Wednesday, March 23, 2011
In the weeks before my trip to New York, when I knew I'd get to see the Statue of Liberty, I found myself thinking often about the millions of immigrants whose first sight of her marked the end of their voyages and the beginning of new lives. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for people who left everything familiar behind, who traveled for weeks in conditions few of us today would be willing to endure, and who arrived with little but what they could carry and as much hope as hearts can hold.
Did their first sight of Liberty bring tears of joy?
When the ferry dropped us off at Ellis Island (as it would have all those steerage and third class passengers remaining after the richer folk were allowed simply to disembark onto U.S. soil), I could feel the ghosts of anticipation and fear swirling around. A beautiful place, both the building and the site, this was where vulnerable humanity met implacable bureaucracy. In the huge registration room on the second floor, the course of people's lives was set.
What must it have been like to be in a place where you most likely didn't speak the language - tired, dirty and disoriented?
Some were sent back because they were deemed insane or chronically ill or not able enough to contribute to the country they sought to make their home. Some were separated from family while paperwork problems were worked out. Some were hospitalized so they couldn't infect the mainland with whatever illness they brought from across the sea, and died on the island.
Most made it through, however, all but about 2%. Given entry to a country where they believed life would be better than whatever they'd left behind. One journey ended with another scrolling out before them waiting for the ink of life experiences to write a new story.
And isn't that the way for us as humans? We're called to something new: escape from what has become intolerable into a fresh start. We're willing to suffer great discomfort in our quest for the new life, even to the point of facing a greater fear than we thought we could endure. We reach a point where the pain is great enough we leave everything behind that isn't absolutely essential to our being. Sometimes the cost of the new journey is paid in prized possessions or the comfort of status. Hard to part with, but not so hard as to be willing to sacrifice freedom for them.
Each new immigrant who entered this land of hope and opportunity must have believed their possibilities were endless. Some found their way to riches and fulfillment while others died in sweatshops well before their time. I imagine, however, that each of them carried in their hearts forever the first sight of Lady Liberty and her promise of freedom to choose; that no matter where life took them from that point forward they had a moment when they knew without doubt they were as free as it's possible for a human to be.