There has been much talk about our divisions these last few years, but few have ventured to explore what healing them might require. What, actually, is unity? What isn’t it? Does repairing our commons require a papering over of difference, or do we actually need to get better at truth-telling, and, perhaps paradoxically, at disagreement? How do we see ourselves—as citizens, as individual moral agents—in the calculus of belonging to history, inheriting it and joining long currents of redeeming it?
A special film has just release that brings these questions to life, The Reunited States. The film follows several individuals: Susan Bro, who lost her daughter in the deadly Charlottesville protests of August 2017; Erin and Dave Leaverton, a white Christian couple who decided to travel in an RV to all fifty states to understand the origins and nature of our fault lines; Greg Orman, who ran for governor of Kansas as an independent and wants to shake up our binary dysfunction; and Steven Olikara, whose Millennial Action Project is attempting to seed a future of friendship and cooperation across the political divide. Through their interwoven narratives, you will at once recognize our distressed tectonics and find welcome in an invitation to risk.
Watch the trailer here to get a taste, and then, if intrigued, access the full film on Amazon and several other major platforms. Once you’ve done so, please enjoy the follow-up conversation we at Breaking Ground enjoyed with several of the characters — viewable in the video above. For those who prefer to read, an edited transcript is below.
Anne Snyder: Good evening and welcome back to Breaking Ground. I’m your host, Anne Snyder, and I’m honored to be able to welcome you to a special conversation tonight on the backs of a film that hopefully all of you have seen, called The Reunited States. It’s directed by Ben Rekhi, who I consider to be one of the more courageous, contagiously open-hearted filmmakers out there.
Before I introduce our panelists, I want to let you know that we’ve designed this conversation a little differently than previous Breaking Ground events. If you’ve watched the film, you know that it doesn’t deliver a dry treatment of our various national fault lines. It’s not a white paper, it’s not a think tank lunch. Instead, it delves personal, revealing the intertwined hot mess that is history meeting one’s own social coordinates and life experience, meeting politics, meeting unexpected, even unsolicited callings on individual freedom.
And it’s a mess, I think, that implicates all of us – our interior lives, our heart posture, our assumptions about reality and what we think the good if not common good is, our spheres of engagement in work and family and the neighbor and the nation – even as the film doesn’t settle for the easy scapegoats that simplify or the usual doom loops of shame and distrust. In peeling back the unsung courage of those who have felt so disturbed if not tragically wounded by the ferocity of our divisions that they’ve been led to break out of routine relational habits to try a different way, we see an invitation to our own journeys as human beings in this era, and for many of us at Breaking Ground, as Christians in this era. And it’s a journey that might involve loss, but simultaneously peels back the layers on a bigger, deeper truth. A journey that will be uncomfortable and full of risk, but one that is invariably the way of repair. Perhaps the only way of repair.
So in that spirit, I’d like to invite you, our viewers, to play a role in directing tonight’s conversation by articulating your questions in the Q&A function at the bottom of your Zoom screen. Of course, I’m an editor by vocation so I do have some themes in mind that I hope we touch, but I’m not going to commandeer it tonight; I’d really like to trust and surrender this evening to you, our audience, by helping us probe both the core perplexities this film reveals AND the viable pathways that might help YOU, ME and our panelists navigate today’s divides better, more wisely, and more effectively, even if there are some lost battles along the way. The goal tonight is to serve you, to awaken something different within you, and to spark a longer set of conversations that you’d facilitate in YOUR community on the backs of this film in the days ahead. So please take advantage of the Q&A button, and as I introduce our guests and give them a chance to speak to you directly, to type in your questions as they arise. You’ll be able to see one another’s queries and can press a “thumbs-up” on those questions from others that echo your own search or, perhaps better, articulate something you had only barely intuited, and I‘m going to represent those questions of yours that have the most energy around them as a kind of audience ambassador. In other words, if this were a church service, I’m going to be honing on where those “Zoom amens” accumulate in extra pronounced number.
So let me turn to our panelists now. Erin and Dave, you are married, you have three children, you have recently moved to Nashville – a new city for you – and you’ve had quite the wild ride since 2016. For all of us who have seen this film, we know a bit of your journey. But if you could, I want to ask you two questions to kick us off. First, why did division start to bother you SO much in 2016? What about it was so disturbing, even painful for you and your lives in Dallas?
And then, if you could, describe a bit of the journey that has continued for your family since you found yourselves behind a camera. What have been your thoughts and feelings watching recent events in particular, this 2021, as well as all of last year, on the backs of a year-long journey traveling to all 50 states and experiencing your own mini-conversion. Where are we finding your intuitions about everything, tonight?
David Leaverton: It’s a joy to be with you guys tonight. It’s humbling to be here. So, thank you first for thinking enough of us that we might have something useful to say to the folks who are on tonight.
To answer your question, I got really deep into partisan politics. For me, it was a war for the soul of the nation. It was the good guys versus the bad guys. The good guys were the Republicans, trying to save the country, trying to preserve freedom, trying to preserve the institutions that have led us to where we are today, capitalism and liberty and things like that, versus the Democrats, who were trying to tear apart the Constitution, legislate from the bench, and just change the country that we love so much, if you will.
