Weddings feel like this — a crowd of people fizzing with happiness, dressed up for the occasion, coming together to celebrate a life-affirming commitment. Coming together on June 21 at the Minnesota History Center — 128 immigrants from 44 countries, making their promise to protect and serve this country, the United States of America, as they become naturalized citizens.
Before the ceremony, recorded secular hymns play: the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the Marine Corps hymn (“From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”), the Army Song (“For where e’er we go, You will always know, That The Army Goes Rolling Along”), and the Star Spangled Banner.
I feel like an unbeliever in church. The über-patriotic, militaristic, my country-right-or-wrong vibe of the songs is what I don’t like about my country. Yes, I felt that way when I was ten years old, but now I think. Is this what we want to say to new Americans? Is this the kind of love of country we want to proclaim to those among the new Americans who have fled military dictatorship, persecution, worse?
And yet, and yet — sometimes even unbelievers go to church. Especially for weddings. Especially to support our friends, colleagues, community members as they embark on a new commitment and new life.
Someone described second marriages after divorce as “the triumph of hope over experience.” Maybe naturalization is something like that, pledging allegiance to a new country with hope and faith in the possibility of a good home this time around.
Multiple preachers address the congregation — the judge, government officials and their representatives. As children cry and parents whisper, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie tells the new Americans, “You have set your roots deep for these beautiful children to be carried into the future.” He tells them that we join them in “building the future for those who will come behind us.” For their contributions to the country and to the state, he says, “Thank you.” Next to me, an older woman murmurs, with feeling, “You are welcome.”
The judge reads a roll call of the 44 countries, encouraging each person present to cheer for their own, and they do. Then they all stand for the citizenship oath. And again to sing the national anthem. And again to say the Pledge of Allegiance. I stand, sign, pledge, still feeling a little like I’m out of place in this church.
And then, finally, everyone stands to sing Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”
If tomorrow all the things were gone I’d worked for all my life
And I had to start again with just my children and my wife
I think of how many immigrants — those lucky enough to be in this room becoming citizens, and those millions of others with no path to citizenship, no celebration of their presence — have had to start again with just their children and spouses, or have had to leave behind their children, fathers, mothers, husbands, wives.
I’d thank my lucky stars to be livin’ here today
Said Ali, an aide to Senator Amy Klobuchar, earlier delivered her message, and his own. Speaking for himself, Ali said, “I am a naturalized U.S. citizen and today I am speaking to you as a government official. I am proud to be a citizen, in the greatest country in the world.”
As the song rolls on to the second verse, the judge tells everyone they have to sing the first line together:
From the lakes of Minnesota, to the hills of Tennessee
Yes, we’re in the song, we Minnesotans, and the feeling that we in this room are all in it together grows even stronger.
I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land God bless the USA
Thinking of my family’s story here, of the stories of the people surrounding me, of the millions of others waiting, praying, hoping for a chance to stand and take the oath, I find tears rolling down my face. For all that is wrong with our country, much is also right and good. And for all that needs to be changed and repaired and rebuilt — the immigrant dreams of the new Americans in this room and those waiting at the door offer hope and strength and energy for the task.