Last weekend, I had the honor of speaking at a celebration of the life of Delaware native son and Ohio Wesleyan alumnus, Ezra Vogel, at the Memorial Church at Harvard.
Longtime residents of Delaware remember the Vogel name well. Ezra’s parents, Joe and Edith, both Jewish immigrants, met after arriving in the United States. Following their marriage, they moved to Delaware and opened the People’s Store, a clothing store in the heart of our town. During the Great Depression, the Vogels extended credit to anyone in need of clothing. Many remember times when individuals left the People’s Store with clothes that were provided with neither credit nor payment.
The Vogels’ son, Ezra, matriculated at Ohio Wesleyan following graduation from Delaware Willis High School. Upon graduation from OWU, he enrolled in graduate study at Harvard, where he received a Ph.D. in sociology. Ezra taught briefly at Yale, spent two years in Japan studying the structure of Japanese families, and then returned to Harvard, where he became one of the world’s preeminent scholars of East Asia.
Ezra mastered both Japanese and Chinese, published numerous books on both countries, wrote the definitive biography of Deng Xiaoping, and when he was 85, completed a book on the historic relationship between Japan and China. He was a teacher and scholar, an advisor to corporate leaders and top government officials, and like his parents before him, a friend to the people of Delaware.
Ezra established an endowment at Ohio Wesleyan that each year hosts a lecture on some aspect of local history. The Vogel Lecture bears his parents’ names. Ezra talked often about the importance of bringing together town and gown. Each year, he would return to Delaware for the lecture and for conversation with old friends and classmates, both on campus and in the town.
Ezra Vogel was a bridge builder.
As a teacher, he helped his students build bridges of understanding, as they studied East Asia through the multiple lenses of sociology, economics, politics and culture.
As a scholar, he produced work that helped build bridges among nations.
Here in Delaware, he sought to build bridges within our community.
We live in a time of profound division in our society. Politicians engage in vitriolic discourse with ever-increasing volume and ever-increasing vulgarity. The metaphors that characterize political discourse are more likely to be metaphors of fences and walls than metaphors of bridges and connections. Too many people spend time thinking about what makes people different, and how we should keep some people apart, and too little time thinking about our common humanity, and what should draw us all together. We point fingers of accusation rather than extending hands of welcome.
Sadly, these divisions are reflected in communities of faith. Communities of faith have become weaponized on both sides of the political aisle. Communities of faith can be found drawing lines of separation rather than imagining circles of love, with circles large enough to embrace with full inclusion all people. Communities of faith can be sources of fracture and fragmentation rather than fountains of healing and life.
We need bridge builders. We need bridge builders on the micro communities that structure our personal lives. We need bridge builders in public life who work to bring people together. We need bridge builders on the global stage that structures the future of our civilization and our planet.
We need more people like Ezra Vogel.