That was really my mindset: it was good versus evil. I remember this one time, on a Sunday morning in Northern Virginia, Tim Kaine was running against a Republican governor candidate and I was working on behalf of the Republican candidate. I went to a church while the Sunday morning service was happening and put political fliers on the windshield wipers of the people while they were in church. The fliers talked about how evil Tim Kaine was, that he was going to kill all the babies if he was elected governor of Virginia, because he was an abortion guy.
I can’t believe I did that kind of crap. But when it is a battle of good versus evil, it feels like a win at all costs kind of deal. That was my mindset. Then working for Senator Corker, which was my last role in the political realm, I began to see that it was no longer good versus evil, that my side, the closer I got into it, was not a whole lot different from my enemy. I saw that the good guys were not so good, that the enemy was not so evil, and that we both, both sides of the political spectrum, both pieces of the machine of our politics, had a higher goal than the good of the country. It was a goal and a quest for power and control for re-election, and it became discouraging for me to see that we had moved from what I thought was a battle of good versus evil to serving institutions that were actually bringing our country to its knees.
…The United States Senate is the most dysfunctional institution I’ve ever been a part of in my entire life, and I’ve been a part of some dysfunctional organizations. It is so inept at doing basic stuff, it is absolutely broken. Leaving that after 12 years, it was so sad because I was a patriot, I was doing it for public service. So, for four or five years, we just stopped paying attention to the news and it was just glorious. We just checked out from it all.
But in 2016, what I saw was a new level of division that was beyond what I had been a part of before. The thing that I saw that was different was the violence. For me, before that point throughout my political career, it was disagreement. The Tea Party was a watershed moment when I was involved in the Senate. That was yelling, it was a new level of passion that I hadn’t seen before. They hated us most of the time. But I thought it was cool, because people were getting so… They were paying attention to how people were voting for the first time as opposed to just electing folks and trusting them and not ever seeing them again for another two years.
But what happened in 2016, was, all of a sudden it was no longer passion, no longer simply disagreement; it was, “I actually want to kill you, I want to see you bleed.” To me, that was a step down a road that I was like, “I can’t not do anything while I see fellow citizens wanting to kill each other.”
Erin Leaverton: That watershed moment for Dave was obviously a wake-up call, and that was when we began thinking about forming Undivided Nation, the nonprofit that was the vehicle (no pun intended) for our journey. From that point on, we decided that that was the only way to really find out about the root causes of our division, because we truly did not understand what was making people so filled with hate. So, we decided after some sleepless nights that we needed to do something pretty radical. We sold our house and quit our jobs and took our three kids who were very small at the time — two, five and six — on to an RV, and we lived our lives in all 50 states and just sat at the feet of Americans, very simply asking them why they thought the country is so divided and where this hate is coming from.
We had a theory that it was going to be a lot of conversations around politics and policy, and we very quickly found that this goes a lot deeper, and that this is rooted in the foundations of our nation, and really, it’s rooted in our hearts. That in our hearts, when I say our hearts, I’m talking about my heart, his heart, our collective heart. That was one of the most disappointing moments of my life. I had no idea I was going to find myself at the root of the problem. It was shocking.
David Leaverton: That’s good.
Erin Leaverton: It was shocking. That’s an important revelation, I think, that we all need to at least consider and ponder. But since our journey and since the film, we have continued our learning journey. We stopped working on an RV. But we took a year to live in Charlottesville, and we started a podcast, in which we felt very compelled to amplify the voices of the stories we heard across America and give them a chance to share their story with a broader audience, in an effort to find points of connection in our humanity.
We did that. I wrote a memoir of our journey and its impacts on me as a white evangelical. Then we dove into a very strange season where we lived in Hawaii for a bit to learn a little bit more about the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, which ended up being a crash course in learning about what it’s like to suffer from racism, which is a whole different topic.
Now, we are living in Franklin, Tennessee, and I’m continuing with Undivided Nation, and Dave is focused more on learning about and working in the realm of health equity, which was one of the biggest, darkest things that we found on our journey.
Anne Snyder: Thank you both. That’s very helpful. Let me now bring Mark to the fore.
Mark, I think of you as a justly celebrated, experienced mediator in all kinds of high conflict zones globally, but also in the U.S. Your 2016 book is the namesake for this film – The Reunited States.
But last week, on this the same stage, Breaking Ground had another event asking this very basic question: What is unity? Is it possible? Is it even good? I was curious how you would answer this, in the context of recent events, yes, but perhaps more importantly, in light of your own decades devoted to working in and across the crevices of divided peoples. What is unity, and is it possible? Is it good?
Mark Gerzon: Well, let me just segue from David and Erin by saying that, in 2016, I got a call from a guy in Dallas, who just listened to me talk about the book on Dallas Public Radio, his name was David Leaverton, and he said, “I’ve read your book, and I need to talk to you.” That’s how we met, and how I recommended them to Ben Rekhi to be part of the film. It’s not directly related to your question about unity, but it is in a sense because I’m connected to the Leavertons now. I wouldn’t be connected to the Leavertons otherwise. I don’t think we would have probably ever met.
What I like about this crossing the divide work, this bridging work is that you meet people and you encounter people who you never was otherwise meet. Is it full unity? No, but it’s definitely E Pluribus. I think I’ll answer your question, actually, by talking about the national motto for a moment, because even in the national motto, the answer to your question is E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one.” Whatever unity is, it’s got to include difference. It’s got to include difference.
Whatever unity is, it’s got to include difference.
