Is America headed in the wrong direction? Should we brace for the end of civil society?

These are questions that have been on my mind, as well as those of many Americans, while I’ve been living and working in Washington, D.C., with interns from Brigham Young University during the past eight months.  

During that time, I’ve had the privilege of talking with U.S. senators, congressmen, ambassadors, diplomats of foreign nations and media representatives. Strife, partisanship, worrisome inflation and a lengthening war in Europe give ample cause for concern.  

However, I have found hope among the general public in the streets of Washington. Less often showcased are the realities that Americans support courageous causes, admire the accomplishments of others and embrace excellence. If our country is to move toward unity, we must exemplify these principles that embody the spirit of tolerance.   

This is the brief story of my walk down one American street, D.C.’s M Street, which has renewed my faith in American society.  

M Street is really no different than any other avenue in the nation’s capital. It does, however, represent a ribbon in time that winds through the nation’s history as well as the highest aspirations of its citizens.  

From the west, the C&O Canal, built in the 1830s, connects with the avenue proper just down the hill from the soaring gothic spires of Healy Hall on the campus of Georgetown University. It extends in this telling toward another educational institution, Howard University, a storied historically Black university in the Shaw District’s Georgia Avenue.  

It’s not too difficult to find courageous causes that Americans have embraced along the way. Just past the Francis Scott Key Bridge, we find the Forrest-Marbury house, where General Uriah Forrest and sundry local patriots regaled the new nation’s president, George Washington, with a special dinner in 1791. Many among Forrest’s circle had provided land for the establishment of the District of Columbia.  

What of the fate of that building over two centuries later? Today it is blanketed in fresh cut yellow and purple-blue flowers, expressing support for the nation whose embassy now occupies the building: Ukraine.  

Stuffed toys remind that children have been caught in the conflict. Poignant messages from Americans and thoughtful citizens around the world grace the steps.  

Not too far up Wisconsin Avenue, which veers off from M Street, an empty Russian Embassy stands behind an emphatic message scrawled in chalk on concrete, “SURRENDER PUTIN.” Standing not too far away is a makeshift street sign reading “Zelenskyy Way.” Indeed, Americans embrace worthy causes.  

Farther down the street, between 14th and 15th avenues, stands the spiritual anchor of M Street, the nearly 150-year-old Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church. Consolidated from two previous African American churches, including one that served as a way station on the Underground Railroad, today the church provides spiritual guidance for its members, as well as support for civil rights.

Pastor William Lamar IV pointed me to the church’s “towering theological (and community based) tradition,” born in the aftermath of Reconstruction, which continues to succor its members as well as fight for voting rights which he believes “were more secure in my parents’ generation than in (our) own.” Pastor Lamar ties the mission of the church to its geographic location, squarely in the historic Black Shaw neighborhood, where the likes of Ida B. Wells championed the dignity of all men and women, among other notable civil rights advocates.  

Second, M Street epitomizes Americans’ penchant for recognizing the accomplishments of others. We do this is a number of ways, including how we behave as consumers. Back on the west side of M Avenue, nestled a few blocks up Wisconsin Avenue, we find L.A. Burdick’s Chocolate Shop. Ajane, an enterprising young African American barista, proudly served up the world’s certifiably “second-best” dark hot chocolate in the world, whose soaring, bright notes balance perfectly the robust body of a recipe perfected in the United States.  

Toward the eastern end of M Street, Mexican American Alfredo Solis opened his third Latin-themed restaurant, Mariscos 1133. While we enjoyed his take on Peruvian ceviche, which he explained to us included a creamy fusion of the Peruvian condiment, aji, with a Mexican touch of habanero chiles, he told us that he came to the United States 22 years ago and continues to transit the Americas, bringing back the best of the hemisphere for his highly successful trio of restaurants. Solis is an American success story.  

Finally, Americans continue to embrace excellence and beauty. In truth, this is the greatest manifestation of tolerance, when we move beyond mere acceptance to wholeheartedly appreciate those pearls of creativity that we discover within all Americans.  

We find a fitting example of this just off of 27th and M Street, where a retired University of Chicago professor, John Ulric Nef, and his wife, Evelyn, established a home and sanctuary for art. As much as they cultivated a taste for fine sculptures and paintings, they also developed friendships that brought out the best in their acquaintances. One of these individuals was none other than the Belorussian (the present-day location of his hometown of Liozna) Marc Chagall.  

Chagall so appreciated their friendship that he endowed the Nefs’ backyard with a 17-by-10-foot mosaic composed of 10 Carrara marble plates, covered with countless tesserae in myriad colors that tell the hopeful story of refugees and the muses of creativity, titled “Orphee.”  

The unusually optimistic tableau now sits in an inconspicuous clearing on the northwest side of the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden. It is only this author’s guess that the cheerful four onlookers on the bottom (facing) lefthand of the mosaic are none other than Chagall, his wife and two children. The larger group of immigrants represent those, like Chagall, who made their way to safety during the monstrous German Holocaust.  

The overwhelming ensemble calls to mind the words of the biblical apostle Paul, whose charge might well describe what we as a nation pursue when we see the Judeo-Christian values that support our society:  

“(W)hatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

Ultimately, if Americans can limit public corruption (through elected good men and women to office), tame contention and step up cooperation, we should be hopeful for the future. Indeed, Americans, like those in all these stories I found on M Street in the nation’s capital, support worthy causes, recognize excellence in others (even in the marketplace), and embrace all that is good, if they are given a chance to heed their better angels.  

Evan Ward is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University where he teaches courses on world history.