PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Bridging The Gap

I have a conundrum.

Everyone who knows me is aware that I am a dyed-in-the-wool progressive.

I wrote my first political letter in 1969. I was 5. It was to Richard Nixon, suggesting that the Vietnam War was not a good idea and perhaps we should get out of it. A self-starting child, I addressed it on my own, to President Nixon, White House, Washington D.C., put a stamp on it and mailed it, unbeknownst to my parents. As my father was not a citizen of the U.S. at the time, it created quite a stir in our house when I told them. But what are you going to do? Like I said, it’s in my blood.

However, I have also served as a pastor for over 26 years in largely conservative areas. Although my sons attend the university that epitomizes the liberal elite, I have not ensconced myself in the ivory tower or isolated myself among those who share my views, creating an echo chamber.

I cannot, no matter how hard I try, demonize everyone who is not on the same page as me politically. Because I know it isn’t fair, accurate or right. I know many of them to be decent people, with good hearts and kind souls who, when faced with realities of flesh and blood humans with struggles and heartache, respond with compassion. I know it because I’ve seen it.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I am also fully aware of people who are vindictive, greedy, mean-spirited, divisive,and who desire to push their own agenda regardless of the human cost as long as it benefits them personally.  And the price we are paying for that.

But I also know that the only way we can bridge the gap in this society is to move beyond seeing each other as caricatures, with name-calling and labeling, and try to connect with the humanity that is within each of us.

The truth is, elections have consequences. If I wanted to, I could spend every minute of every day sounding the alarm, lifting up concerns and decrying abuses of power. I could fill my Twitter and Facebook feeds with articles that echo what disturbs me. And to be honest, I am grateful for some of my friends that do because it keeps me aware.

At the same time, I want to be in dialogue with those with whom I disagree. I don’t want to shut down the conversation by creating so much noise that I am not able to engage and effect change. The Scriptures tell us if we “don’t have love, we are nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). I want to engage but do so with love.

At times, I wish I could ignore the whole thing. I know many people hate to see politics on Facebook — but I have always been, as evidenced by activism at age 5, a political animal, so it really is an intrinsic part of my being.  Besides, I agree with Martin Luther King Jr. when he said ,“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Hence my conundrum. What do I do now?  As I seek to respond to policies that I think are unfair, behavior I find abhorrent and a normalization of discourse that quite frankly terrifies me?

I have been able to balance my politics for years in both the parish and my personal life. I have many dear friends, relatives and parishioners with whom I vehemently disagree on a host of issues, but for whom I have the utmost respect. And who I believe also respect me, the sincerity of my convictions and the depth of my faith.

I have never preached “politics” but rather justice, mercy and love. And I guess that is where I find my way forward, as I deal with this conundrum. To continue with what has served me well in the past, even if the way forward is entirely uncharted territory.

I will speak truth to power. I will call out abuses of ethics, transparency and common decency. I will decry bullying behavior, promote civil discourse,and advocate for accuracy when prevarication becomes the rule of the day. I will draw comparisons to history when they are appropriate because those who do not remember the past are indeed condemned to repeat it, as Santayana so accurately concluded.

But above all, I will seek to humanize and not demonize.

I am a storyteller at my core, so I want to paint the pictures of the people who are not merely statistics but individuals whose lives are impacted by what is transpiring in America today, not focusing on those whose views I oppose but rather on those who are affected.

  • The Muslim refugees to whom I teach English, who are faithful, strong and funny and who are abused simply because of the clothes they wear.
  • The child of a friend who is on Medicaid because of her medical issues, whose future literally depends on a system being in place to provide for her needs, whatever it is called.
  • The homeless man who was a victim of a series of bad luck and unfortunate circumstances, whose suitcase spent a few weeks in my office so he could have it safe, until he found a way to get permanent housing, thanks to programs that will soon be in danger
  • My GLBTQ friends who live in fear of being forced back into the shadows, or my black friends who live with the reality that their rights can be ignored without consequence.

Maybe I’m naive, but I need to believe in a nation that still cares about its core values and people who support those values, no matter where they are politically. And if I can tell some of those stories and share those of others who are doing the same, and in so doing, magnify what is happening in this world, I will do it.

Because, like Anne Frank, I still believe people are good at heart. And if we cut through the rhetoric and tell the stories, that people will care. And if people care, and it becomes personal, that they will act on the side of justice, mercy and love.

As has been proven true again and again in our history, change happens either when good people do nothing or when they act. And I want to be on the right side of history.

3 thoughts on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Bridging The Gap”

  • Joanne Wieland January 10, 2017 at 9:27 am

    Thanks for humanizing and clearly speaking to what is happening at this time in our nation. It is difficult to know how to respond. For me to remain silent is not an option but I desire to join with many people in talking about what I see and why I become angry and I will try always to speak the truth based on facts and reality. I know it is important I build relationships with people who are not my color, my religion, my culture or who I strongly disagree with. It will give me understanding and help me decide the direction of my actions. I support you and ask for your support. Please continue your stories and building connections.
    Peace, Sr. Joanne

    1. Paula V. Mehmel January 14, 2017 at 9:36 pm

      Thank you for your comments. I also support you–we have to have solidarity.

  • Helen Murphy January 10, 2017 at 11:07 am

    Well done. The world could use more people with a good heart and kind spirit you have. Keep up the good work.


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