Khizr Khan tells me about the moment that his “love affair with America” began.
That moment occurred long before he and I sit together talking before an audience of more than 1,000 people in the sanctuary of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church on Indianapolis’s far north side.
It happened long before he gave his now-famous speech to the 2016 Democratic National Convention that prompted Donald Trump to go on a tirade, attacking Khan’s Muslim faith, marriage and patriotism.
It came long before Khan’s son, U.S. Army Capt. Humayan Khan, died in combat in Iraq in 2004.
It took place in the early 1970s, when Khizr Khan was a young law student in his native Pakistan.
He opened a textbook comparing constitutions from around the world, he says as the crowd sits spellbound. The first founding document he saw was from the United States, our Declaration of Independence.
He was “astounded,” he says, that a people could declare independence. He kept reading. He plowed through the declaration and moved on to the U.S. Constitution.
He was so absorbed by the words and ideas that he didn’t think to sit down. He realized he had kicked off his shoes as he stood because his feet had begun to hurt.
When he finished reading the Constitution, his “love affair” with the United States began. He knew he wanted to build his life here – that he and wife, Ghazala, would raise their three sons in America.
It was freedom that enraptured him. The notion that people could govern themselves and that a Bill of Rights – what he calls protections for “human dignities” – would keep a majority from becoming a tyranny inspired him.
Saving the money to move to the United States took the Khans nearly a decade. Once here, they built a life, became citizens and raised their sons to love this country that nurtured freedom. They taught their boys that they owed a debt to the nation that provided them with liberty.
That is why their son Humayan served, the elder Khan says.
And that is why the father, who says he is a private man by nature, now speaks about preserving the rule of law and the dignity of the individual. He says he only does what his son would do if he were still alive.
I ask Khizr Khan about his lapel pin.
It is a Gold Star, given to those families who have lost someone to military service.
“No family wants to be Gold Star,” Khan says, his eyes tearing and his voice breaking.
He takes a moment to compose himself.
The reason no one wants a Gold Star, he says, is that everyone would prefer their sons, their daughters, their brothers, their sisters and their spouses be alive and safe.
Nonetheless, he says, he considers it a “privilege” to wear the pin, because it means his son and his family honored their debt to this country with blood and grief.
I ask Khan if, given the calumny that greeted his convention speech – the insults to his family’s and his son’s sacrifice – he ever felt betrayed.
If he ever felt this country he loves so much let him down.
He pauses and says that, yes, at times at a human level, it can be hard to deal with the wrath he encounters.
Then he offers a response grounded in his faith.
He says his grandfather taught him that God is to be found in the human heart. The way to honor God, Khan says, echoing the 13th-century poet and theologian Rumi, is to be a river to those who are thirsty.
It is to meet contempt and anger with kindness and compassion.
He loves America because it is here that he can best honor God. Khan says there are Muslims many places in the world, but they come to the United States because, thanks to the “human dignities” the Constitution protects, they can practice Islam here.
That, he says, now echoing Abraham Lincoln, is why America is “the hope of the world.”
As he says this, Khizr Khan’s head is bowed, as if he were in prayer, and his voice trembles.
His love affair with America, it seems, like his God, has a home deep within his heart.