WELCOME TO THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS!
I AM SOOOOOO EXCITED YOU ARE HERE!
I AM SOOOOOO EXCITED TO SHARE THIS LIBRARY WITH YOU!
Such begins my weekly spiel, as I lead visitors from all over the world on a tour of the Nation’s Library.
A bibliomaniac, I served seven years at Bishop Payne at VTS. Last fall, I was simply OVER THE MOON when I got into the four-month docent immersion program at the Library of Congress.
In class, I got to sit at the feet of remarkable librarians – who curate remarkable collections from around the world. We got to go behind the scenes and behind closed doors. Into the stacks and into the reading rooms.
We got to touch – well not actually touch – but see up close – Thomas Edison’s pencil sketch of the telephone; Thomas Jefferson’s journal pages; Amelia Earhart’s flight logs.
WOW. Right? WOW.
Sort of like a liberal arts education in all things LOC, we heard from art historians, rare book collectors, doctors of the arts, architectural experts, scholars of the Gilded Age, and experts in the history of D.C.
The Jefferson building is breathtaking: “Beauxes Artes” breathtaking. A boastful triumphant building completed in 1897, fifty American artists worked, painted, crafted, and sculpted its insides. America flexed its cultural muscles at the close of the 19th century. The United States was as great a nation, as any in Europe. And a great nation – needs a great library.
In the floor of the Great Hall is a multicolored marble Compass Rose — surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac in bronze. Parallel white marble staircases rise on either side – each carved with angelic looking figures – who are not angels at all but little boys.
Halfway up each staircase is a globe – nestled between two of the boys. To the left is Asia and Europe. To the right Africa, with a crocodile behind him and a Native American, hand raised to his forehead.
Learning is universal, you see, and comes from all four corners of the universe. This library – the LARGEST library in the world – is America’s library – but it is not an American library – half the collection is in languages other than English – 470 and counting.
This is not some 21st century – cultural diversity tax collector waste of money thing. This is the raison d’etre of the place since the first library burned in the War of 1812.
In 1814 Thomas Jefferson offered his own books to Congress to restart the fledgling library — housed across the street in the Capitol.
Jefferson’s literary collection was one of the most extensive in the young United States. He cataloged his books according to memory, reason, and imagination: history, philosophy, and the arts. He had books in 16 languages including Arabic and Native American dialects. He had books about bee keeping, magic tricks, and Italian cooking. He had books about EVERYTHING.
Congress balked. We just want the law books, they said. But Jefferson argued that “There may not be a subject to which a member of Congress may not need to refer in the course of his work.” So, Congress bought his almost 7,000 books for almost $24,000.
And the LOC to this day, still collects this way. It is Thomas Jefferson on steroids.
And the library’s universal collection is universally available to anyone – not just members of Congress.
Just above the doors to the Main Reading Room are a series of murals called “Good Government”. A young boy with books tucked under his arms drops his ballot into a Grecian voting urn. Sound government rests on sound learning. Not just for elected servants but for EVERYBODY.
Because this land is your land, this land is my land. Right? No matter where we came from. And we all came from somewhere else.
When I introduce myself to the LOC visitors, I boast about my native Washingtonian, as in D.C. creds.
I boast that when I was in high school, I used to do my homework at LOC. My family on the Peacock side goes back seven generations in the Nation’s Capital – back to the late 18th century. My mom was a (not very serious) member of the DAR. A Peacock, a 13year-old boy – Nathaniel Peacock arrived stowed away on a boat at Jamestown.
But I am no more American than the most recent naturalized citizen – be they from Mexico, Syria, South Korea, Guatemala, Germany, or Yemen. They are just as American as you and me.
We are a nation defined by liberty and law — not by ethnicity, religion, or race. Right?
Every week, the Library of Congress, restores my American soul. Its a place where politics are verboten – a secular temple that celebrates our highest American ideals.
We were constituted to be a radically welcoming nation, born both of the Enlightenment and of ancient biblical values.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me. I lift my light beside the golden door.”
To welcome the stranger, to welcome the sojourner, to welcome the orphaned, the refugee: it’s the Judeo-Christian thing to do.
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
First century Jewish and Christian hospitality is really different than how we think of hospitality. We ready the guest room for when friends and family visit. We don’t change the sheets for strangers. But that who really needs it. “Biblical hospitality is about welcoming the needy for the sake of their need.”
Strangers, immigrants, the homeless.
Jesus says, “Take that love for family, that love for country and kin, and extend it, extend it further and further still. Welcome in the stranger. Welcome in the one whose life you hardly understand. Not to change them but because they too are God’s children.” (Feasting on the Word, Lance Pape)
This Independence Day weekend, Jesus gives us a challenge.
As Christians. As Americans.
A challenge to our public discourse and policy. A personal challenge. A challenge to our faith.
To practice this radical welcome of Jesus – to see the sacred — in every encounter, in every exchange, in the face of friends, of course, but even more so in the face of those we count as foes, in the face of what seems foreign, in the face of the unknown.
A spiritual exercise:
To stretch those welcome muscles. To stretch beyond our comfort level. To stretch until we feel the burn. It’s a good workout for the heart. It’s an even better workout for the soul.
Stretch your spirit, friends, stretch.
(And if you would like a tour of the Library of Congress just let me know!)