Thursday, July 30, 2015

Mr. Williams Goes To Washington: Meeting President Obama At The White House

Wednesday afternoon July 22 around 430PM  I started to make my way through our nation’s capital to the place where the President and his family made their home.  I had the added comfort of not going alone too; one of my coworkers, Beth Atherton had received the invitation to the reception as well. Honestly the entire experience felt a bit surreal. From the invitation, to the airline flights, and the suit shopping, to the encouragement of friends and family on social media I was a bit overwhelmed. I made my way through multiple identification checks and security checkpoints, and then began making my way up the steps to the White House.

Walking through the space, my mind was filled with gratitude. I had gratitude for the opportunity of course, but more so gratitude for all of the folks who had poured into my life, all of us unaware that an opportunity like this would ever present itself. I was also grateful for the words of my friend, and Nuru’s founder Jake Harriman who had recently shared in a speech that as a Marine, he fought for “the idea that is America, a nation that stands for the freedom of human rights and lasting, meaningful choices for everyone, everywhere.” Here I was, in the place where every US President had made his home, in the place where global leaders for the last 200 years had met with these Presidents and talked about the past, current events, and a pathway for the future.

I made my way from room to room and was just simply amazed that regular citizens would have an opportunity to walk through a place of such hallowed tradition and leadership. I looked on the walls at portraits of former Presidents. I sat on chairs that were more than 200 years old, chairs that were sat upon for discussion, debate, and contemplation as leaders thought through decisions that would affect future generations of our country and the world.

As I walked around, I started conversations with a few of the service members on duty to learn more about the space. I walked around looking at the dining ware of former Presidents, photos of historic moments for our nation and the world, and I thought—what a privilege—I don’t belong here—this is out of my league. But then, at the same time, I thought, that is the beauty of America. For all of our faults, (because we are not a perfect utopia), we are a nation where a small town boy from West Virginia, and regular folk from everywhere have a stake in shaping the future, by voting and by serving. I met a woman there named Peggy who had been on staff for more than 50 years. She started two days after President Kennedy was assassinated. She was incredibly humble and joyful, and I absolutely loved talking with her. She told me that her time in the White House had been filled with amazing experiences, every day, and that she had the privilege of meeting some pretty amazing people during her time. As I listened to her share, I thought, “I’m so thankful for the opportunity to meet this amazing lady. She has spent more time in these hallowed halls than any of the Presidents she has served under. What a gift.”

An individual stepped forward to make the announcement that we should make our way from the State Dining Room to the East Room. There was a podium toward the front of the room with the Seal of the President Of The United States on the front, and a rope that was probably 5-10 feet away.  There were multiple video cameras throughout the space, and Beth and I made our way toward the rope and waited.

As we waited we both found ourselves striking up conversations with others around us. Among those around us was a Lumbee woman who had been doing some amazing work for small farmers in the American Indian community. I shared with her my own Shawnee heritage and tribal involvement, and we had a truly engaging conversation about the Native American issues particularly related to tribes on the East Coast.  As we talked, I thought, what are the chances that I would end up standing next to another Native person in the White House…while celebrating the signing into law a renewal of the African Growthand Opportunity Act. The world is small indeed.

Just a few moments later, President Barack Obama made his way to the podium and gave a short address. And as he spoke, he kept looking my direction, and making eye contact. The first time it happened, I thought, “Is he looking at me?” and then, it kept happening. It probably helped that I was close to the front, and at least a half-foot taller than many of the people around me. After his remarks, the President made his way to the rope and began making his way across the front row shaking hands. I had let a couple of people in front of me, and thought, “I may have just missed an opportunity to greet the President.” But as he made his way to my side of the room, he extended his hand back past the front row of people, grabbed my hand, and said very genuinely, “Thanks so much for coming!” My mind raced for the right words to say to our nation’s Commander-In-Chief, and I humbly spoke as we shook, “Thank you for having me, sir.” He then proceeded to shake hands with others, and quietly left the room to prepare for his trip to the African continent.

As the room began to empty out, I made my way back to the dining room and chatted with Beth, my coworker, about the experience. It was pretty amazing all around. I had also captured a photo of Beth and President Obama exchanging a quick greeting as well. We made our way through the entrance hall to the State Dining Room where we were able to enjoy a short conversation with two older Catholic sisters who had committed their lives to serving their African neighbors. It was a beautiful moment to listen to stories from two women who had been faithful to a vocational calling to serve.

This entire trip and opportunity will be a cherished and special memory for me, and I am thoroughly filled with gratitude for the opportunity I had to spend time in the White House. I remember as a young child, always being told on field trips that I was representing my school and my town and my state. During this experience, the weight of those words came flooding back. I was given a supreme privilege to represent not only Nuru, but my faith, my Shawnee tribal community, my state, and my family in the highest office in the land.

The truth is, every day is an opportunity for each one of us to represent well the people and cultures from whom and from which we have been shaped.  May we each step into our days with a firm grasp of this reality, and may we each seek to represent well as we commit ourselves to the service and betterment of others.

No comments: