"In the balance hangs our city and the 180,000 people who call it home."
— Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke
Thursday afternoon's State of the City address by Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke certainly wasn't the one he'd envisioned giving as his last major pronouncement in eight years as the city's highest elected leader.
More likely he expected to be extolling the many advances the city has made during his tenure. Instead, with much of the city still reeling from the double whammy of COVID-19 and Easter tornadoes, he found himself giving us a pep talk — and a needed one.
He did touch on the city's latest accolades, but really only to provide a setting and give us a grounding: Our city is one of the best small cities in America, one of the best in the country to start a business, one of the best to visit, one of the best in which to live. And as a Forbes outlook noted in December, Chattanooga "would be the No. 1 place for new jobs in 2020.
The "would be" was before COVID-19 and tornadoes. But as Berke said Thursday, those positives are "all things true, then and now."
Lamenting the state's 195 coronavirus deaths, including 13 in Hamilton County, the mayor said we have more to do as not even 2% of Tennesseans have been tested for the virus. Yet what to do and how is more debated than ever.
"You hear one thing from [Tennessee] Gov. [Bill] Lee, another from me. On the nightly briefings, the president and his advisers contradict each other from minute to minute. In the balance hangs our city and the 180,000 people who call it home. Both our health and our pocketbooks depend on what happens next. Chattanoogans are watching the news, trying to make sense of it, worried that touching a door handle could lead to an infection — but also knowing that keeping a small business closed will cause tremendous financial hardship."
Berke reminded us of the story of the prophet Elijah, who hid in a cave when he "wore out his welcome" with people and made enemies. Then, according to scriptures, God asked Elijah what he was doing in the cave hiding and summoned him outside "to find me."
Berke related the story: "Elijah moves to the edge of the cave and witnesses a tremendous wind, then an earthquake, and then a great fire. But the story teaches that God wasn't in any of those things. Instead, he was in what came next — a quiet so still that Elijah knew: That is where God is. Then God asks again: What are you doing here, Elijah?"
Elijah left the cave and continued his work. And that — keeping on keeping on — is also what we have to do, Berke said. What's more, it's what Chattanooga and Chattanoogans have always done — even after a domestic terrorism attack, a tragic school bus crash, a long water outage in near-100 temperatures, tornadoes and now a global pandemic.
"Chattanooga isn't in the storm, and it isn't in the locked doors. Chattanooga is in the still, small voices — and actions — of our community, embracing one another as we're able and as we're called. ... This should not — it cannot — change just because we wear masks when we are out. A mask changes how we look, but we can't let it change how we see each other."
The mayor reminded us that we won't be remembered for the time we stayed in our homes, as necessary as that has been and still is.
"I am convinced we will be remembered for what we did next," Berke said. "Did our city take these twin challenges and rebuild upon them something new?"
He ticked off some possibilities: leveraging federal and state funding for roads and infrastructure and affordable housing, future-proofing a workforce shaken by the virus and its resulting economic downturn, and staying strong and safe by protecting our health and safety — no matter the naysayers.
"Our future is not in the storm. It is not in the locked door," Berke concluded.
"Our future, if we are brave enough to listen, is in the still small voice that asks us: What are we doing here? And then, the voice that answers within us: I am doing the next thing, whatever that is before me, to help my neighbor, my street, and my community to be the best Chattanooga yet."
It's a very good bet this wasn't a speech Berke ever expected he'd make. But it was perhaps the most important one he's ever made.
Good job, mayor. Good job.