Two weeks ago, in the U.S. Courthouse in North King Street, Wilmington, I made the Pledge of Allegiance and became a citizen of the United States. I was one of 61 new citizens, from 30 different countries. Family and friends came along to share in the occasion, although the whole thing took much longer than expected, due to the judge’s late arrival. Unfortunately, it meant that after two hours of waiting, those friends who had arrived on time had to return to work before the ceremony was completed.
I should have guessed: if there’s one thing I’ve learned in dealing with US immigration, it is that you need a superhuman level of patience. Anyway, in the room there was a mood of quiet tension which, as the morning wore on, gave way to a party atmosphere. The judge finally arrived and spoke movingly about her own grandparents who were immigrants. The names of the new citizens were called, one by one, and each one in turn stepped forward to receive their Certificate of Naturalization. From the group of new citizens an Indian woman, a resident of over sixteen years, was invited to address the courtroom. She recalled something her father had told her before she traveled to the US. He said that she should be the “sweetness” in the mixture. Well, from 30 different countries, we were certainly a mixture.
Then together we made the Pledge of Allegiance and now we were united under one flag. To cap the ceremony, a lady at the back of the courthouse sang the Star Spangled Banner. She didn’t quite hit the top note, but it didn’t matter, because as a new citizen I was feeling careless and happy. I thought of the several large folders of documents at home, the many interviews I had attended, photos and fingerprints taken, medical examinations etc and now all of that was over.
I wondered what this new status meant? Apart from the obvious one of being secure in my adopted homeland, I am conscious that there is now a new claim on my identity. I was a relatively late arrival as an immigrant. I fell in love with an American, and moved to the US from Great Britain at the end of 2015 and was married to Ruth in January 2016. It has been an extraordinary time since – it has felt, at times, like a dream living here, perhaps because it was unexpected, or because I have come to love the country and its people.
It is easy to make an analogy with religious ceremonies, like baptism and confirmation, which offer the gift of a new identity in Christ. In baptism Christians make the lavish claim that we are “reborn by the Holy Spirit.” The oil of chrism is marked on the forehead with the sign of the cross as a seal of the Spirit. This ceremony, like the naturalization ceremony, is a public event. You are being re-ordered not only before God but before a community of people who will affirm and support you in your new identity.
Although I now have a new identity to contend with, I realize that some things remain the same. I still prefer tea first thing in the morning to coffee. I miss being able to go into a bakery to buy a steak pie (although I was able to do this in Savannah, of all places). I like baseball, but for the sublime combination of tedium and excitement, nothing quite matches a five day cricket test match.
As for identity, I will try to take the best from the myriad identities which derive from all of life’s experiences, such as upbringing, relationships, work, DNA, financial situation, location, religion (add your own one here). This human complexity and the fact that we are in a constant state of change makes each of us unique. It reminds me of a joke: why should you marry an archaeologist? Because the older you get, the more interested they become in you.
If I could choose from those identities the one which has had a lasting impact, I would have to say that it is my Christian faith. Whenever I compare myself to the person I was, say, thirty years ago, I know I am still essentially the same person, with the same questionable sense of humor, but my identity has changed significantly. The Christian path through life has taken me in a different and at times surprising direction, due to the benign influence of the Holy Spirit, the love of God the Father, and to my ever deepening love for Jesus.
I’ll finish by sharing one special memory. It is Superbowl Sunday, 2018. At the Church of the Redeemer, Springfield PA, where I was Rector at the time, we sang the theme song of the Philadelphia Eagles “Fly, Eagles, Fly” before the final blessing. Later at home, Ruth and I watch the Eagles win the Superbowl. It was a fantastic game and a brilliant result, made more so by the tributes given at the end by players and coach to the power of prayer and faith in Jesus Christ.
The message, apart from the religious one, was that we should not be shy of expressing our faith at all times and in all circumstances. God wants us to have a confident faith, so that the world may see it.
God bless America!