Memorial Day originated after the Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who had died in battle. The most recent estimates suggest that up to 750,000 people died in that terrible conflict to prevent the splitting of the Union into two Americas.
Over the years, Memorial Day has evolved from a holiday to commemorate the war dead into a day for remembering deceased loved ones more generally and a day for family gatherings, backyard barbecues, and shopping. Memorial Day is now one of the busiest shopping days of the year.
And yet there is a sense that, nearly 150 years after the Civil War, there are still two Americas today.
During a speech at Stanford University in 1967, one year before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "there are literally two Americas. One America is beautiful… overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity.
"But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebullience of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."
We still live in two Americas. Today America is the world's wealthiest nation. Stock markets are up, corporate profits are up, and we are told the economy is improving. Many of us are doing well. And yet more than 146 million Americans are considered either poor or low income. That includes 57% of our children. There are currently 2.8 million kids in our country living on the equivalent of $2.00 or less per day. We have not seen this level of poverty in this country since the 1960's.
I heard recently that half of all Americans will living in poverty some time before age 65. Nearly 47.79 million Americans are on food stamps today compared to 32 million in 2008. That number exceeds the entire population of Spain, which we have heard is going through its own economic crisis along with much of the rest of Europe.
The Bible, one of the sources of our living Unitarian Universalist tradition, includes hundreds of references to poverty and the poor. In Psalm 82, for instance, we are called upon to "defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked."
We don't hear much in the news about poverty these days, even as the number of poor and nearly poor increase. I pray that as a nation we not allow ourselves to get distracted by partisan politics and scandals so that we might stay focused on the real scandal -- that so many people in our most wealthy nation - and around the world – are living in poverty and going without food despite an abundance of food and wealth.
This Memorial Day, may we remember our sisters and brothers, may we grow in compassion and action. May our lives shine, bringing light and hope to a broken world.
In faith, hope, and love,