The American Flag: A Friend’s Story

The American flag that Betsy Ross created continues to inspire freedom, courage and an eternal desire for a more perfect union.  Each time I am present for the Pledge of Allegiance, I silently give thanks for the countless people who have given life and meaning to those stars and stripes.

photo (12)On January 1, I affirmed my oath of office as a trustee of the village of Ossining.  To mark the occasion, my husband gave me an American flag that now hangs from our front porch.  The decision to post this iconic symbol at our front door came following deep contemplation.

I recall my grandmother putting her American flag out on the pillar of her front porch in the morning and bringing it in at night or when it rained—as is the respectful manner with which patriotic Americans treat the flag.  My grandmother was a Scottish immigrant married to a World War II veteran.  She was not a Quaker.  I am.

For the benefit of my non-Quaker readers—Quakers are the Religious Society of Friends, and we call ourselves simply Friends.  For the record, I’ve never seen any actual quaking during worship.  I attend the Chappaqua Friends Meeting.  We worship in communal silence, occasionally interspersed with messages shared by Friends who feel lead to speak.  Though Quakerism was founded by devout Christians, a meetinghouse displays no cross or deliberate symbols of any kind.  Quakerism is a religion of contemplation that guides our actions.  We are perhaps best known for our testimony of peace.

I find it delightfully ironic that the American flag, the symbol of patriotism that leads our troops into battle and is embroidered onto every soldier’s uniform, was designed and created by a Quaker.  Even if Betsy Ross had not been “read out” of her meetinghouse because of her inter-faith marriage, she later would have been for her willingness to support the Revolutionary War.  There were many Friends who supported that war.  They were shunned, and it was in this group of Free Quakers that Betsy Ross again found her spiritual home.

As a Friend who strives to live my values, I do not have one standard of truth for my daily life and another for my responsibilities as a citizen or an elected official.  That lack of integrity would separate me from my soul, from the light within me, and from my community.  To paraphrase Matthew 5:37, I seek in every circumstance to let my yea be yea, and my nay be nay.  In the daily language of children, I encourage my young sons not to “pinky swear” even about something that seems super duper important.

At the Tuesday evening board of trustees meetings we begin with the Pledge of Allegiance.  During these opening twelve seconds, I stand with my hand on my heart, looking at the flag, wordless.  My silence during the pledge, as well as modifications to my inauguration ceremony, are subtle and usually go unnoticed.  I do not seek to question the actions of others regarding oaths or pledges of allegiance.  However, I regularly check-in with myself to ensure there is consistency between my beliefs and actions.

At my inauguration I stood with my hands at my side, no bible, no swearing, no mention of God, and affirmed my intention to uphold the oath of office.  I find it amusing that my actions that day, which were guided by my faith, were most often noted, even celebrated, by atheists and went largely overlooked by others.

So, if I interpret the Quaker value of integrity to mean that I will not recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, what do I do during those 12 seconds at the start of every meeting?  It so happens that my assigned seat on the dais of the board of trustees is directly beside the flag, so I have an up-close view of it.  As I look at the stars and stripes, I often think reverently about our founders and our fighters—including our soldiers and our activists.  I am grateful to all who give of themselves to ensure that others maintain the precious rights the flag represents.

I sometimes think of Betsy Ross—patriot, entrepreneur, Quaker.  Betsy had an impressive career running an upholstery company, often as a single woman as she was widowed three times—twice as a result of the Revolutionary War.  It was only a few months after the death of her first husband John Ross, that Betsy was visited by a secret committee of the Continental Congress.  George Washington, at the time head of the Continental Army, was part of that secret committee.  He brought with him a rough sketch that included a six-pointed star.  Betsy grabbed her scissors and a bit of cloth and deftly demonstrated her technique for cutting the five-pointed stars that emblazon our flag today.

On Monday I will march in a Memorial Day Parade for the first time since I was a Girl Scout.  This time I’ll be walking alongside fellow elected officials.  And although I love political debate, Memorial Day is not about political discussions of war, or whether the decisions we make, or often fail to make, might prevent war.  It is about honoring the individuals who sacrificed themselves for the dream of this nation.  As I wave to the Ossining residents who line the parade route, my thoughts will be of the those who have fought under that flag designed by George Washington and Betsy Ross, including the families who sacrifice for our nation today.

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