Donald Trump’s slogan “Making America Great Again” has triggered some thoughts on America and “greatness” while I’m living far away. The extreme, and often contentious, divide between my two “worlds”–small town Russia and small town America—has caused me think more about what is really good, if not great, in both of them. Somehow living outside America has caused me to think more deeply about what I perceive are both its virtues and vices. My wife and I have had several discussions about the great things about America that just get missed somehow. This entry will focus on the virtues of America. My next entry will be about the vices I believe keep the rest of the world from seeing the great things about America. Obviously, these observations are based on my life there in America and here in Russia. So what is so great about America?
I’ve mentioned several times in my blog about how pleased we are with both the quality and cost of health care here in Russia. Our experience in America was, frankly, becoming a nightmare. I think that blinded me to one facet of American care that I had learned to appreciate long ago. When I was a teenager, our little town got a “Rescue Squad.” It was not funded primarily by any health insurance company or any government agency that I know of. I’m sure it got some money from some outside agencies, but I recall the many local people who would give generously to support it. They had bake sales, car washes, etc. to raise money. It acquired emergency vehicles and sufficient personel at the small building who waited ready to take off at a moments notice to wherever people were in medical distress. It wasn’t adjacent to the hospital, and I’m not sure of the actual connection to the medical community. Many of the people there volunteered and even paid for their own training. Later, the 911 system developed, and to this day I am impressed by the way people in my community respond to medical emergencies. I know from experience that “first responders” keep on their scanners, and if they hear of distress nearby they come immediately. I was present one night when a first responder came. It wasn’t a job for him. This guy had a “day job” and got paid nothing for his emergency response. But he wanted to help. They are people who have learned how to administer emergency care like CPR, mouth-to-mouth, stopping arteries from bleeding, etc. Then the emergency vehicles would be there pronto, and I have seen firemen show up within minutes even when there was no fire. There was a crisis, and they wanted to assist. These people are not the highly paid health insurance executives or specialists who demand high salaries. They do this because they love helping people. Where we live here in Russia it is difficult if not impossible to get an emergency vehicle quickly. Most people just call a taxi or try to get a friend to transport them to the hospital if they need to go for immediate care. I guess I took such care for granted in America until we moved away.
The second, and somewhat related area, is disaster relief in America. As I’ve mentioned before, my late father was a Southern Baptist pastor. These churches had “Baptist Men’s Groups.” I was dragged to their once-a-month Saturday breakfasts. It was mostly retired fellows sitting around eating too much bacon and talking about football, fishing, and some “church stuff” too. I was unimpressed–until there was a hurricaine that hit in the lower part of our state. Dad took me to the church when they were getting ready to go. They had their chain saws, shovels, hammers and off they went. They cleared, they cleaned, they repaired. They stayed gone for days! When the hurricaines hit last month in the States I saw posts of various groups like this headed out to help. These men and women may be from various churches, community or civic groups. Again, they don’t get paid. Their leaders are not like the head of Red Cross or whatever who bring in six figure incomes. They are just common folk who freely devote their time, energy, and expertise to people in need. And I’ve seen them go to other countries as well! They don’t get noticed or applauded on the news or anywhere else. They don’t do it for noteriety. People are hurting. They go to do what they can for these people they don’t even know.
Another area is not the emergency or disaster kind of situations. I have seen greatness in the way people respond to the events of life. Before Marina Grace was born Oksana was invited to two “showers.” For the uninformed it refers to a gathering of women who “shower” the mother-to-be with gifts for the baby. We got pink outfits of various sorts as well as a good supply of Pampers. After she had the baby the “troops” started arriving. We were in a small group at North Hills Community Church, and they had scheduled when each member of the group would bring us food. Then there were neighbors and family members who also brought things. Oksana did not have to cook a meal for two weeks. Folks came in briefly, brought food, doted over the baby, and then were on their way. We didn’t have to cook or buy diapers! And it is not just births. When my dad died, the same thing happened. People came with food and offered to help in any way possible. Since I’ve seen this kind of thing done all my life, I think I forgot what a wonderful and great thing it is about the small town culture in which I was raised. I realize other cultures do similar things. I’m not saying America alone does this kind of thing. I’m saying it is a great thing for anyone to do, and I’m proud it is done in my country.
The final “great” thing I’ll mention is how Americans often receive people who are—for lack of a better term–“different.” The first time I came to Russia was in 2002. I came with a group of Americans who worked with churches and orphanages here. We brought financial and other kinds of support for needs we learned of. We visited the orphanage here in Luga. which focuses on “special needs” children with Downs Syndrome, autism, or various physical disabilities. On my first visit there, we were given a “tour.” During that time the Director called me and my interpreter aside and led me away to a quiet room with the shades pulled down. There were about 10 cribs with sleeping babies there. She explained that these were Downs Syndrome babies who no one would ever adopt. She and my interpreter slipped out of the room. I quietly went to each crib. I had a very strong urge just to sit down and weep. I thought to myself that if there was some way I could get these “unadoptable” children to America I could find every one of them a loving home in two days. Now, I will add that Russia has come a long way in this area since then, and there is a changing attitude for which I am grateful. And I know it is not always easy for special needs children in America. But my experiences out of America have shown me how great America is when it comes to acceptance of those who are “different,” and how their contributions to life and society are encouraged, trained, and appreciated.
I realize that not all of American culture is like what I have described. My hope is that when the talk of “Making America Great Again” gets down to specifics it will be to honor and cultivate the really great things about America. These great things about America are often the things from daily life that go completely unnoticed because they seem, well, small to some people. They aren’t small. Individuals going to help someone having a heart attack in the middle of the night; taking a bus for miles to get to where the homes of folks you don’t know have been destroyed; taking food and clothing to care for a new baby or to help those whose loved one is now gone from this life; caring about and teaching an autistic child how to communicate. This is greatness.