It is Aug. 27, 1979. As I’m eating my usual breakfast of a banana, milk and two chocolate-chip cookies (yikes), I pick up the Des Moines Register. The headline reads: “Pope coming to Des Moines.”
Amazing! This was less likely than the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.
I’m a young principal of St. John High School in Independence, Iowa, with an even a younger staff. What could we do to get as many of our students as possible to see Pope John Paul II on Oct. 4, 1979?
“I have a crazy idea,” I said in a staff meeting that morning. “If you don’t want to do it, the idea dies in this room. If you want to do it, it will stretch us to the max. How about walking in pilgrimage 150 miles to Des Moines with our students to see the pope?” At noon, the teachers were huddled around a map, discussing the route to Des Moines over county roads.
Next I called an emergency school board meeting to get approval for the pilgrimage. Members were divided. Rather than argue about safety, sleeping arrangements, routes and other issues, I invited them to reflect on our deep story: Why does the school exist? Who is Jesus Christ? What does he call us to do? How do we maintain our Catholic identity?
They finally gave their unanimous approval.
After walking 150 miles in five days, 80 students, six teachers, two nurses and I were ushered to the front of 340,000 people in Living History Farms. The crowd knew us. They had seen us on national television. The media called us the “Holy Strollers.”
Fast forward to Feb. 9, 2017. A crowd of about 70 people gathers at a local restaurant to discuss “A way forward for a divided nation.” It’s a mixed group of men and women, young and old, gay and straight, liberal and conservative, and Christians, Muslims, Jews and those with no religious affiliation at all.
They come at the invitation of four men — Ken Ford, Paul Sannerud, Robert Olson and Jeff Lokken — who named their group “.be.” Its concern is the polarization in our country. Per its mission statement, “.be. desires to provide a place for all people to enter into authentic conversations of the head and heart and to seek common ground with others.” It values “storytelling rather than opinions, active listening and exercising inclusivity and nonjudgment.” For information, go to Facebook and search .be.
After a free meal of bread and soup, Sam Scinta, a political science lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and Viterbo University, gives a presentation on “We the People: A Way Forward for a Divided Nation.” Without using the term “deep story,” he invites us to go there.
He reads the beginning of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He invites us to begin our small group discussions by naming the values that we all share — that is, our deep story. He states, “There is more that unites us than divides us.”
This gathering is the third time that “.be. ” has invited a cross-section of the community to discuss topics that polarize us. The topic of the first event was “Do Muslims, Jews and Christians worship the same God?” I was blessed with a great group: an evangelical Christian who had fought in Iraq, a Methodist, a Jew, a Muslim and me, a Catholic. We discovered that the deep story of all of us included compassion for the poor, the sick and the stranger. In other words, the Golden Rule.
While we certainly had theological differences, our deep stories were much the same. We talked openly and listened without judgment. As our discussion concluded, one person said, “I hope we could all get together the next time.”
On Feb. 10, I drove to Independence, Iowa, for the funeral of Ralph Weber. He and I had differences of opinions about some things, but we were great friends because our deep story was rooted in the person of Jesus Christ.
At the funeral dinner, I visited with students I hadn’t seen for 35 years, and we reminisced about our pilgrimage to see the pope.
I remembered one of the lessons learned. Some students planned better than others and had a carefully guarded supplies of Icy Hot, Ben Gay, moleskin and energy bars. Others suffered because they planned poorly. After a difficult third day, the students decided that if they were all going to make it, they needed to organize a common pool of all their supplies, open to everyone. That became part of the deep story of their pilgrimage.
Will the United States survive our polarization? It depends on how many of us connect through our deep story.