I think that’s the key. I’m proud to be a citizen of a nation that has that motto. We don’t always live up to it, but I’m proud because there are other nations where you’ve got to be this religion, or you’ve got to be this color, or you’ve got to be this sect, or you’ve got to be this caste, or you’ve got to be this [other inherited characteristic] to really be part of the nation, and I’m proud of us for not doing that.
I know that’s not a thorough answer to the question, but I think it’s one of those words where, I’m just thinking of a pie. One pie can be cut into six or eight or 10 pieces. Is it still one pie? Yes. But I feel like, to me, because I’ve done so much global work around conflict, I did a lot of work in Africa and Asia in conflict as well as in the US, and this is not unique to America, this is a human, if I can say, spiritual problem.
The spiritual problem is: Where do we draw the boundaries of our soul? Where do we say we end they begin? Jesus and other spiritual figures have addressed that question. I think it’s really key. In fact, I’d ask everybody listening to this conversation is, where do you draw the line and say, okay, that’s where we end and they begin.
The spiritual problem is: Where do we draw the boundaries of our soul? Where do we say we end they begin?
From a divine perspective, all of
of life is interconnected, and we are all part of creation. But look at the way we behaved recently in this country. Clearly, this is a spiritual challenge, and I think that’s why people come together and pray together – because they’re trying to expand the boundaries of their love. We say God is love, I think because we think of him as infinite love. Well, I can tell you, my love is not infinite, but it’s growing. I would also ask everybody to ask themselves the question, what would grow your love? Would it grow your love to just be with people who fall in the political spectrum where you are? Or would it grow your love to go a little bit to your right and a little bit to your left and see who’s there? For me, it’s about growing love, and that’s probably as close as I’ll ever get to full unity – committing myself to growing love.
David Leaverton: Count me in for six Zoom amens to what he just said, if you’re keeping count there, Anne.
Anne Snyder: Yes!
Given what you just said, Mark, you invoke this notion of the spiritual nature of deep division. I think a lot of us feel that deeply – feel that actually in our souls – and we can’t always put words around how the boundaries fall or for those of us who believe in certain truth claims, and definitions of the good, we feel things, but it’s hard to travel 18 inches up.
I’m just curious if you guys wouldn’t mind reflecting a little bit on recent events. What were the first thoughts that hit you when you heard the news about this insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6? Were you surprised? Or was it more like – this is the natural outworking of what we’ve been witnessing for the last number of years?
Mark Gerzon: Yeah, I’ll go first, just because I can lead you up to 2018, and then you guys can pick it up from there. I worked with Congress in the late ’90s, designing retreats for the U.S. House of Representatives. More than half the members of Congress would go away together for an entire weekend in Pennsylvania. They’d never done that before. They did so because they knew there was a crisis brewing in the House of Representatives. They knew there was a crisis beginning in America, which is that the parties didn’t know how to work together.
That was 1996, 20 years before that moment that David Leaverton was speaking about a moment ago. I really saw the red light go on the dashboard of democracy that said, “Add oil,” and it said it in the mid-’90s, and we didn’t add oil. After that we had the 2000 election, which was contested between Gore and Bush, and then we had 9/11. We had the crash in 2008. We had all the racism and chaos around Obama being elected. We’ve had a hell of a 16-18 years since then, and I feel like we still haven’t added oil.
I feel like the people in the film and people like the Leavertons, and probably a lot of the people like those who are listening are people who are saying, we’ve got to add oil, and the oil is love, the oil is trust, the oil is respect, the oil is listening to people different from yourself. For those of you who watch the film, oil is what you see those characters doing in the film. These characters … they’re adding oil to democracy.
I’ll finish with an automotive analogy. Everybody wants the newest Tesla or the best car or the best engine or the biggest whatever. If you don’t have oil in your engine, if you have a piston engine, I don’t care how great your car is, it’s going to die pretty soon. And that’s what happened. That’s what I saw happen on January 6th. So if you don’t think the car was broken down yet, do you now? What do you need to think the car broke down? What do you need? Isn’t that enough? Five deaths, isn’t that enough? People raiding the House of Representatives and the Senate?
That’s the backstory. David and Erin, why don’t you pick up in 2016, 2018, because that’s when I think you, Dave were feeling when you called me that day from Dallas. I think you were feeling, “oh, this is really bad,” and that was five years ago now. It’s been going on for a while. Over to you guys.
David Leaverton: I think it was very predictable what happened on the sixth. I think we’re headed on a trajectory that is going from here to here, and there’s nothing happening that’s not going to take it to here yet. I think there are people, there are movements, there are organizations across the country that are seeing it and are beginning to work for it. But I’m not yet seeing something that’s going to move us where what happened on January 6 is going to seem pretty tame, to where we’re going.
How did I feel watching it? I really related to the folks that were storming the Capitol. I really connected with them, because what they were doing was, in their mind (and all that you have is what’s in your mind in your perspective, because you don’t know what you don’t know, this is your world, it’s your worldview) … What they were doing is they were doing a patriotic duty to save the country from one of the biggest thefts, and one of the biggest, I don’t know, just horrible events in the history of our country.
Erin Leaverton: They were trying to protect our democracy.
David Leaverton: Yeah, to protect our democracy. On the path I was on previously, I was on a path that would have placed me at the Capitol to rush it, to save the country from these people trying to steal it.
