PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Building Bridges, Not Walls

Over the past week, I have learned far more about the names of counties in Arizona, Georgia , Nevada and Pennsylvania than I ever possibly imagined. As election returns poured, or more like dripped in, I found myself transfixed, looking at returns, percentages and vote totals with what I’m afraid  became an obsession, until the race was called Saturday morning.

One of the things that struck me as I analyzed them was the extremes between vote totals for the two candidates and how they were reflected  between counties. Two counties that were right next to each other had variations, where one was plus 70 for Trump and the other plus 70 for Biden. The vast swaths of red and blue revealed divides that were even deeper than I thought.

Of course, I know that we live in two Americas. After all, I moved to deep-blue Connecticut from deep-red North Dakota;  from a rural community where we had three farm implement stores within the city limits of a town of 2,000 to a church in a very urban setting that is truly a food desert.

But even within those deep red and deep blue areas, there are people who feel distinctly out of place. I have friends in North Dakota who feel isolated, confused and alone because they can’t comprehend how people in their state literally voted for a man who died of COVID-19 in early October because he had R next to his name. I also know people within my mostly progressive congregation who are afraid to voice their political views because they are afraid of the response.

As a result, we pull further and further into our own bunkers, failing to be able to dialogue, discuss and find common ground that will help us heal the brokenness within our own country and join together to face the challenges in our world. During the past century, the United States has been a global leader. But when we are split in two, it is hard to muster our efforts to be focused on the common good.

I know there aren’t easy answers. But I also know that the only way forward is to build bridges and not walls, to find those things that unite us. The first step, I believe, is to acknowledge what is not acceptable. Racism, sexism, xenophobia and hatred of any kind is never OK. Tearing people apart by demeaning or demonizing them is unacceptable. In a nutshell, we need to accept that how we respond to one another should be predicated in the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Once that tenet is accepted, I think there is a way forward, and I believe that way can be modeled by the Christian community if we undergird ourselves with the words and actions of Jesus Christ as our model. If we seek to live out Christ’s call to judge not and love one another, we can help be a place of healing.

One of the best ways to do that is through personal relationships and honest, authentic conversation. This fall, 11 members of my congregation took part in Core Team training for the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance), which is the faith-based community organizing group of which Emanuel is a part.

Central to the training is something called a “one on one.” A one on one is a conversation with two people who are willing to meet to get to know one another, to hear each other’s stories and find out what is central to the way they developed their world view.

What happens when we engage in conversation and listen to another person is we learn more about them and what makes them tick. I agree with with Anne Frank that most people, at their core, are “good at heart.” When we get to the heart of the matter by engaging in one on ones, we find our commonalities, our shared values and ways that we can work together to move forward with mutual goals.

At Emanuel, we are going to be implementing more opportunities for this kind of encounter by beginning our meetings and our gatherings with intentional, one-on-one conversation wherever possible. Our objective is to build relationships so that we create a congregation where no one is a stranger.

The church at Corinth was a very divided place. St. Paul wrote at least three letters to them, two of which have been preserved, addressing divisions that appear to be as deep as the red and blue divide in our country. These letters can become prescriptive for us as we face our own divisions, showing us, in St. Paul’s word, a “still more excellent way,” which is how he introduces his most famous writing— the “Love Chapter.” (1 Corinthians 13) Love is truly the answer, Paul tells us.

He concludes his second letter by writing, “Finally, my beloved, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.” (2 Corinthians 13:11)

I think these words provide us a way forward that can lead to healing, even as we have differences. Healing is  born out of listening to each other. Through that listening, our goal is to find  a recognition of shared values, as we  lift up the dignity of every person, refuse to accept denigration, dismissal or hatred of “the other” and acknowledge that we are all children of God and deserve to be treated as such.

The pathway to that restoration is going back to our core values, our shared faith and embracing the fact everyone is created in the image of God. In other words, acting like the people of God we claim to be and talking to others as if we believe they have value and worth. When that happens, then the healing can begin.

I believe in a God who conquered the chasm between life and death, so why would it be impossible to do it with a red and blue nation if only we act like who we say we are.


Gracious and holy God, lead us from death to life, from falsehood to truth. Lead us from despair to hope, from fear to trust. Lead us from hate to love, from war to peace. Let peace fill our hearts, our word, our universe, through Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. Amen. (Evangelical Lutheran Worship Hymnal, Prayer for Peace, page 76)

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