If there is one aspect that all of us as Americans can agree on is that we are ready to put 2016 behind us. From the divisive presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. To the shooting at a nightclub in Orlando which targeted LGBTQ Americans. To the unjust deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile which illustrated the continued racism in our country and in our American judicial system. From the continued strain on Americans when it comes to the shrinking middle class. To the overall distrust, Americans have in their political and community leaders. 2016 has been a year of hardship and social injustice for many Americans. And the divisions in our country over our ethnicity, political affiliation, religion, and social class have added to this struggle.
A few months ago, I visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Il. While I have studied a great deal about Lincoln, I found myself really taken back by the struggle Lincoln, a simple country lawyer from Illinois, faced immediately after taking office on March 4, 1861. From a country deeply divided over slavery to the lack of opportunities faced by Americans, Lincoln’s presidency was focused primarily on keeping our country unified as the framework for our American democracy began to unravel.
It’s been suggested by many people that our country is as equally divided now as it was prior to the Civil War. While I don’t believe our country is as divided as it was in 1861, what we are experiencing now is a familiarity to what many Americans faced over 150 years ago, a brutal presidential election of personal attacks and an overall distrust in our country’s governance with a growing frustration that nothing is been done to address the problems we face.
While it’s not the purpose of this blog to discuss the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, I will share that I do have concerns about the social injustices many Americans are facing today and worry about them not being addressed by our next president.
But what also concerns me is the divisions which exist in our country over ethnicity, political affiliation, religion, and social class backgrounds. And it’s those divisions which we as not only Americans but those who are spiritual and civic leaders, must address.
Recently, my congregation hosted a “storytelling” event where individuals from the Champaign-Urbana community and members of our church shared true stories from their personal lives. Some of these stories were humorous and dealt with the discoveries of hidden gifts. Others were more personal and dealt with issues such as heartbreak and the struggle of identity.
However, regardless of what the story was shared, what I and many of those in the audience experienced listening to these 8 to 9-minute stories was a better understanding of the person who was speaking–even if we could not relate to them or their struggle. Because while we may not have been able to relate to their struggle, it was listening to these monologues that allowed us to experience life in the shoes of the storyteller, no matter how much our life was contrasted different from their own, and find some commonality with their struggle with our own struggle even if it was vastly different.
Concern over the ongoing social injustices and inequalities American are dealing with right now is the cause faith communities and civic organizations must dedicate themselves to addressing coming out of this election. But what is also needed in our country is an effort made by our faith communities and social organizations to provide spaces and opportunities for Americans to tell their stories of pain and struggle in an effort to allow Americans to hear what their fellow citizens are experiencing and perhaps find commonality and empathy in that struggle.
For the pick-up truck driving, white male country boys like myself, it’s listening to the stories of people who are people of color about their experience of racism and discrimination that we need to hear. At the same time, it’s the stories from blue-collar workers and the struggle it is for those in the manufacturing and service industry which need to be told, particularly upper-middle white class liberals and conservatives. For the person who identifies as LGBTQ+, it’s their story of struggle which needs to be shared to those who identify as being straight. And for the twenty-something American veteran just coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan, it’s their story which needed to be heard by all of us.
All of us as Americans have a story to share. And while all of us come from differentiating backgrounds, identities, and opinions, we need safe spaces for us to share our stories and a place where others can listen to them with the hopes that we can find commonality in our shared struggle regardless of what that struggle may be.
For those of us in the faith communities, it’s opening our doors a little wider and allowing people to share their stories while proclaiming a gospel of reconciliation and inclusive love for all people which needs to be done. Additionally, for those of us in Christian churches, we are called s not only to reach out to faith communities from Muslim and Buddhist traditions to have dialogue and create opportunities for sharing stories with one another. But we are also called to reach out to other Christian churches with differentiating theologies than us in an effort to find common ground.
The issues which our country faces right now and the divisions which have divided our country will not be resolved by any governmental program or congressional act. Nor will they be resolved within the next four years. And regardless of who had won the presidency last month, these divisions would have still existed.
But one thing is certain, we as a country and more importantly we as the American people, have an ability to begin the healing process in our country by taking the initiative in creating safe spaces for stories to be shared by those who are different from us and we have an obligation to listen to them.
For it’s through the sharing of stories that allows us, as Robert Kennedy once said, “to see each other as brothers (and sisters) and as fellow Americans once again.”