I have a level of grace and understanding for what they were doing, because I believe most of the folks in their hearts were trying to save the country. Not that what they did was acceptable, not that they should not be held accountable. Of course, the laws were broken and people died. But when you have a system in place across the country, and the participants in that system are the Republican Party, the Democrat Party, super PACs, cable news, social media, and on and on, when you have all of these entities fueling this fire, it will explode, and the next explosion will be bigger.
Just because Joe Biden won doesn’t mean that everything’s okay now, which is the same idea that just because Donald Trump won four years ago or whatever, didn’t mean all of a sudden that America had problems, or that America had a bunch of racist people in it or something of that nature. These problems predate both of those two men, and without something happening, and I think, Mark said about this oil in the engine being… Without a critical mass of Americans getting out of the car and saying, “We’re no longer going to do this, we’re going to pop the hood, and together, we’re going to put oil in this engine collectively as a nation.” I don’t know how the car makes it at this point.
Anne Snyder: Dave, thank you for that, it’s very brave of you to admit what you just did. If you had the opportunity, say, to find a group of these fellows 48 hours after the attack and just approach them in person, what would you say?
David Leaverton: What would I say? I think I would start off and say, I understand why you did what you did. I really can relate to it.
We would begin a conversation and I think we’d find out really quickly, is their hope in relationship, and in this conversation? The thing that would give me hope would not be, are they a far-right wing radical or not? The thing that would give me hope for the relationship going forward is, is their heart open to talking and to having a discussion? Or is their heart closed off, and there is no possibility of connection?
I found that the people who are so passionate about the political process, who are the biggest flag wavers on both sides of the aisle are some of the most closed-hearted people I’ve ever met. Their solution is still the destruction of at least a third of the country. How we win is by destroying the other.
I think there is a level of this bridging and unity and reconciliation that does require two willing sides, and frankly we’re just looking at present reality where a lot of folks are closed-hearted. I think we just have to move on and find somebody else who’s filled with hope. To me, I don’t get really caught up much in the right or left anymore, as I think so many of us have. Parts of us that lean right or lean left, and I don’t think any of us can be clearly defined or encapsulated with our full essence by a label of Republican or Democrat. It’s too small.
My hope is to find the open-hearted ones. Where are the folks coming to this with open hearts? I know there are people with open hearts who were part of that group on January 6. Because it’s easy to paint a whole mass of people based on the actions of a small number of those. As the folks who are part of the Black Lives Matter movement, who have gotten lumped in with a lot of looting and fires and destruction and things, that wasn’t the whole movement. I think the group that was at the Capitol, not all of them did what they did, and a lot of folks saw what was happening – the violence – and they stepped back and said, “This is not what I came here for.” I think we’ve got to realize that it’s not a monolithic group of people.
Anne Snyder: Erin, do you have anything to add to that, in Dave alluding to the pre-political dynamics at play here? You say in the film, “Our theory that American divisions are rooted in politics got totally blown up on the first day of our journey. We learned that our divisions, our political divisions, are more symptomatic of something that goes so much deeper.” Where do you see politics nowadays, in the context of this “something that goes a lot deeper?” What is this something that is so much deeper?
Erin Leaverton: Good questions. I think that the reason we find so much identity in our political affiliations is because we are searching for something that encapsulates, “This is who I am, this is what I believe.” But like Dave just said, and like Mark has told us in the past, we can’t define ourselves in these binaries. It’s unhealthy. It strips us of the beauty and the individuality that we each carry as human beings. You could line up a group of people that crossed the whole political spectrum, and I could go sit with each of them, and we can talk and connect in story, regardless of where we land on certain topics or issues.
The divide in our politics has robbed us of that opportunity. It has created an Other that is an enemy and someone to be defeated – not someone to get to know. I think Mark is exactly right about the timing of when this began, but it’s like boiling a frog: I think it’s happened very slowly over time, and we have slowly given ourselves and our true essence up in order to be a part of something that we think is big. But the truth is, who we truly are – our true essence – is the biggest and most beautiful thing.
It has created an Other that is an enemy and someone to be defeated – not someone to get to know.
If we can find our way back to that and start to shed some of the layers of identity politics – that’s a term that we use because it’s real – and find the interconnectedness that we share, and that is spiritual. I’ve been reading a lot about quantum entanglement, which Einstein wrote a lot about, and I found this quote. It’s beautiful, and it’s from a 17th century poet. I’ll share it with you: “No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
Those are very simple words, but they’re also very true. If we try to create the illusion that we’re only part of one little expression of humanity and everything else is unimportant and needs to be defeated, then we are cutting ourselves off from a piece of us. We’re robbing ourselves of experiencing the fullness of who we are, because we’re all a little piece of a puzzle.
If we want to get into what Jesus said, his final prayer was that we would be one, as he and the Father are one. That is an incredible thing to think about, to ponder, and even more so to pursue. Love is patient, love is kind, love keeps no record of wrongs. We have to figure out a way to hold people accountable without keeping a record of wrongs.
We have to figure out a way to hold people accountable without keeping a record of wrongs.
David Leaverton: Can I hop on that island thing? I thought that was good. I think what it feels like is we’re becoming these isolated islands in the middle of the ocean. Having lived on an island in the middle of the ocean for a while, it robs you of a lot. We no longer have the ability to go and put on a little flannel sweater and look at the fall leaves changing or something, and now that’s happening, I think in our country. We segregate ourselves into smaller and smaller groups of people who look and think and act and feel and have worldviews like we do, so we begin to live in these vanilla and safe worlds that seem really ideal.
