Thursday, January 20, 2005

Finding Faith in the Basement

Last year — while my state legislature was getting little accomplished and the national political candidates talked past each other — I was renewing my faith in this country. The feeling persists, despite the incessant polarized chatter and deep divisions that admittedly persist.

Looking back, I can see my impulse to get back across the divide shaped by spending time with people in places I once considered wouldn't-get-caught-dead-there foreign locales. Private golf clubs. Suburban town committee meetings. Greyhound depots. And, to illustrate with one example, church basements...

One week in September, I'd joined a friend on the last leg of his cross-country bicycle ride for Heifer International. In the process, I spent more time in church than in the past three decades, weddings and funerals included. Some might say Congregational churches hardly count, with extra points deducted for being in the basement, but my New England sojourn seemed exotic enough to someone who'd long ago wrung out his Catholic upbringing.

We spent our days simply, let them unfold slowly, and concluded each in a similar fashion — with a talk given in a small town church basement, then an overnight in the home of strangers. This last was not my idea of a good time. It seemed like a serial bed and breakfast nightmare, where you're the sole guests and the hosts have no sense of proper professional distance and expect you to say grace, to boot. Instead, it was mundane and glorious at the same time.

No one who took us in was swimming in prosperity. In two towns we stayed with retired couples. Another couple had left New York publishing jobs to raise their kids in a small town, then found their remote freelance work evaporated as magazines folded or cut back post-9/11. He was driving a school bus. She was helping out in the library. A teacher and her husband were enjoying their son's last year before college. The husband had lost his supervisor's job at the local utility and was brought back as a contractor at severely reduced pay. Another family insisted we stay an extra day with them rather than move to a motel for our last night in Maine. They were hosting a German exchange student, too, in a century-old house that was showing its age. Their daughter was dating a lobsterman who lived on an island.

Maybe our hosts were all too polite to talk about the war or the elections, but it also seemed possible they had other concerns. They were proud of their communities and busy with local improvement projects, but were far from parochial. Afterall, as supporters of Heifer, they considered ending world hunger a feasible undertaking.

Even if it wasn't realistic to see this world in the political campaigns, we badly needed a better reflection of its spirit. It's not that I've been politically asleep all these years or removed from my community, but I was not hearing many voices different from mine. While working and building a business, I had, as the phrase goes, other priorities. Over the past year, I found I shared with strangers more than I was able to imagine from my side of the divide.

Okay, maybe the gap between the Maine congregations and me wasn't all that wide. You want a true reality-TV-worthy challenge? Put up traveling fundamentalist legislators with gay biology teachers and civil rights lawyers. How will the country find what's still in common, besides platitudes, if we don't try a little harder to step out of our comfort zones?

The Bill of Rights started by spelling out freedoms of religion, speech and assembly, but didn't enjoin Americans to listen to each other. Today, as we face amendments proposing to restrict freedoms, the speech won't be in short supply. Though I expect a fight, I'll also be looking for ways to listen.

For another take on this, read Faculty Clubs and Church Pews, by William J. Stuntz, a Harvard Law Professor who sees more in common between the two places than you might imagine.


Blogger bob said...

The polarization of the last election made me very aware that I lead a sheltered life. The circles I travel in are so exclusively liberal that I've almost never been exposed to the thinking of the Right. Most of the gatherings I go to are left wing love fests, except at my wife's family where I've learned to keep my mouth shut. I have a couple of pals that are conservatives, but I usually just sit and nod at their ravings, not really engaging in discussion.

I think one of the reasons the left got so badly ambushed in the last election was that we spent so much time wallowing in our own self rightiousness. Our conviction that no one could be stupid enough to vote for Bush.


7:00 AM  

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