Our civic need to answer ‘Here I am’

By Richard C. Harwood

For as long as I can remember, my favorite words in the Bible have been “Here I am.” While these three tiny words hold huge religious meaning for people of faith, including myself, they also are instructive to those of us who are concerned about Americans’ lost faith in our politics and community life. At this moment in American history, they call to each of us to engage in a new way and take greater responsibility for where we are and who we can become as a society.

The words “Here I am” appear repeatedly throughout the Bible — from Abraham and Samuel to Isaiah and elsewhere. Perhaps the story I think about most involves Moses. Standing before the burning bush, at first trembling and hiding his face, he ultimately answers God’s call by saying, “Here am I.” In that moment, Moses — who doubts his capabilities, his strength, his own voice, his identity — does something that is desperately needed in our country today.

In his moment of trial, Moses makes himself visible. He does not hide. He does not turn away. He does not seek cover. He makes an active choice to be present. In his response, he is saying, “I am here, right here. See me! Hear me!”

Then, God gives him a great task: Go to the mighty Egyptian pharaoh and demand the release of the Israelites from the bonds of slavery. In the face of this task, Moses hesitates. He asks God, “Who am I?” His self-doubt is palpable. He is filled with confusion. He thinks he is unworthy.

As we know, Moses proves otherwise. He acts. He leads. What about us? What are the implications of Moses’ words for each of us today? Are we worthy? Will we act?

My own calling has been to teach, coach and inspire individuals and organizations regarding how they can come together to solve pressing problems and change how communities work together. My work has spread to all 50 American states and some 40 countries. During the 30 years I have been doing this work, I have periodically travelled America to listen deeply to people talk about their lives, the state of politics and health of our communities. I have consistently found Americans concerned about a host of issues — from health care and jobs to the economy and environment. As important as these and other issues are, none is the single most important. What’s most important is whether we can restore our belief and can-do spirit to get things done together.

It is about what kind of society we can — and will — create together.

At the burning bush, Moses is asked to take a singular action that none of us in our lives will be called to do. We can learn from him nonetheless. When he hears the call, he personally makes an active choice. He chooses to make himself visible, to step forward, to engage, and then to lead. Each of us is needed to step forward today. Consider the small contributions each of us can make in our daily lives to meet the challenges our country faces today:

  • How is it that people can come together across divides of race and income? What will it take for us to see and hear each other in our current environment?
  • How can Trump voters and non-Trump voters talk and move past their preconceived notions of one another? What is the common ground to build upon?
  • How can we understand what coal country workers really want and what they fear, and the implications for creating more inclusive, healthier debates on issues like climate change and renewable energy?
  • How does a community create shared responsibility around the opioid crisis, and what can it teach us about how to move forward together on other issues, such as education and youth who feel alone?
  • Why do our religious beliefs continually divide us when religious teachings ask us to care for our neighbors, the stranger and the least fortunate among us? What do we want from our religious faiths at a time when so many Americans are divided?

So many people today do not feel seen and heard. Many do not feel part of something larger than themselves. They fear they don’t have the ability to shape what happens around them. The story of Moses at the burning bush reminds me each day that I must make good on these challenges — no matter the depth of my own personal fear, trepidation or self-doubt.

Indeed, when Moses made himself visible to God, he accounted for himself. There is something uniquely powerful in this personal act. In our society, “accountability” often means following the law, achieving certain measureable goals and making formal reports.

What I love about the story of Moses and the burning bush is that the idea of accounting for oneself takes on a different meaning. It asks each of us to assume full responsibility for who we can become and what we must do. It summons us to measure ourselves based on whether we have lived up to our pledges and promises to others. It is not about typical professional accountability. It is a covenant we make with ourselves and with each other about the kind of world we seek to create together.

America’s politics and community life are rife with finger-pointing and blame-placing. Too much humiliation and shame are directed at the “other.” Advocacy for our own point-of-view can veer into a dangerous, close-minded self-righteousness. We dismiss other people’s grievances by telling them to buck up, and then we turn away; when we do, we deny people their basic human dignity.

When Moses went to pharaoh to demand freedom for the Israelites, he had every reason to be scared, to tremble, to be fearful. After all, he was going before the most powerful human force he knew. He had never undertaken such a feat. And, lest we forget, he stuttered — something that would trouble him throughout his leadership of the Jews throughout their exodus.

Each of us holds fears and self-doubts about our own capabilities. We often believe someone else is more equipped, better prepared, a stronger spokesperson for what needs to be said and done. We fear the unknown; at times we fear the other. We step back when people’s anger and grievances turn into words that we find hurtful.

We must take the lesson of Moses and make ourselves visible. We must be present, alive in this moment, here. We must lean into the challenges our society confronts and seek ways to address them. We need not know on our own all the answers to these challenges — none of us can. Nor must we go it alone; positive change will not happen that way. Instead, let us each begin our path of engagement simply by echoing three tiny words that can lead to making a huge difference: “Here I am.”

Richard C. Harwood is executive director of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonpartisan, independent nonprofit that teaches, coaches and inspires people and organizations to solve pressing problems and change how communities collaborate.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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