Man, from someone who’s lived a lot of his life on an island in the middle of an ocean of the white Anglo Saxon Protestant, heterosexual, married male – man, there is so much life outside of that island. To bring people back together and away from these isolated islands across the world… there’s so much beauty on the other side is what I’ll tell my fellow tribesmen. Man, the rest of this country is absolutely spectacular.
Erin Leaverton: And I would say, just to add to that, that it’s not fun to live your life afraid of your other, just cowering in fear. Life is good when you’re not afraid of your other. Whether that’s your political other, or your racial other or your socio-economic other. Diving into someone else’s world – that’s where you’re going to find life, and it’s fun.
David Leaverton: But I’ll also say that some people have a reason to be afraid of their other. If you are living in Charlottesville, Virginia, and you’ve got people saying, “You’re not going to replace us.” That’s a level of fear that’s rational.
Erin Leaverton: Yes, yes. I’m just talking about what you’re doing, Anne, cultivating spaces of encounter and engaging the other is something I think we can try to cultivate in our spheres.
Anne Snyder: So we have a question here from those watching. This is from Laurel, and she asks, this is for you, Mark, “I’m struck by your thought that growing love is the key to unity, as well as the acknowledgement and acceptance of difference. I want this for America. What are your thoughts on how individual citizens of different faiths, beliefs and creeds grow such love?”
Mark Gerzon: Thanks, Laurel for the question. Well, I’ll answer her question by building on what Dave and Erin said, that I think we grow our love by opening our hearts, and that’s almost a cliché, a Hallmark cliché. But I think a lot of those people charging the Capitol were exactly what they’ve said – all they had was what was in their minds. We have words in the English language like heart and soul for a reason. Is our heart open, and is our soul alive and seeking?
The first national Poet Laureate who was a Native American woman, a woman named Joy Harjo, in one of her better poems, she says, “Watch your mind. Watch your mind so it doesn’t run away from your heart.” I think as a Native American, she looks at our culture and she sees a culture where our minds have run away from our hearts. We’ve left our hearts behind. That to me is the way we grow our love. To go to Laurel’s question, we grow our love by saying, is my heart open?
When Dave and Erin were talking about fear, we don’t want to be afraid of the other. If there’s a country in which the right fears the left and the left fears the right, and blacks fear whites and whites fear blacks, and everybody fears it, that’s going to close our hearts, and that’s disastrous for democracy. Because if we close our hearts, we essentially close our minds. That connection that Dave was talking about, where we’re not an island – what makes us an island? Well, getting caught up here, locked up in here with my view on, pick something that I’ve studied a lot of, pro-life or pro-choice, you get locked up there, you can start forgetting that your heart is saying, my heart beats for the mother making a tough decision. My heart beats for the fetus, who yearns to live. My heart beats for the family that loves them both.
You can still have your opinion about pro-life and pro-choice. But if your hearts are open, you’re going to deal with it so differently. One of my baptisms in this field, Anne, was of being very close to the people who did the five-year dialogue between pro-life and pro-choice women in Boston in the late ’90s, and it was a private dialogue that went on for five years. At the end of the five years, the pro-life women and the pro-choice women were still pro-life and pro-choice. The difference was, they were friends, they went to each other’s funerals and weddings. They didn’t call each other names, they had cleaned up their language so they weren’t calling each other foul names because of the position they held, and they’d actually started to explore how could they reduce unwanted pregnancies by working together.
To me, the notion that we don’t know what to do to grow our love… we know. People on this call know, we all know. The question is, do you have the political will to do it? The forces, as Dave and Erin were saying, the forces now that close our hearts, we’re in a Twitter-fed mental universe, in which it’s very easy to forget you have a heart and a soul. That’s why I’m delighted about the work you’re doing in this Breaking Ground community, because we need to bring the heart and soul back into public discourse, because it’s part of who we are as a people.
To me, the notion that we don’t know what to do to grow our love… we know. People on this call know, we all know. The question is, do you have the political will to do it?
The forces, as Dave and Erin were saying, the forces now that close our hearts, we’re in a Twitter-fed mental universe, in which it’s very easy to forget you have a heart and a soul. That’s why I’m delighted about the work you’re doing in this Breaking Ground community, because we need to bring the heart and soul back into public discourse, because it’s part of who we are as a people.
Anne Snyder: Mark, thank you. I want to yolk a question that has come in from someone named Rebecca, I’m just using first names here. Just this concept of heart and mind, coming back together, being integrated. I used to have an Ignatian spiritual director who would always talk about, I said, 18 inches up, but he would always say, “Go 18 inches down.” I would figure out how to connect these two. Rebecca asks, and I think this is on many people’s minds recently. It’s been building, I would say, the last couple of years, but it seems to have popped in the last month as we talk about a country that is yes, we’ve known for a while that there are at least two, if not many, many more Americans and American experiences, and that’s one thing.
I think still you can come to a tenuous unity, or at least peace with that, with some virtues and empathy, et cetera, that we’ve been describing. But now it feels like there’s something more troubling happening, namely, multiple realities. That truth is not just relative, but that we literally see… Even Dave’s describing his sympathies, in some sense, I think very humbly with those who charge the capital, that’s an ability to leap into it at a totally different, what we might call reality or set of convictions.
