They say that storm clouds are looming over America. They say there is a darkness coming that will banish our cherished hopes for the future. They say that the coming storm will wash away all of the progress we have made in recent years – the progress we have made for justice, the progress we have made for bringing comfort and sustenance to the impoverished, the progress we have made to make real the pledge that America is a nation offering “liberty and justice for all.” They say that the storm clouds of fear and hatred will now take the place of those dreams.
Our sacred Scripture has something different to say. The prophet Isaiah taught, “הנה חזק ואמץ לאדני כזרם ברד שער קטב,” “Behold, my Lord has something strong and mighty, like a storm of hail and a shower of destruction.” And what is it that the Lord shall do with that storm? “ושמתי משפט לקו,” “I will use justice as a measuring line, and righteousness as the measure of weight. Hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies. The rising of the waters shall drown their hiding places” (Isaiah 28:2,17).
If we believe ourselves to be in a time of an approaching storm of fear-mongering and lies, we should not think that storms can only bring injustice and grief. We who uphold the classical values of biblical righteousness – shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, care for the sick, freedom for the captive, dignity for the orphan and widow, comfort for the oppressed, love for the despised – we can be the storm and not just hapless victims to be blown about by somebody else’s ill winds.
We can take action to set justice as the true plumbline by which we measure our public policies. We can speak up, and speak out, to make righteousness the standard measure by which we weigh our laws and our direction as a state and as a nation. This is what we are fighting for, and we can only do it together.
Over the last year, we have seen how divisions have been sown into our national discourse, like weeds mixed in with the good seeds. We have been told that we can have more good jobs and security in America … but only by deporting some and keeping others out of our borders based on religion and race. We have been told that America can be great again, but only if we are willing to go back to a time when the powerful maintained rigid control of their privilege, when women were expected to defer to men, when gays and lesbians were kept in the closet, and when People of Color knew how to keep in their place.
Divisions like these will not create good jobs, will not keep us safe, will not make our country great. They will only keep us frightened, angry, and unwilling to live up to our own highest values of liberty and justice for all.
Liberty and justice for all means that we work together. It means that we rise above the voices of division, exclusion and the privilege of one person over another. It means that we see each other’s struggles as our own. It means that Christians, Muslims and Jews see how a threat to one faith is a threat to religion as a whole. It means that people of all races and heritages are united in our common humanity. It means that justice is not a zero-sum game in which my group can only gain if another loses. Liberty and justice for all means that your suffering is part of my suffering and my suffering is part of your suffering. It means that your freedom is my freedom, and my freedom is your freedom.
We are here today, in the rotunda of the State House under its magnificent dome, to remember and to repeat the values upon which the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was founded. No boasts of birth and blood.* No sanction for bigotry. No assistance to persecution.** Liberty and justice for all.
Today, in this monument to freedom, we offer blessing and prayers to our governor, our lawmakers, and public servants. We are proud to show them what we are fighting for. Hold up your signs everyone.
We are fighting for Christine Tate who spoke at Temple Sinai in Cranston last September to tell us her story. Christine worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant for 30 years before getting injured, requiring two back surgeries and a hip replacement. She now relies on Social Security disability insurance, and she relies on Rhode Island Public Transportation’s no-fare bus pass for the elderly and people with disabilities to do her marketing. We are fighting for Christine because the no-fare pass program is scheduled to expire at the end of this month, forcing Christine to pay money she doesn’t have just to put food on her table and to stay connected to the community. We are here to tell the General Assembly to restore the full no-fare bus pass program.
We are fighting for Rodrigo Pimentel, a young man whose family moved to the United States when he was ten months old. His visa expired when he was still just a child and he has been an undocumented immigrant ever since. Rodrigo is a student at URI and he has a promising future ahead of him, but still he worries constantly about his status and whether he will be allowed to stay in the U.S. Rodrigo worries also about the thousands of undocumented immigrants in Rhode Island and across the United States who work for a living, pay their taxes, and contribute to our society, yet take a huge risk every time they do something as simple as driving a car to work, knowing that if they are stopped without a valid drivers license, they could lose everything. We are here to tell the General Assembly to keep our roads safe and to allow people to live in dignity by granting drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants.
We are fighting for Ricky Mercado, a food service worker from Providence, who says, “Increasing the minimum wage would mean that I could save for my own car and not have to rely on friends or family for a ride to work. It would mean that my girlfriend and I could save and move out of our basement apartment at her father’s place into a place we could call our own. It would open up so many opportunities for me to make a better life for myself instead of feeling like I’m always stuck in the same place I started. Nobody wants to feel like they’re stuck in a job where they aren’t valued or given what they’re worth. It’s time our employers invest as much in us as we invest in them.” We are here to tell the General Assembly to significantly raise the minimum wage in Rhode Island so that thousands of workers like Ricky can work in dignity for a wage they can live on and build a future for themselves.
We are fighting for decent, safe and affordable housing for everyone. We are fighting for adequate food and nutrition for every family in the state. We are fighting for affordable and quality healthcare. We are fighting for education for our children in schools where they have the resources and safety they need to learn. We are fighting for decent jobs that pay enough to live and that give dignity and meaning to our lives.
We do not fear a coming storm. We are the storm. Our storm is called liberty and justice for all. In our unity and in our shared vision for our future, we will work together to bring about that vision. Black, Latina and White, Jew and Moslem, Gay and Straight, Protestant and Catholic, men and women. We are united together, setting the measuring line for justice. Hear us. Be with us. Thank you.
* Roger Williams, founder of the state of Rhode Island, A Key into the Language of America, 1643
"Boast not proud English, of thy birth and blood
Thy brother Indian is by birth as good.
Of one blood God made him, and thee, and all.
As wise, as fair, as strong, as personal."
** George Washington's Letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, 1790
"For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."