The blessings of becoming an American citizen
The year 2009 was a monumental one for me. It was the year I came to the United States as a seminarian. I arrived in early April, on the Saturday of Holy Week. I had every intention of attending the Easter Vigil that night, but after the long flight I was exhausted and dozed off. The priest I was staying with at the time kindly did not want to disturb my sleep, so I missed the Mass that night. But I appreciated that he knew how much I needed the rest. He knew how excited I was to be in America. I may have overslept, but my new life felt like a dream come true.
Growing up in Nigeria, I watched a lot of American movies and music videos. In high school, I was not very interested in sports. My interests were choral music and books, and I read a lot of American novels. When I was a teenager, it was considered very cool to wear t-shirts and baseball caps with American sport teams like the Chicago Bulls and the Green Bay Packers or the names of American cities like New York, Cincinnati, Chicago or St. Louis printed on them.
It was in college that I learned a bit more about American history and philosophy, especially since philosophy was my major. I am fascinated by how American pragmatism and efficiency, especially in the ideas of William James, Charles Sanders Pierce and John Dewey, affected much of 19th- and 20th-century thought. I marvel at the United States’s impact on the world stage and its global leadership, power and influence. U.S. involvement in World War II changed the course of world history. Despite the political turmoil here, much of the world continues to look up to the United States for leadership in research, innovation, science and information technology, and in many other fields.
My life as a parish priest in Wisconsin is very different from my childhood in Nigeria. But I am so grateful to now be an American citizen, and despite its flaws, I love this country.
For as long as I can remember, America has always been that shining city on the hill for me, a place where dreams come true and a land where anyone willing to work hard can succeed and achieve the impossible. America remains, as the line from the national anthem goes, “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Over the years I have lived in the United States, I have fallen in love with this country and its diverse people. It has become home. Thus it was a singular privilege and honor for me to be sworn in as a citizen of the United States in Milwaukee in October 2021.
I am privileged to call the United States of America home, firstly for the virtue of generosity that distinguishes it and its citizens. I am constantly amazed and heartened by this reality. Wherever human suffering shows its ugly face either in the form of natural or human-made disasters, the United States is often among the first nations to respond concretely with compassionate financial or material support. The milk of human kindness still flows in this land and in the hearts of many citizens of this country.
This nation thrives on the rule of law. In preparation for my citizenship exam, I had to study the meaning of the rule of law, which simply means that everyone, no matter who they are, must follow the law. But the law allows for freedom of speech: Everyday citizens can criticize elected officials in higher offices without being arrested. And although the justice system does not work perfectly, politicians and high-up government officials do go to jail for breaking the law. In fact, a former president of the United States was criminally indicted recently. I had a difficult time picturing this scenario playing out in Nigeria where it often appears that the law only applies to the poor while the rich and well-connected get away with criminal behavior.
For as long as I can remember, America has always been that shining city on the hill for me, a place where dreams come true and a land where anyone willing to work hard can succeed and achieve the impossible.
This is a nation where people, both young and old, can freely express themselves. Freedom of expression, which the Norwegian Nobel committee described as “a precondition for democracy and lasting peace,” still lives loudly in this country, and that is a glorious thing. Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the Archbishop of Boston, mentioned in a homily that I heard that one of the remarkable things about America is that when we talk about the issues that affect our country long enough, we tend to get them right. I hope and pray this culture of dialogue, debate and encounter may continue to flourish.
For all its shining qualities, however, it must be acknowledged that America has in some ways failed to live up to the promise of the American dream. Has the American scientific power and technological prowess always been a force for good? No. Have its foreign policy and history been utterly selfless, devoid of greed, oppression and exploitation? Of course not. Have all those who live in this land had equal access to the values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness unhindered by racism and systemic injustices? Definitely not. Every country, however, has aspects of its history that are shameful. Great nations learn from their histories; they do not hide from them. America still has much to learn.
Our nation’s failures are especially glaring when it comes to its treatment of people of color and the poor. The incessant killing of unarmed Black men by law enforcement remains a painful sore on the collective conscience of this nation. Every month that passes seems to add new names to an already long list of young people of color whose hopes and dreams have been cut short. How can anyone forget the travesty of justice that is the disproportionately high number of Black and brown American males incarcerated? Undoubtedly, nations have a right to maintain their borders, but locking migrant children in cages—as was the case a few years ago—was an assault on our common humanity. And the current U.S. immigration policy is creating a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.
I have not yet given up hope that this country can continue to work toward the best version of itself.
Nevertheless, I have not yet given up hope that this country can continue to work toward the best version of itself. There is so much more about this endlessly fascinating nation that I love. A few years ago, I made a decision to be intentional in reading books by African Americans (especially Black female writers) and immigrants to better inform myself about the complex social, racial and political history of America from a historically marginalized point of view. Works by Toni Morrison, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zora Neale Hurston, Isabel Wilkerson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Langston Hughes, Nyani Nkrumah and Maya Angelou have opened up a new world to me. As each of these writers in their unique styles has explored the ways America has sometimes failed in delivering on the promises of the American dream, especially to some of its Black and brown citizens and the poor, every writer is also an elegant case study of the actualization of that same dream.
It is difficult to put into words how thankful, grateful and blessed I am to live in this country and now be an American citizen. After my swearing-in ceremony, an American friend, tongue-in-cheek, said to me, “Welcome aboard, although the ship is going down.” My response was, “Let us make sure it does not.” This is still a land where people can and do pursue the American dream. We must work together to make sure everyone has a fair chance of achieving it.