Rebecca asks a hard question, I think, and very salient right now. Do you believe that facts are essential? That embracing truth is essential before we can come to a place of real dialogue, where empathy and love can take root?
David Leaverton: I think some quest for this imaginary, universally understood and agreed upon fact is a waste of time. I think any attempts I’ve ever seen to try and like, “Well, we all just got to agree on this one set of facts or something like that.” I don’t see it. Here’s what I do see, is that I do not have to lay down my truth to welcome you and your truth. We don’t have to agree on facts to collaborate, to open our hearts to one another.
I do not have to lay down my truth to welcome you and your truth. We don’t have to agree on facts to collaborate, to open our hearts to one another.
There is not a single… I’ve never seen anybody who can truly say, this is the reality, this is the all-encompassing reality. We all just have the reality we think of. I think when we went on our journey, I truly felt I was a learned man, I was a well-rounded man, I had a true understanding of the reality of America. What happened as I went and opened my heart, and opened my ears to people, is I realized that my reality, my worldview wasn’t wrong, it was incomplete.
I think that’s one of the big things for us is that these people may not be necessarily wrong, they just may not have whoever that other is, they may just not have the perspective that I have with the background and the brokenness in my family. Maybe I’m alienated, whatever that may be, and this is my place to find community. I don’t think the quest for this shared reality, or this shared set of facts is going to be fruitful, I just would almost say, I honor you, and the fact that you come to the table with, and you believe are your facts, because it’s just their reality and their perspective, and have those, and I bless you and have those.
But if you didn’t come to the discussion, whether it be on one of these really divisive issues with an open heart, your facts and my facts can live together in the same place.
Erin Leaverton: I agree. I think facts are different from truth as well. I think coming together with our two truths allows us to shape a reality together.
David Leaverton: A deeper truth.
Erin Leaverton: A deeper truth, a more profound truth.
Mark Gerzon: When that happens, when two truths come together, I think it’s an invitation to learning, and I think truth needs to be married to learning. That’s where it gets exciting, and that’s where it gets like democracy. This democracy wasn’t perfect when we started, we’ve had to learn to improve it. I didn’t want to interrupt here, but I just wanted to say-
David Leaverton: That was good.
Erin Leaverton: It’s perfect.
Mark Gerzon: I think truth needs to be married to learning because if it’s not, it becomes what one of my mentors called freeze-dried. It’s freeze-dried truth. Think about any field, even science, the truths had not been stable in science for 200 years, the truth in map making, the truths in mapping space, the truths in medicine haven’t been… They’re not static. The first responsibility of a citizen in America, I said in the United States of America, is to be a learner, and that’s what the founding fathers… Back to you Erin, I’m sorry I interrupted.
Erin Leaverton: No, Mark, that’s exactly right. As you so eloquently put it, we were so obsessed with getting it right, making sure that the facts are right, and we’re missing each other because of that, we’re not seeing one another-
David Leaverton: More fact checkers won’t bring us together.
More fact checkers won’t bring us together.
Erin Leaverton: If I am standing in front of you, Anne, and I’m asked to describe you, and someone else is standing behind you and is asked to describe you, what we describe is going to sound like two different objects.
David Leaverton: Sets of facts, realities, yeah.
Erin Leaverton: But the fact is, we’re looking at the same thing from two different perspectives, from two different experiences. If I fight with the person standing behind you and refuse to accept what they see, then I’m refusing a whole side of you that I can’t see.
David Leaverton: To take poverty, for example. I can say how I looked at the policy aspect of poverty, and people living in poverty as a large amount of lazy takers from the government, living off of the government dole. That was my truth, because that was my perspective, if you will. Then I came with my truth with a curiosity that Mark talks about and stepped into a world that I thought I knew, and I all of the sudden learned that there was such a thing as systemic racism and that there were institutional-
Erin Leaverton: Injustices.
David Leaverton: … injustices that predated my grandparents, that had led us to this point of where we were today. I was like, oh my gosh. I just want to throw that out there, not just looking at Anne from the back of her head versus the front, but this is an example of how we do this today. If we’re going to have a policy discussion on poverty, we need those different perspectives so we can see it from its different perspectives.
Anne Snyder: Thank you, I want to tease out something that you all just inspired, and I’m also asking this as a way of threading the needle through some of the questions that have come in, in the last 10 minutes. Here we have Mark, who is I think, by both trade and deep vocation and charism is a deep root bridge builder. You all, Erin and Dave, I don’t know if you would call yourself bridge builders, but you were seeking to understand the other side of the bridge, or wall really, that you were living on a number of years ago.
I think we’re in a moment, especially with this new administration in the US, where a lot of talk about bridge building and that field around it that has cropped up. I’m very committed to bridge building myself, so I say this with some tentativeness, because I’m deeply grateful for the fact that this has become a more valued thing on some part of our civic life. But I think certain people say, maybe right of center here, coming from those of a more progressive set of mindsets and even more just the feel of what it is, they’re suspicious. They think it means that they have to somehow be converted and believe the same things.
We’ve talked about this in terms of defining unity, certainly last weekend, and then tonight, a little bit. I want to tease out a scarcity mindset versus an abundance mindset. What exactly are bridge builders for right now? Is it simply for societal survival, and kind of an uneasy, fragile piece that we have to daily so just to keep ordinary grace and normalcy? Or is it for a deeper set of truths?
