A Bigger Picture of Healing and Justice

My time in Rural WI

By Aviva Herr-Welber

A few days ago, I returned home from two whirlwind weeks in rural southwest Wisconsin and northeast Iowa with Resetting the Table, an organization committed to communication across divides in American life. As a part of a team conducting over 300 interviews in a 5-week span I had the opportunity listen to 25 people share their life stories, what matters most to them, and their greatest hopes and fears for our country at this political moment. The experience was humbling, energizing, and heartbreaking all at once. Humbling because many of the people I sat with have experienced so much hardship in their lives, and yet manage to find the strength to show up every day — for their families, their co-workers, and their neighbors — despite all the things that could easily stand between them. Energizing because every encounter forced me into complete presence with the person speaking, and sometimes I got to witness someone articulate a thought they’d never had before in real time, a deeply moving and almost joyful experience. Each person proved my expectations wrong in some radical way, whether it was because our life experiences seemed so similar on paper but our stories of “us” couldn’t be more different, or because I had assumed we shared nothing and yet felt an unexpected moment of connection. Heartbreaking because this journey made it clearer to me than ever that there are huge chasms separating people in the United States, and that in fact we have been living in completely different versions of this country for years and years, each with our own realities of “us” and “them”. So many of the experiences shared pointed, in one way or another, to this gap as a source of pain. At some moments it was hard to get through the interviews without tearing up at rawness and realness of this chasm in people’s lives.

I heard stories of incredible resilience, of loss, of anger, of faith and of outsiderness. I spoke to pastors who chose to vote for Trump in the last election because they felt they had no choice, teachers who went to bed dreaming of their first female president and awoke in shock, mothers and grandmothers who believe a Trump presidency can finally uplift their families after generations of economic struggle, and farmers and small business owners who see the system as so fundamentally broken that they could hardly bring themselves vote at all. I met two women from the same church with political views that were nearly diametric opposites, yet both were living out their social and political convictions through commitment to their church community. I heard visions for radical political change from the mouths of a Catholic priest, a high school student, and a trout fisherman. Nearly everyone felt that their political representatives were not truly representing them, and that career politics had replaced their urgent daily concerns in Washington. Over and over, people spoke of the way that money in politics has corrupted leaders and shifted focus away from real individuals and their basic needs. All expressed fears for the future of this country. All were pained by an inability to connect with relatives, friends, or neighbors with differing views. All defied the boxes into which political pundits and speculators from across the country have tried to shove them over the last months and years.

There were times during these weeks when people shared things so painful for me to hear that it was hard to keep listening. In those moments I remembered that this work never can, and never should be, about lessening or changing our commitments to the justice we seek in the world. It is about coming to know the others who share our world more deeply, and acknowledging that we can’t get much of anywhere without understanding what they care about most and what moves them. It is a part of a much bigger picture of healing and justice that this country needs.

I am filled with gratitude for every person who gave me a window into their reality and their heart over the last weeks. Their act of trust in sharing and my act of receiving created a holiness in time that I am carrying with me as I move forward. I am also so grateful for all my teachers and co-listeners on this journey, who showed me I could listen more and deeper than I ever had before, and were there to catch me at the end of a long day and head to Dairy Queen for some much-needed refreshment.

Tomorrow evening will begin Tisha B’av, a day when Jews cry out in mourning of the injustice, loss, and brokenness of our world. Our sages teach that the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem was caused by baseless hatred among people. A real and physical brokenness that remains irreparable, literally caused by breakdowns in human relationship. It’s a beautiful and also terrifying concept for this moment in our country and world. For me, it brings up questions of how to sit with brokenness that we or others are experiencing. How do we listen in a way that allows us to hear the divides that cut across the world around us even when all we want to do is shut them out? How do we navigate a dual commitment to justice and to healing of relationship with those who conceptualize justice differently than we do? What do we do when our neighbor sees something as fundamentally broken and we see it as fundamentally whole, and how do we begin to step into the space between us? How do we tell stories that connect us to that person across the table, or across the country, especially when they’ve never felt further away than they do now? I don’t have the answers yet, but for now I’ll stick with an insight that a pastor shared with me last week during our interview: Every time you share your story with someone and receive another in return, you come just a little closer to the truth. May it be so for each of us.


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