Realizing that we were standing on the holy ground of freedom, I began to tremble. Last week I pointed out his 1758 grave as Gary and I walked through the tiny pre-Revolutionary War cemetery. Peter Becker (1687-1758) was the first Church of the Brethren minister to immigrate to America from Europe. The cemetery is on the property of Peter Becker Community, a Brethren-related continuing care community in southeastern Pennsylvania where my parents lived for over twenty years. My father still resides there in assisted living.
The Church of the Brethren traces its roots back to 1708 in Germany, when eighteenth-century Europe was a time of strong governmental control of the church and little tolerance for religious diversity. The Brethren were Anabaptists who strictly followed the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, including believer’s baptism, non-resistance and the Love Feast (foot-washing).
These religious dissenters were subject to discrimination and ill treatment yet lived out their faith in spite of persecution. Eventually, the Brethren sought refuge in the Netherlands, after which twenty families immigrated to “Germantown” in Pennsylvania in 1719.
Standing before Peter Becker’s grave, I breathed freedom. What it must have been like for these twenty families to risk their lives sailing across the ocean to a new land in order to enjoy freedom of religion? Why Pennsylvania? Why, because of their benefactor, William Penn.
William Penn was born into a wealthy and distinguished Anglican family in England in 1644. At age 22, however, Penn joined the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, much to the distress of his father, Admiral Sir William Penn. The younger Penn’s Quaker views, like the Brethren and Mennonites, included pacifism and the refusal to swear oaths. Penn was subsequently expelled from Christ Church, Oxford for his beliefs and was arrested several times.
Eventually, the persecution of Quakers became so great that Penn decided it might be best to create a new settlement in America where his fellow Quakers would be free to practice their faith. After the death of William’s father, King Charles II of England settled a large loan with the elder Penn by granting William a significant tract of land west and south of New Jersey in 1681. William Penn first called the area Sylvania (Latin for “woods”), but Charles II changed it to Pennsylvania in honor of the elder Penn.
Pennsylvania became a haven for religious freedom and tolerance in the American colonies. The first Mennonites, who had also been persecuted in Europe, arrived in Germantown two years later, in 1683, encouraged by William Penn’s offer of five thousand acres of land in southeastern Pennsylvania and the freedom to practice their religion. Mennonite ancestors of my paternal grandmother arrived in the early 1700’s.
In 1719, Peter Becker and the Church of the Brethren arrived in Germantown, breathing freedom. In the first boat was John Jacob Price, from whom my maternal grandmother is directly descended. In 1747, the Germantown Brethren congregation sent missionaries, including Price, to rural areas around Philadelphia. These missionaries preached, baptized, and started new congregations. One of those sites was in Lower Salford, where the Price family homestead still stands. My grandmother grew up in that house.
The colony of Pennsylvania was still subject to the King of England. However, William Penn implemented a democratic government consisting of complete freedom of religion, fair trials, separation of powers, and elected representatives, all features that eventually found their way into the Constitution.
At a time when freedom of religion and the immigration of refugees fleeing religious persecution is the subject of debate in our country, I am reminded that the overwhelming majority of Americans are the descendants of immigrants and are here because the United States has always welcomed to its shores those who seek a new life. The First Amendment to the Constitution was adopted on December 15, 1791, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Two days after standing at Peter Becker’s grave, Gary and I stood, breathing freedom on top of One World Trade Center, the main building of the rebuilt World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan. Across the vast panorama of New York City, my eyed fixated on the State of Liberty in New York Harbor. Built by Gustave Eiffel and dedicated on October 28, 1886, the Statue of Liberty was a gift to the United States from the people of France.
The statue represents the Roman goddess Libertas, who is bearing a torch and holds a tablet on which is inscribed the date of the American Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. A broken chain lies at her feet. The first glimpse of the land of the free and home of the brave for millions of immigrants from around the globe entering New York Harbor is the Statue of Liberty, the icon of freedom.
Standing on top of the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, I looked directly down at the twin reflecting pools that sit within the footprints of the original Twin Towers. Around the pools are listed the names of each of the nearly three thousand people killed in the 911 attacks as well as the six people killed in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. I marveled at the diversity of names, realizing that most of those killed were descendants of immigrants from around the world, people who left everything they had to claim their God-given freedom to live, worship and thrive in this country.
At the same time, I remembered Jim Wallis, president and founder of Sojourners, who posted that same day last week, “Ironically and tragically, American diversity began with acts of violent racial oppression that I am calling ‘America’s original sin’ – the theft of land from Indigenous people who were either killed or removed and the enslavement of millions of Africans who became America’s greatest economic resource – in building a new nation… Many people have come to America, involuntarily in chains or voluntarily in the hope of a better life. And our great diversity is the key to our brightest and most transforming future. Indeed, it has already been one of America’s greatest contributions to the world.”
Political polarization seems to dominate the news today. When many are so obsessed with separating others into us and them that we forget that we are more alike than different, I celebrate the melting pot that is America. I honor the deep roots of freedom that welcome all to practice their religion in a way that does not provoke extremism, coercion or violence but rather promotes peace and harmony. I am filled with gratitude that one of our core values in the United States is the right of all people to breathe freedom and claim shelter, food, education and the opportunity to become all that God created them to be.
In 1903 a poem was engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. As a child I stood in front of the Statue of Liberty and read “The New Colossus” by American poet Emma Lazarus, written in 1883.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Breathe free. It’s our legacy and our greatest challenge. Breathe freedom for all.