Legacy, what is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me. America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me. You let me make a difference, a place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up… (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton)
Once I finally had the opportunity to see this musical last winter, it quickly became one of my favorites. There are many reasons for this. I am constantly listening to its songs as I drive around town, finding ever more reasons to love it.
The line above has become one of my favorite quotes ever written about the nation of my birth (song or otherwise). It comes from that moment in the play where Alexander Hamilton is about to die and he is reflecting upon all that has occurred in his life.
In the midst of his reflection arises this beautiful paragraph about the love for which he spent his life in service. To make a difference. To leave a legacy that will help to change the world.
Now, let me tell you something about my story. I am the proud descendant of immigrants. Some came to this country three generations ago, some six, some nine or ten. All migrated here from other lands across the sea because they were looking for a better life, a new opportunity, help and escape from a different world.
One of the most famous lines of my family tree (within my family, of course) is the line of James McElwee. He immigrated from Ireland with his wife, father, and siblings. He was only one generation removed from a family that had migrated from Scotland to Ireland. So they were, you guessed it, Presbyterian. We still have their family catechism from that period, with their handwriting in it.
James fought in the War for Independence. His descendants fought in just about every war this country has seen since then, all the way up to my father who died during Desert Storm. I was there, right next to my mother as someone handed her a folded flag – one we still have in safe-keeping.
James was an immigrant – an Irish one, to boot, which meant that many people did not want him. And yet, it was this nation that let him in and let him build a legacy that has and will continue to last generations.
It is a legacy I inherited and one upon which I fully intend to improve.
Because it is not a perfect one. James built his family’s inheritance on the back of a slave. He and my other ancestors settled on land that had already belonged to peoples who had lived there for generations upon generations who were pushed away because they were considered less than human.
Like Hamilton, and Washington, and so many others, my great, great, great-grandfather fought for the very best ideals of freedom, fullness of life, equality, and creating a new and better world. They began the symphony that has not yet been completed.
It has been an ever-evolving song over our nearly two hundred and fifty year history – one that each subsequent generation has risen up to transform, trying to hold us accountable for the very ideals upon which we were founded. Even when we have failed miserably, the beauty of our common song is that it is a legacy that all of us have inherited and one to which all of us get to add our voice.
We can do better than our forefathers and mothers. We can do better than our grandfathers and grandmothers. We can do better than our parents. We can always do better. Be better. See the reality of our ideals fully lived out, instead of shoved under the rug when we want to get our own way, to keep our privileged places in this life, or to care about others only when it suits our purposes.
My name is Janie McElwee-Smith. I am a Presbyterian minister and the descendant of immigrants, who imperfect though they were, came to this land to see their dreams fulfilled. I have inherited their complicated legacy and I am all the stronger for it. Because I live in the mess and seek the solid footing that can only come through honest, willing struggle with difficult realities. And I, who learned a love of my nation from birth, fully intend on planting my own seeds to see us become even closer to what we always intended to be. I will rise up. And one day my own legacy will, as well.