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Posted: November 24, 2008 5:00 a.m.

A gathering of neighbors

Well, it’s time to move on. But before we turn the page, I would like to congratulate all of the newly elected public officials throughout the county, state and nation. And of course, 145 years since emancipation, 100 years since the founding of the NAACP, 45 years since the March on Washington, 40 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., America’s 44th president is an African-American. How did this happen? As we seek to understand the new world, let’s review the making of this moment.

Last week’s accomplishments are the result of a cast of millions throughout the 232-year history of this nation. From slave abolitionists to civil rights workers, Tuesday’s results are a testament to great Americans who never lost hope in the principles written in the Declaration of Independence. However, when this historical election is accurately chronicled, credit must be given where credit is due — to the citizens of Iowa. Iowa, nestled within the American heartland with small-town mid-western values, is a major reason why 57 million Americans who voted for McCain were confounded by the results. Iowa has a population of nearly 3 million people. Approximately 95 percent of Iowans are white, while 75 percent are born-again Christians. They boast a 91 percent high school graduation rate, while consistently ranking among the top three states in SAT scores. Iowans also enjoy a $48,000 median income. Combine strong faith, with strong economics and strong education and it becomes clearer why this was the place that propelled the would-be President.

Let’s look back to Jan. 3, 2008. Iowans do not hold traditional primary elections. They caucus, coming together as "a gathering of neighbors" in more than 1,700 precincts, throughout its 99 counties. Citizens gather in churches, schools, libraries and community buildings in the most public of public processes. Through public discourse, Iowans used their faith, education and economic ideology to support the freshman senator from Illinois. Just as they had catapulted little known Georgia Gov. James Carter in 1976, the 2008 Iowa caucus has forever altered presidential politics and the very continuum of world history. In presidential elections, Iowa is not loyal to either party, having had voted for Gore in 2000 and Bush in 2004. In 2008, they gave President-elect Barack Obama a 9 point victory. A state that is 95 percent white used its faith, education and economics to nominate and elect our nation’s 44th president. With the help of Iowa, President-elect Obama went on to secure 43 percent of the white vote nationwide, more than Al Gore or John Kerry in previous elections. Yes, African-Americans over performed to nominate and elect Obama, but the ascendency of our 44th President resulted from a combination of black, Hispanic and white support — a truly American victory.

Iowa gave America hope that we could look past racial prejudice, internet rumors and partisan politics to make a God-fearing, educated assessment of a candidate’s virtues. This process began with "a gathering of neighbors" with the credibility, accountability and the integrity to look each other in the face prior to assigning political power.

Comparatively speaking, Georgia has 9.3 million people. 62 percent are white and 92 percent are Christians. Our graduation rate is 71 percent and our median income is approximately $43,000. We have more people, more people of faith, but less education and less income per household. What do they know that we don’t know? What do they do that we don’t do? They gather as neighbors. We gather into tribes, races and parties, which guarantee a narrow agenda and limited points of view. Every two years, Iowans caucus in advance of local, state and national elections. They engage in the public process of establishing a platform as neighbors. Their gathering of neighbors fosters mutual respect and a consistent search for common ground. Iowans are encouraged to work together for a common purpose, creating a true synergy of ideas to address community problems. The gathering of neighbors is an acknowledgement of the inherent interdependence of citizens within all communities.

I wonder what kind of progress we could make as a community if we were expected to gather as neighbors. The Bible instructs us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Likewise, Iowans teach us that there is no substitute for relationship and accountability. Our new public officials have a tremendous task ahead of them. As neighbors we cannot afford to simply watch them, but our love of country and community requires us to work with them.

I’m a native Georgian extending more than five generations. My children attend Georgia public schools. I love Georgia and always will, but today I’m looking up to Iowans. With all the labels that we employ to categorize people — liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, socialist, radical, extremist, Iowans begin with the label neighbor. Imagine what we could accomplish if Newtonians became neighbors. Well, we had a good start on Nov. 5 on the Covington square. We can raise our graduation rate, jump-start our economy and advance our community, but we’ve got to start by being neighbors. Let’s keep it up neighbor.

Eric Lee is pastor of Springfield Baptist Church in Conyers

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