Not long ago, an evangelical minister and his teenage son visited me at the JFP offices. We sat in the classroom, under the watchful gaze of Emmett Till from a movie poster on the wall, and talked about being inspired to live a good life. The dad is well known in the state for his very conservative views and, well, I'm not.
The son came armed with several powerful questions for me. My keys to a consequential life? "Service." "Mentoring." "Each one teach one." "Living amid diversity."
Best three decisions I've made? "Leaving Mississippi; volunteering for a newspaper in New York City that focused on social justice; coming home, bringing what I'd learned."
Mistake? I told him I don't dwell on mistakes because every wonderful thing that has happened to me resulted from my biggest mistakes. But I had one: not visiting family more.
Three books, other than the Bible, that have changed my thinking. I settled on: "Living Buddha, Living Christ" by Thich Nhat Hanh, which taught me that good faith is good faith. Second was "Hodding Carter: Reconstruction of a Racist," that showed me how much journalism on your own little postage stamp matters. Third, I talked about "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" that showed how much wider the struggle for racial freedom was than the southern Civil Rights Movement, and that studying the radicalism of X, ironically, helped me understand the complexities of my own state better.
Then he asked for the biblical passage that I consider my "life verse." Easy; I repeated the one printed in big letters on hot-pink paper and taped above my desk chair. Proverbs 14:31: "Be in solidarity with the poor."
It's easy to say you care about the poor, right? That's why I like the idea of "solidarity" so much. Merriam-Webster defines solidarity as "unity that produces or is based on community of interests, objectives and standards."
There's more to that idea than dropping pennies in a Salvation Army bucket or other forms of charity that only go so far. Solidarity means a dedication, a commitment to working toward changethat is, to not only feeding the hungry, but working to prevent them from being hungry in the first place and inspiring them to teach the same to others.
It took me a while after volunteering for that little Manhattan newspaper in the 1980s to figure out that we can stand and work in solidarity with the poor, the larger community, and even those we disagree with in many ways, not just by scooping stuffing at a shelter on Thanksgiving Day. My chosen path to that goal is creating media and conversations that matter, connecting diverse people, and teaching and helping others to do the same.
Having dialogue that matters is often tough to do, especially in divided times. We are just now emerging (I pray) from a period of deep divisionyears when some politicians encouraged other Americans to question our faith, our morality and our patriotism if we disagreed with their political views. If we questioned a bad war, we were un-American. If we asked why young people of other nations hate us, and what we could do to change it, we were traitors. If we said we wanted a few of our tax dollars to help other people, we were socialists or communists.
Those efforts, in turn, forced the attacked to attack back. I certainly did it. It was hard to understand that not every member of a political party was unsavory just because its loudest members were worshiping at a bad altar.
This kind of division needs to end before we destroy each other, our country and our planet. The television ads that falsely accused good people of horrible things that made broadcasters rich even as they tore the fabric of decency must stop. The belittlement of people who care about other people must end.
But it will only stop if everyday Americans reach across partisan lines for understanding, even as we speak out against outrageous assertions of cruelty, whether against Americans or other human beings.
It's not easy. The other night, I was talking to a conservative I'm trying to build bridges with, and he declared that the U.S. should have nuked parts of the Middle East (Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia included) right after 9-11. Another participant in the talka good Baptistjust walked out, believing further dialogue was useless with someone who would say such a thing. You can see his point.
I, admittedly, raised my voice a little. I was near tears because I am tired of one "side" existing at such a place of uneducated cruelty, and of more moderate views being falsely "balanced" with the kind of bloodthirst that will, inevitably, make things even worse.
But I didn't walk away. Once I calmed down a bit, the two of us sat down and started talking and listening to each other.
I often have to remind myself that people don't know what they don't know. And they often repeat ugly sound bites that have been said by political entertainers so often that they don't sound so shocking any more. If we don't challenge the ugly stuff, they don't even hear themselves say they want the U.S. to murder millions of people in pure revenge. If we do challenge them, it might get a tad heated.
But heated and uncomfortable are better than what we've been through in these past years. We can no longer allow politicians to convince us that there is a good America and a bad America, and that there is a serious gulf separating us. We allow that at our peril.
We must start seeking dialogue about issues we don't agree oneven the tough ones like abortion. The truth is that regardless of our views on whose version of morality trumpsthat of taking a life after conception, or that of saving one from an unwanted existencewe can all work together to reduce unwanted pregnancy in a variety of ways from birth control to ensuring that young people have fuller, service-oriented lives. If we will.
Sitting with my young visitor and his dad in my classroom, I realized that we had so much in common. The son, like so many of the young people I encounter, seemed to glow at the mention of serving others.
When he asked his last questionfor "one piece of advice to me if I want to lead a life that changes the worldԗit was clear that his question was so much more important than my answer could be ("be mindful and stay in the moment"). And the fact that his father brought him here to ask me that was an act of faith I could only hope to match.
It told me in no uncertain terms that more binds us together than tears us apart.