A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from a complete stranger. He was traveling all fifty states with his family. He was in Vermont and wanted to meet with me to hear the story of my life and my work.
I soon realized that if we were to meet, I was most interested in hearing his story. Here is what I knew from our brief correspondence. A successful political consultant for conservative Republicans, he realized that maybe he had done his job too well; that the politics of division may have helped win many elections but this approach also led to a corrosive sort of politics dominated by fear. This dawning awareness, along with a courageous dose of self-reflection and prayer (he and his wife are devout Christians), led him and his wife to quit their jobs, sell their house, and leave their comfortable life in a small, white, middle class Texas town. They packed up an RV and set out on a yearlong journey with their three young children. Undivided Nation was born. David and Erin had a big goal. They hoped to understand the political divide and figure out how to bring unity to the nation. Their journey has taken an unexpected turn. More about that later.
So, would I talk to this guy? Of course I would. First, though, I needed him to know something about me. If I was going to invite this stranger into my home, I needed him to know that I have a wife, not a husband as he might expect. I e-mailed the invitation and waited. I didn’t hear back right away. I wondered if maybe his brand of Christianity just couldn’t accommodate the reality of my life. It was a painful waiting, a fear of being rejected before ever being seen and known.
The next day, though, the response came through, and David accepted my invitation to come to our home the next day. I would make us lunch.
Over a two hour period and grilled cheese sandwiches we talked. The words couldn’t come fast enough. Hearing the story of David’s transformation was beautiful. He began Undivided Nation with the thought that he and Erin were going to listen carefully to stories of the political divide and figure out ways to mend it. That’s not the story that has unfolded. Twenty-four states in, David and Erin have heard stories of a terrible divide; a divide that has had a profound impact on people’s experiences, their prospects for success, whether they and their children live or die. This is not the political divide they expected to learn about, but the racial divide in our country. David’s exposure to these stories, stories he never heard in his white, middle class bubble in small town Texas, jeopardized his lifelong view that America is the land of opportunity; that anyone can succeed by the “bootstrap” method of hard work and determination. Through careful and courageous listening, David and Erin are learning how the racist systems our country was founded on have created significant obstacles for many brown and black Americans.
Unlike David, my life circumstances exposed me to people of diverse backgrounds and experiences from a young age. In fact, I have been a student of these systems for many years. If you take the time to look, you can see the legacy of hundreds of years of laws, policies, practices, and attitudes that were foundational to our country’s beginnings, and have continued in various forms over the years to perpetuate the status quo. The racial divide is harsh, profound, and in stark relief in our current national consciousness. It is laid bare by the country’s reaction to our first black president and the rhetoric and actions of what some refer to as our first “white” president.
If you love this country and believe in the promise of our founding documents, our present reality is almost unbearable to come to terms with, especially for white Americans like me and David. If I am honest, I have to admit that at times I continue to cling to the mythology of America; to romanticize our progress despite ample evidence to the contrary. This is a dubious luxury that people of color don’t have. The reality isn’t just around them, it is impacting people of color directly, daily. Even though it is tempting for white people to turn away from this reality, it seems as if an awakening is occurring among many white Americans. We are helped along on this path by a plethora of insightful books, podcasts, blogs, and videos.
Once we realize that the systems designed to disadvantage some of us, end up disadvantaging all of us, aren’t we compelled to take action to change the status quo? The next question becomes, what sort of action should we take? So much needs to change. For David and Erin, Undivided Nation is their unique contribution.
Without David’s journey, I wonder if he would have accepted my invitation to meet me and see my ordinary life with my wife. We are all so much more than the characteristics and systems that are used to divide us up. Until we sit down across from each other and share our stories though, how will we ever know?