that room was smiling broadly!
We watched a brief video of our President Barak Obama, welcoming the new citizens. One more patriotic video played – Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” -- then it was time for photographs! Families cheered, total strangers swapped cameras and took pictures for each other, people were shaking hands, hugging, clapping one another on the back. Everyone was congratulating the new citizens.
I witnessed pride in accomplishment; I saw brotherly love in action, I heard freedom ring, loud and clear. I felt patriotism for this great nation well up in my heart. This is a day that I will remember for a very long time….
In the diversity of that roomful of people, there was unity, and it just felt GOOD.
CONGRATULATIONS, WILLIAM!!!! WE ARE PROUD OF YOU!!!! GOD BLESS YOU!!!
(L-R: Denise Aludo, William Aludo, David Waters, Davi Trotti, Anita Tarlton)