I was honored last night to be among some of our community’s most patriotic heroes. The Arnaudville VFW dinner pays tribute to service men and women, veterans, first responders and law enforcement. The highlight of the night was watching Captain Clay Higgins, St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Public Information Officer, and Crime Stoppers spokesman, receive the Law Enforcement Person of the Year Award. His celebrity, something he never sought, is overshadowed when you meet him, by his big heart and spirit, his passion and love of the job, and his authenticity and genuine desire to serve two principles: his belief in the constitution, and his belief in the power of redemption for the criminal, who he sees as an equal in the eyes of God. He spoke to the crowd with humility, landing his word, characteristically dry, with a steady cadence on a room full of hushed listeners.
As I sat and listened as Captain Higgins delivered a moving and inspiring speech, I could not help but reflect on what his message meant to a small community like Arnaudville. I’ve sat through many speeches, but this message was clearly meant to spur people to action. He cited that America has fallen, and it is up to its citizens to “stand America back up”. He gave an abbreviation of this talk a few nights before at the Arnaudville Neighborhood Watch meeting, speaking to a crowd of 40 citizens, the largest ever.
In my judgment, it’s not enough to love one’s country; it’s not sufficient to give awards or applaud those who completed a task or performed a duty. While all the recognition is good and validates the efforts and intentions of the recipient, enough will only be enough when every citizen, young and old, regardless of religion, race or gender turns their expressed patriotism into active citizenship.
In our last election, a majority of registered voters did not vote. Why? In the latest research, Louisiana still has not reached the national percentage of high school graduation rates; an astounding number of our middle school students are still not achieving math and reading proficiency levels that will foster academic success. Almost half of our adults can be considered functionally illiterate. Our state is at the top in the nation for domestic violence, infant mortality rate, and childhood poverty. Poverty is creeping up on the once secure middle class, with higher unemployment rates, smaller trained workforce, and an industry of predatory lenders that preys on the financially strapped working poor. My wife, the director of the St. Landry-Evangeline United Way managed the recent FoodNet Food Drive for St. Landry Parish, and food donations were down by half – 4 tons collected as opposed to 8 tons the previous year – to be distributed to nine local pantries. While the need is greater, the contributions were lower.
How does this litany of ailments relate to patriotism? I’ll tell you. The strength of a country lies in an active, engaged citizenry – a citizenry that relies on each other to find solutions, to look out for one another, to offer more than sympathy or pity, but who reads to or tutors struggling students, helps train people for employable skills, who cooks a little extra for a neighbor in need, who studies the candidates and the issues to make informed decisions, who takes their freedoms and right to vote seriously, to join the neighborhood watch to help the police and see that crime goes down or doesn’t get a chance to take root.
While we wave our flags and proudly proclaim our patriotism, the country thirsts for the quenching rain of action and activism. Find a need, see if you have the capacity to fill it, the talent to share, the voice to be heard. When we couple our love of country with our willingness to engage, America will be “stood back up”.