In the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va. there’s a special display for a rickety, home-made aluminum kayak. This tiny, makeshift boat seems oddly out of place in the midst of displays for impressive Navy vessels and artifacts from significant battles on the sea. But a bronze plaque tells museum visitors the story behind this kayak’s heroic makers.
In 1966, an auto mechanic named Laureano and his wife Consuelo decided that they could no longer live under the oppression of Cuba’s totalitarian regime. After spending months collecting scrap metal, they pieced together a boat just barely big enough for two small people. Then Laureano jury-rigged a small lawn mower engine on the back of the kayak.
After months of planning, on a moonless September night, sitting back-to-back and wearing only their swimming suits, they set out in the treacherous Straits of Florida. They had only enough water and food for a couple of days. Finally, after they had floated in open water for over 70 hours, the U.S. Coast Guard found and rescued the couple just south of Alligator Reef Light in the Florida Keys.
Was it worth the risk to find freedom? Laureano thought so. Years later, he said: “When one has grown up in liberty, [you] realize it is important to have [freedom]. We lived in the enormous prison which is Cuba, where one’s life is not worth one crumb. Where one goes out into the street and does not know whether or not one will return to one’s home, because the political police can arrest you without any warning and put you in prison. Before this could happen to us, we thought that going into the ocean, and risking death or being eaten by sharks, is a million times better than to stay suffering under [political oppression].”
In reflecting upon the life-changing importance of freedom to this couple, I am reminded of the willing sacrifices that our forefathers made for our nation’s independence. As we approach this year’s annual celebration of that independence, it is always helpful to recall the price that was paid for the freedom we enjoy. On July 4, 1776, the final draft of the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the 13 colonies in the Pennsylvania State House. The representatives who attached their signatures to the document knew that the cost would be high. The individuals who signed that document paid a great price – every one of them – for their commitment to that cause which we so smugly enjoy today. The men who committed their signatures to that document during that fateful summer in Philadelphia forfeited their futures, their fortunes, their families for the cause. We all know about the Thomas Jeffersons, the Benjamin Franklins, and the John Hancocks, who penned their endorsements to the bottom of that document. But there were others, and perhaps none sacrificed so much as New Jersey delegate and signer Abraham Clark.
He gave two sons to the officer corps in the Revolutionary Army. They were captured and sent to the infamous British prison hulk afloat in New York harbor known as the hell ship “Jersey,” where 11,000 American captives were to die. The younger Clarks were treated with a special brutality because of their father. One was put in solitary and given no food. With the end almost in sight, with the war almost won, no one could have blamed Abraham Clark for acceding to the British request when they offered him his sons’ lives if he would recant and come out for the King and parliament. The utter despair in this man’s heart, the anguish in his very soul, must reach out to each one of us down through 200 years with his answer: “No.”
The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence proved by their every deed that they made no idle boast when they composed the most magnificent curtain line in history. “And for the support of this Declaration with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” We should always remember what they did to gain our nation’s freedom lest we take for granted that precious commodity. Liberty never comes cheap.
But as precious as that document is, and the freedom and the commitment it represents, the fact is that our lives were never intended to be lived in independence, but dependence – dependence upon God who made us, who has blessed us as a nation and as individuals. Though not all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were followers of Christ, they all agreed to the principle that we as a nation are dependent upon God for the preservation and protection of our freedoms. Only in recent years has the concept of the “separation of church and state” become a constitutionally-debated issue. It was not something that was in the minds of those who signed that document that changed our lives so drastically.
The nation whose God is the Lord is a nation that will receive and retain the blessing of the Lord. It is the heart of pride which somehow suggests that we as individuals and as a nation can live our lives independent from the One who created us, and who gives us life and breath each and every day. Pride always goes before a fall. Check your heart today and ask God if there is any pride that is encouraging independence from total trust in God.
Have a great Independence Day, and God bless…
Chuck Tabor is a religion columnist for The Times-Gazette. He also serves as pastor of Port William UMC.