How do we think about this in a national context? I think we have a lot of people watching who are part of churches and have a certain conception of unity, and peace and a deeply spiritual sense with their brethren, but how do we think about that, in this pluralistic society? What is bridge building for? How deep do the goods go? Any one of you can try to tackle that.
Mark Gerzon: A deep question to come to here at our end. I’m thinking of prayer, because as you were speaking about the question, I was thinking, I see bring building kind of like prayer. I was very disappointed when the Institute of Faith and Politics in Washington stopped bringing Democrats and Republicans together, not only for prayer, weekly prayer meetings, but also they would take them on journeys together to go visit sites to learn more about America together. They did together as Democrats… They would pray together as Democrats and Republicans.
I see bridge building kind of like prayer.
Why was I sad when that ended? Because I feel that when you pray together across the divide, you’re likely to be more in touch with God. You’re not praying to a partial God, you’re praying to a God together with people you differ from. When they say that… I think you said it when we spoke recently, that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. It’s like, when I’ve been in churches that are multi-ethnic, and multiracial and multicultural, and they’re singing hosannas, or praising the Lord – I just felt it now my body just felt a tingle because I think you can feel… I’ll use the Christian term the Lord, you can feel God more present when the hosannas are being sung by the multitudes.
I’ve been in some settings, Buddhist and Christian and Jewish and Catholic masses where I look, it’s like this band of humanity about this big, and sometimes it can be very moving too, but it’s a different experience. I would say to your beautiful question there, to me, bridging is for prayer. Bridging is to get us closer to our own hearts. Bridging is to get us closer to each other as human beings, and bridging is to get us closer to God.
If we believe in creation, and if we believe in God, then we have to believe that God created those people on the other side. Who created them? I never thought of this before. I really am grateful to the questioner because, to be honest with you, when I first heard the question, I thought, I don’t know what I’m going to say. After we close tonight, I’m going to be reflecting on what came out. Thank you, questioner. Thank you so much.
Anne Snyder: What do you think bridging means?
David Leaverton: The one thing that came to mind – I’m doing the best I can with sometimes these beautiful, elegant questions. So, I’m going to pick the piece of it that I felt like I connected with, instead of trying to grasp the entirety of what you’re saying. I went on this journey across the country in search of unity, and what I learned that it’s a whole lot harder than I thought it was, and it’s a lot more action-oriented than I thought it was.
I’ll give you an example. On our fourth state in Savannah, Georgia, I was reaching out to, just like we did, we’d show up in places and know nobody and just start cold calling people to try and have lunch or something like that. I reached out to an African American leader in the community who was 85 years old, and he had lived in Georgia, the deep south, for 85 years. So, you could imagine what life was like when he was born, pre-civil rights. He’s experienced Jim Crow, things of that nature.
Here comes me the, “Hey, I’m here. We’re on this journey across the country and we want to talk about unity, and we’re really excited about having a conversation to bridge the divides, and how can we have reconciliation between you and me, brother, and that kind of deal.” As I’m talking to him on the phone, I can just hear him audibly rolling his eyes, it was that loud. He was not connecting to what I was saying, which made me talk more. I was like, hey… he’s just not catching my energy, I’m the unity guy, I’m not one of those weirdos.
Then at some point, he just stops me and he goes, “David, even if I had time to meet with you, I don’t think I would.” I was like oh, that was honest. He goes, “It’s hard to be reconciled with somebody who has a boot on your neck.” I just sat with that in silence for a couple of hours, that conversation ended after that, and we never met each other.
I learned that unity is not walking up to a man who’s on the ground and has someone standing over him, oppressing him with a boot on his neck and talking to him about unity and forgiveness and reconciliation. That to him, unity is me walking up, doing everything in my power to get the damn boot off his neck so he can breathe again, doing anything that I can to allow him space to get up on his own or do everything I can to offer a hand to help him stand up again, and admitting that I’m probably pretty connected to the person who was standing on top of him with a boot more than I’d like to realize.
What did that boot look like? How did I benefit from that boot? How did I enable that boot? Then once he sees that I’ve gone through that journey in my life, then maybe we could start having a conversation about unity. But that’s a long way off.
Erin Leaverton: In light of that, thinking about the boot, I think, if I were to describe what I think bridging is, it’s an invitation for everyone out of the mindset of victimhood. I think a lot of the violence we’re seeing is coming from people who feel like… Let me say this, being victimized is real, and is important to acknowledge, but staying under the mindset of victimhood is very damaging for our soul. Because it does not… I’ve said this about anger, I think I’m going to say it about victimhood too. Those are both very important things, but they’re hallways we need to pass through. They’re not rooms we should sit in, because when we do, we cut ourselves off from one another.
Anger and victimhood are both very important things, but they’re hallways we need to pass through. They’re not rooms we should sit in, because when we do, we cut ourselves off from one another.
If you live in the mindset of victimhood, and this is not to diminish being victimized, but when we don’t call ourselves higher out of that into a powerful place of love and forgiveness and honor for the person who victimized us or for ourselves, if we ourselves were the victimizers, I think what we do is we cut off the opportunity for accountability, and we stay in a place of shame. Shame is not a room where love can operate. Love is patient, love is kind, it keeps no record of wrongs. We talked about this earlier. Shame will not allow for that because you’ve labeled someone and you’ve said, whatever it is you said or did is now who you are. Accountability is calling our fellow humans higher into their true identity and reminding them of who they truly are, which is not a label. You’re not a Republican, you’re not a Democrat. You’re Anne, you’re Mark, I’m Erin, you’re David.
