This past month in San Francisco has been one of the most unforgettable in the nearly four years I have lived in this city. One of the largest wildfires in California’s history continues to plague this beautiful city. The hazy hills overlooking my bedroom are not the result of San Francisco’s famous fog, nor is it the city’s storied love of recreational drugs. Every morning when I wake up to take our dog, Lawrence, on a walk I see a new layer of ash deposited by the wildfires. Yesterday, as today, San Francisco made national news for the red haze that blocked out the sun and made the day feel as though it were night. Every breath they take, residents of San Francisco breathe in the hazardous matter that will, over time, decrease their lifespan if they do not find respite.
Last week, because many San Franciscans do not have air conditioning, the extreme heatwave combined with the thick smoke, put many locals in a bit of pickle. “Do I open the window and expose my household and pets to the unhealthy air? Or do I keep the windows closed and trap the heat inside?” Many may bemoan a person from San Francisco complaining about the heat. Many times I’ve heard from my friends and family back home in the Midwest, “You think it’s hot now? Well, it’s over 100 degrees most of the summer and you don’t hear us complaining.” If the heat were the only issue, no one would be complaining. I can confidently say that most people in San Francisco do know of the existence of air conditioners. However, the unusually strong and frequent heatwaves this city is experiencing, combined with the smoke can no longer be ignored or attributed as just another thing San Franciscans complain about. What is happening to San Francisco is a microcosm of the plight that awaits all of us.
Lest we also forget that, as of September 11, 2020, over 192,000 Americans are now dead due to the coronavirus. Many states and cities like California and San Francisco do not quite have the spread of the coronavirus contained. Many folks still insist it is their right to not wear a mask in public despite the medical community insisting doing so would save lives.
Taken together, this can get a lot of people feeling depressed and anxious.
However, one of the few causes for my joy today is knowing that this era of history--right now, these very moments--will be, without question, mentioned in history books and taught by generations of teachers for years to come. This year will be as remembered by students as other great or infamous years in American history--1776, 1865, 1945, 2001. Just as we had to learn why these dates were significant in the history of our grand republic, future school children will have to remember forever why the year 2020 was such an important year. There will be quizzes or mnemonic devices that teachers will use to help their students remember these dates. Some of us may even be asked to visit and speak to a class about the year 2020!
Perhaps never before have my fellow Americans had such an extended and prolonged opportunity to make our mark on American history. These days, these months, are the times when generations of children and grandchildren will ask us what we were doing during this period of social, political, and environmental upheaval. This is the year when everything changed. This is the year when the new normal took effect.
They will ask us: “What did you do to help stop climate change?”
“What did you do during the coronavirus pandemic?”
“What did you do during the new civil rights movement?”
“What did you do to stop the rise of global fascism?”
What will we say we did? How can we be heroes to our children and grandchildren and those who will come after us? During these times, not all heroes are working in hospitals.
Some heroes are limiting their time outside to prevent catching or spreading diseases.
Some heroes are helping their children learn as much as they can while schools are still closed.
Some heroes are protesting the violence against their fellow Americans.
Some heroes are taking politicians and companies to task for their role in global climate change.
During the Second World War, not all the heroes we remember were serving in Germany fighting Hitler. Some served in factories. Some collected milkweed pods. Some took pride in rationing for the troops.
During the Civil Rights movement, not all the heroes we celebrate were in Washington marching. Some attended sit-ins. Some went to college. Some appeared on talk shows. Some wrote books and poetry.
During the September 11 attacks, not all heroes wore a fire mask and walked into the World Trade Center. Some tucked their children in at night and made them feel safe. Some gave blood. Some signed up to serve. Some started going to church again. Some stood up for their Muslim neighbor.
These heroes of the past—like the heroes of today—put others before themselves. This is the essence of the Christian message. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
Unless we encourage and embrace more heroes in this country, many of our towns and communities will begin to look like San Francisco. Our children and grandchildren will not know the joy of sitting on the porch in the middle of the night during the summer months, listening to the crickets chirping while lightening bugs bespeckle the sky. Future generations will wonder what life was like before walking to the store became such a risky activity. They will curse this generation that sat idly by while the only planet we’ve ever known was gradually destroyed. They will not know a time before disease, famine, war, or climate change brought millions of immigrants and refugees to their once quiet areas of middle America. They will not know a time when merely protesting for their constitutional rights meant risking false imprisonment or death at the hands of the government. They will not know the optimism past generations had knowing that, as time progressed and medicine advanced, humans expected longer, healthier lives. They will long for our own times as the people in the Renaissance longed for the Roman Empire, before civilization collapsed, before superstitions took hold, and before beauty and harmony disappeared from the European continent.
These are the times when each of us now will be measured for how we responded to our day’s challenges. These days are our Valley Forge. These days are our Pearl Harbor. These days are our Selma. Will we be remembered as a generation who looked at the world and threw up our hands in despair? Or will each of us, in our own way--rich or poor, minority or majority, religious or not--use our remaining days to forge a world objectively better than how we found it?
Do future generations deserve a government that works for the interests of the many or of a few? Do future generations deserve to live wearing masks all the time or not? Do future generations deserve a chance to see the sun, to breathe fresh air, to take their kids to school, to drink clean water, or to enjoy the outdoors? Our answer to these questions will be shaped by how we respond. Right. Now.
Brother James Nathaniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org