They joined hands across the table, lowered their heads, and each said a brief prayer over their eggs and sausage, thanking God for the food and seeking his blessing on their time together.
When they finished, they uttered “Amen” in unison, then smiled at each across their booth at the Perkins in Golden Valley.
“We ‘Amen’ each other a lot,” explained Robin Hickman, nodding at her breakfast companion, Al Quie. “There’s an ease between us.”
For the past four years, the 53-year-old African-American social activist and the former Republican governor, who turns 93 this month, have met regularly, to pray, eat and talk.
“We approach this table in the spirit of listening and loving,” said Quie, Minnesota’s oldest living governor. “Then we carry our fellowship out into the world.”
While the pair would appear to have little in common, they have a shared concern about paralyzing social issues — the achievement gap, racial disparities, prison reform.
The ebullient Hickman met the reserved man she calls “Governor Al” in 2012 in the ornate chamber where he once presided. They were both in the Governor’s Reception Room to attend the state’s commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation’s 150th anniversary. Quie was invited to the podium to make a few remarks.
“I said, ‘All mankind came from Africa. We must speak the truth. We enslaved our ancestors,’ ” he said.
As soon as he was done talking, Hickman approached him and asked for his card, saying she’d like to talk to him again.
“He tells me, ‘I’m in the book, give me a call.’ I said, ‘For real? If I leave a message, are you going to call a sister back?’ ” Hickman recalled.
“He laughed that wonderful laugh and said that of course he would. I called him later that day and we set up a time to get together.”
At that first breakfast, their conversation leapt from topic to topic. Before they knew it, more than two hours had passed. That feeling of instant companionship led them to set up another breakfast, and now their routine meetings have become what Hickman refers to as “sacred time.”
“I read about activists, and being with Robin, I think I can understand what makes them tick,” Quie said. “If you don’t listen, how are you going to learn?”
“Amen!” Hickman said.
Quie’s interest in racial equality dates to his childhood. His grandfather, who bore the name Halvor Kvi when he arrived from Norway, settled on the Rice County land where Quie was raised. Inspired by Abraham Lincoln, the young farmer recruited other Norwegian immigrants to volunteer to fight in the Civil War. He was wounded at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland.
Although the Union veteran was dead before Quie was born, young Al grew up contemplating the family legends of his grandfather’s bravery.
“I heard how he faced all those rifles on the other side. I was still a little boy when I asked myself, ‘What was it about slavery that was so evil that it caused him to endanger his life?’ ” Quie said.
His grandfather’s principles informed many of Quie’s public positions, he said. As a state senator, he voted to establish the Fair Employment Practices Commission, Minnesota’s first effort to halt workplace discrimination. During his 20 years in Congress, he enthusiastically supported the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and founded a prison ministry with other congressional colleagues.
Hickman, who has created youth mentorship programs and an initiative that connects theaters and communities of color, has her own pedigree. She’s the daughter of Bobby Hickman, a longtime St. Paul community activist and founder of the Inner City Youth League. Her great-uncle was famed photographer Gordon Parks.
Hickman, who emerged as the keeper of his legacy, produced a documentary about his groundbreaking work and is involved in the Gordon Parks Memorial proposed for Landmark Plaza in St. Paul.
That relationship with Parks gave her the keen ability to identify a distinguished elder as a kindred spirit.
“I spent long hours talking with Uncle Gordon,” she said. “It would be easy to be in awe of him — or of Governor Al — but neither of them allow it. That’s not the purpose of our time together. With both of them, I’ve gone deeper than I could with other folks. Both made me feel affirmed.”
Through a lens of faith
Hickman said she’s going to vote for Hillary Clinton. Quie plans to cast his ballot for Donald Trump. But the two don’t spend much time discussing presidential politics or the divisive themes that have emerged from the campaign.
Instead, they explore facets of their shared Christian faith. Their conversation is punctuated with biblical references and personal revelations from their daily devotions.
A lifelong Lutheran, Quie grew up attending services conducted in Norwegian. Hickman’s forefathers founded St. Paul’s oldest black church. Raised in a Pentecostal home, she is now a practicing Methodist.
“Even with tough issues, if you use a faith lens, there can be no hard feelings,” Quie said.
Their friendship has its lighthearted moments. He’s taught her his corniest Ole and Lena jokes; she schooled him in taking selfies. Earlier this year, Quie showed up at the opening of the gallery show Hickman curated with her multicultural doll collection. Hickman met Quie’s extended family, including his five children, 13 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, at his 90th birthday celebration, then saw them again at the funeral for his wife, Gretchen, last year.
The World War II vet and the baby boomer express gratitude for the mysterious and irresistible pull of friendship that binds them. Both admitted they have acquaintances who appear mystified by their relationship, but Hickman said that what they’ve developed “could be a beacon” for others.
“I can be disheartened and weary, but when I’m driving over, I anticipate blessings that will come from our time together,” Hickman said.
“I ask progressive folks, ‘Who is in your network of friends who isn’t like you?’ The only way we can understand each other is to have a relationship with each other.
“That’s where everything starts.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.