Shame is not a room where love can operate.
We have this incredible opportunity to move past our wounds, process those together, and move into the place of seeing the good in one another. For me, that’s what what unity is, and I think that’s what bridge building is about – finding the good in one another.
Anne Snyder: That’s beautiful, all three of you. Thank you for that. I’m looking at the clock and I feel slightly imprisoned by it. I would love to keep talking to you for many more hours, and I know our audience would just love to probably be in a small circle with you listening and asking and working through things collectively. But just in the context of the time we promised, I guess you’ve answered this, but maybe as a way of sharing a last word with our listeners. There’s some level, I think watching the film, which we haven’t even touched on all the specifics. I wanted to ask you, Dave, how you felt when you had that lunch with Susan and her colleagues. Well, there will probably be future opportunities, and I encourage everyone watching, these folks are somewhat on a roadshow reflecting on the narratives that this film portrays.
But I think at some level, the film is both beautiful and it doesn’t leave anyone watching with easy pathways forward. In some ways, your journey on all 50 states, Mark, your years of doing this work, is there are no shortcuts. I think at some level, to be an honest person these days, or a person of some integrity is to be very, very genuinely humbled, if not confused on a daily basis. Even in that, even in our fears and tentativeness and whiplash between different points of view that can seem fierce, various stakes. In the midst of all of that, in this moment in time, what do you know to be true, or know to be a key to living tomorrow in light of where you have grown over the last few years on your journey, Erin, David and Mark, I think where you live and give every day?
If you could impart one, even a proverb to our listeners in the context of this very divided era across multiple fault lines, what would that be?
David Leaverton: Having lived in the D.C. world for a while, it’s easy to spend the majority of your time pontificating policy studies, grand nationally-changing ideas and movement and stuff. My proverb would be, is sometimes there are seasons to do that, and it’s important, but I think there are other seasons to love your neighbor who actually you drive by on the way to work. To actually put love and faith into action. That’s to put down 140-character Twitter comments. It’s putting down some of these things that have become part of our regular life, to unplug and to step into the brokenness that is everybody’s life and to allow yourself to authentically be seen by somebody and to be loved and to love.
Unplug and step into the brokenness that is everybody’s life and to allow yourself to authentically be seen by somebody and to be loved and to love.
I think that’s where my headspace is in, having spent so much time trying to write and lead and think of these ideas. I’m going like this right now. It’s like, how can I just be a member of a community and a man that loves his neighbor as well? I think, to me, that’s all I feel like I can affect these days. I think it’s not a bad way to go about things. So, there’s my proverb, it’s a really long one, it’s the message translation.
Anne Snyder: Erin, how would you match that, complement it-
Erin Leaverton: Honestly, I think the thing that has struck me so profoundly in the last few weeks is just this very simple phrase, consider others better than yourself.
David Leaverton: That’s so good.
Erin Leaverton: It’s so simple, and so profound. I don’t know that… I think the greatest teacher of that is probably children. I have three little people in my life, and Grace, in particular, our oldest who has Down syndrome has taught me so much about what that looks like. Jesus said, don’t look down on the little children, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can become like a little child can enter into the kingdom of heaven.
These are the most basic of concepts that I’m clinging to right now, and I’m realizing that they are more profound than the most complex concepts we could try and tackle. Dave’s narrowing it down, and I think I am too, to just every day to try and consider others better than myself, while I’m driving, whatever it is I’m doing, and to put that into practice in a real way.
Anne Snyder: Thanks, Erin.
Mark Gerzon: I’ll give my final word too. The black writer James Baldwin – because there’s been four white people talking about America and James Baldwin, I’m paraphrasing him. But he said, we are trapped in a history that we do not understand, and only when we understand it will we be released. That’ll be my closing thought. That’s why I go back to learning. James Baldwin was calling us, particularly white folks, but I think my black friends would say applies to black folks too, his literal quote was, white people are trapped in a history that we did not understand, and until we understand it, we will not be released.
I think that’s a message… To that, I quote Martin Luther King. James Baldwin was inviting us to become free, as white people to become free, and for all of us to become free. I’ll close with his words. Thank you, James Baldwin. Thank you, Anne Snyder.
Erin Leaverton: Yes.
Anne Snyder: Don’t put those two names in the same sentence. Thank you, Mark, thank you James Baldwin, thank you, all of you, and thank all of you watching. I really encourage you to tell your friends and others beyond your family about this film. Maybe it’s a prompt for unlikely conversations or hard conversations that you’ve been trying to have in other ways. There’s nothing like something outside of yourself to draw something from within yourself to spark a new way forward.
I just want to compliment the filmmaker, Ben Rekhi, but also all of you and then the other characters in the film for just trusting your stories to the world to see and to make something out of, and just thank you for sharing with our audience.
I want to say from all of us at Breaking Ground, again, we remain very honored to have you traipse with us through these topsy turvy challenging times that we’re in 2020, and now 2021, and with our writers and the community shepherds that are bravely lighting a more excellent way. We just look forward to trying to provide a different sort of compass than the binary choices that beckon and pressure all of us every single day, especially I think in the National Public Square.
We hope it’s a compass rooted in that 1 Corinthians 13 definition of love, in truth, hope and yes, probably a way of suffering and some form of deep surrender. So, we’re here for all of that with you and I thank you and wish you good night.