I’m sure you’ve heard the statement that America is the melting pot. We all understand what it means: We Americans come from a multitude of countries, but we’ve all blended into one country. Our ancestors were immigrants, and we are all children of immigrants.
But with this coming together, we have learned to become one united country. So we have a national motto: “E pluribus unum.” It means, “Out of the many, one.” Our heritage is many countries, but now we are the United States of America.
But there is a big question here: What makes us one? The answer lies in the realization that we share the same American dreams and values. We believe in our divinely bestowed rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. We desire justice and equal opportunity for everyone.
Most of all, we are one because we can understand each other, and this is possible because we all speak one language – English.
Some of us had forebears from English-speaking countries. Others of us had forebears who came from countries where a language other than English was spoken. It was not long until the latter learned to speak and use English.
I learned about the melting pot early. Perhaps you did, too. In my school, there were many kids from homes where foreign languages were spoken. These kids understood what their parents were saying, but when we went out to the playground with other boys and girls, we all spoke English.
When those kids grew up and got married, they often married a person from an ethnic group different from their own. So English was the native language of the next generation. The melting pot was working.
You can put carrots and string beans in the same pot, and mix them together, but you can still see evidence of carrots and string beans. Yes, we are of English, Swedish, Polish, Italian, French and Dutch backgrounds, but we all speak English. You can tell by our names where our ancestors came from, but we’re all Americans now. The melting pot is working.
My paternal grandparents came to America from Sweden. My father told me he and his siblings spoke Swedish as children. They went to a church where the service was conducted in Swedish. My father’s generation, the first generation born in America, wanted a service conducted in English. So that became the evening service.
Another generation later, the English service was transferred to Sunday morning, and the Swedish service, for the old folks, was held in the evening.
Fast forward to another generation. The old Swedes were now deceased, and there was no evening service at all. The melting pot is working.
A good friend of mine, a college professor, escaped with his wife and little boy from Cuba in the earliest years of Castro’s Communist takeover. My friend came into my office and with great excitement and enthusiasm explained to me how important it is to learn to speak English and to use it.
He said that the greatest thing he discovered in America was the principle that in a court of law, you are considered to be innocent. The person accusing you of something must convince the judge, the jury or both that you are guilty.
Not so in Cuba, even in pre-Communist Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America. There, you must convince the judge and/or the jury that you are innocent. My friend said our American idea — innocent until proven guilty — not only does not exist in the minds of the people who live there, it is difficult to express this concept in their language.
When he and his family applied for U.S. citizenship, he asked me to be their sponsor. I was honored to be asked, and I proudly performed my duty as a citizen. They are now English-speaking Americans. The melting pot is working.
Lest you think I’m against learning foreign languages, let me tell you I studied German and Spanish in high school and minored in German in college. I read my New Testament and Psalms in German and Spanish, and my daily devotional — “Dia a Dia” — is in Spanish. I gain interesting insights into the meaning of the Scriptures when I compare their versions with the English. I am not against learning another language.
I believe, however, we must stress that English be used as the primary and official language of our country. English is what makes the many one. It is the key to the strength of our American way of life. The melting pot works!
The Rev. Richard H. Petersen, Ph.D., is a retired pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church.