Dear Mr. President,
You have written to me often. Letters like: “ … If you win a seat at the next dinner with three other supporters and me, you’ll get to bring a guest … I thought I’d bring one, too — so I invited Michelle.” The letters usually end with a variation of: “Donate $5 to be automatically entered to have dinner with Barack and Michelle.”
Frankly, I’m not interested in having dinner with George Clooney or Sarah Jessica Parker. I want to invite you to dinner. Yes, I’m inviting you and Michelle, and the girls if they can make it (we have a great private school here, Phillips Exeter Academy, which they can check out) to dinner. No donation needed, but if you’d like, you can bring a couple packs of White House playing cards with you — we play a lot of cards.
We met once, Mr. President. In 2008. I shook your hand. Then, after your campaign rally speech at Exeter High School you made a gesture to someone that really endeared me to you, that secured my support, and my vote. I’ll tell you about it when we meet for dinner at my house. I’ll cook. It will mostly reflect my Arab-American background; nothing too fancy, chicken and rice, baked kibbee, yoghurt, tabouli. You’ll be served at a friend’s house. Nearby. It’s bigger and more comfortable than my place. Can serve around 20 friends comfortably. No politicians. No pundits. No one-percenters.
My friends and I are worried, and we want to talk to you about it. We live in a place of beauty, privilege and comfort with good schools and low unemployment. There are lots of academics here, successful business people, parks, a great independent bookstore, a Norman Rockwell downtown. But, like much of America, not everything is easily visible.
Beyond the scenic vistas and beyond the crews rowing on the Swamscott River there’s another Exeter. A part of Exeter supports the highest percentage of people living in mobile home parks in New Hampshire. Throughout the region, families have been battered by the economy and are hurting. They struggle to keep their families together and their homes above water. They are fearful, and many of them are thinking of taking it out on you in November. The mansions are mostly protected. The middle class and mobile home owners struggle.
Exeter doesn’t envy the rich their success and wealth. We’re not even worried that America has become less upwardly mobile than before. My friends and I are not worried about America becoming “Europeanized.”
We believe in the American dream, and believers know change is possible. What many Americans fear, I believe, is that they are becoming the economic equivalents of guys with squeegees who stand, regardless of rain or sun, on street corners hoping for a chance to wash the darkened windows of BMWs and Lexuses idling impatiently at red lights.
Speak out, Mr. President. Speak clearly. Tell us that we are one nation, one people. Dietrich Bonhoffer, when he was at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, observed of America in the 1930s: “Black and white hear the Word and receive the sacrament in separation. They have no common worship.” Bonhoffer’s truth stands today.
Today, sadly, it is not just the persistence of the separate worship of black and white. It is the separate worship of haves and have-nots. The separate worship of privilege versus the Other. Mr. President, speak to the character of America. Engage the American sense of fairness. Speak of your fears and frustrations. Engage the Americans as citizens of conscience. It’s not about jobs. It’s about character. About common worship.
Speak from the field which Rumi describes, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” That is the field where most Americans, I believe, and I believe you believe, want to be. A level playing field where we gather strength from each other’s example, where we are vigilant about human rights and social justice, where we allay each other’s fears, and where there is shade to give respite. Where we as Americans we can inspire each other in common worship.
To paraphrase one of your letters to me: I’m looking forward to the chance to talk to you in person. I hope you’ll take me up on it.
On June 3, in a commencement address at Williams College, Dr. Atul Gawande said, “ … the difference between triumph and defeat, you’ll find, isn’t about willingness to take risks. It’s about mastery of rescue.”
The rescue of America, I believe, is not about rescuing jobs. I know that might sound like heresy, Mr. President, but I have faith that the American economy will recover regardless of who becomes president. It’s about rescuing our character.
My guests may not all know who Sarah Jessica Parker is. I’m sure they know George Clooney. I’ll invite my daughter and my community. I’ll invite an evangelical ex-Marine, deeply involved in philanthropy, who believes we must all embrace a global pluralistic vision. I’ll invite teachers of religion, history and science. I’ll invite old friends: an auto mechanic who cared for his grandkids while both parents were deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, a carpenter who keeps my aged house standing and his wife, an educator of adults.
Present, hopefully, will be a recent college graduate, an inspired poet who tutored prison inmates while in college who is now looking for a job, her sister, who just completed a City Year assignment in Harlem who starts college in September, along with their mother, a teacher and Episcopal priest who studied with James Cone at Union Theological Seminary.
No politicians or pundits. No bundlers.
Dessert. I make the best baklava you will have ever tasted. My mother’s recipe, unchanged. Made with clarified butter, no honey, flavored with rose water. Arabic coffee made to offer, bitter or sweetened.
“If you want to shoot hoops afterward to work off the calories we’ll find you a court — and some competition. A place where you can keep score without counting electoral votes.”
Come back to Exeter, Mr. President, bring the wife and kids. Come and listen to us, talk to us. Share in common worship.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.