On Election Day, I received this message from a Republican friend: “We need for today to be over, and start healing as a country.”
I believe him.
President-elect Joe Biden says he wants to unify this broken country. I believe him, too.
I suppose I fit the definition of an “urban elitist.” My family and I have made our home in three different cities for 30 years, and have lived in Minneapolis since 1997. I am currently the pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church, a block from where George Floyd was killed six months ago. I know and love the city, despite its brokenness.
I married into a farm family from Mitchell County, Iowa, and we’ve always had one foot in that place. My wife taught in the Minneapolis Public Schools for more than 20 years. A few years ago, she founded a summer stock theater company that seeks to bridge the rural-urban divide by bringing a talented and diverse cast and crew of college musical theater artists to Mitchell County for a summer of exceptional theater, led by Twin Cities theater professionals.
I am learning some things about my fellow citizens who reside in rural America.
They really don’t care much about politics. Some do, most do not. What they care about is their local community.
They care about the world by first caring for each other. And they are OK not having a Starbucks on every block. They care about the Hawkeyes or the Cyclones. But not both.
If they are Republicans, it may be because they are conservative on any number of issues, or that they feel more understood — more heard — by that party. Or they’ve just been part of the cultural shift.
Most of them don’t really love Trump that much.
They are smart. They invest in their schools, demand excellence and expect that their high school graduates will have the same opportunities as every other kid in America.
They listen. The only way we will get past our divisions is to listen to each other. These people actively listen by welcoming and opening their homes to theater artists they have never met. Cross-cultural connections are being made and these people are leading the way.
The proof is in the relationships they maintain with the dozens of artists who spend each summer with them. After a summer in St. Ansgar, Iowa, it will be impossible for a theater artist who grew up in New York City to have a shallow, uninformed view of rural life.
Likewise, the Osage, Iowa, family who hosted a student of color from Houston for the summer will be the first to promote the value of listening for understanding.
If Biden really wants to unify the country after a contentious, close election, he will make communities like the one I know and love south of the border a priority.
The Biden administration will first recognize that people in rural communities are already invested in renewable energy like wind, solar and biofuels. Do they get a little funny about phrases like the “green new deal”? Of course. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to join in the battle against climate change — they’re just not willing to do battle against their neighbor who makes a living raising cattle.
They want fair prices and competitive markets for their crops, not bailouts.
Recognizing this, Biden could push for an actual infrastructure bill that invests as much in rural communities as it does in densely populated areas. That will include roads, bridges, broadband and renewable manufacturing, among other things. There is no better time for this than now — as a part of economic recovery — and no Republican with rural constituents will be able to oppose it. Good policy and good politics.
Liberals and progressives will need to take a pause and recognize the long game in which we’re engaged. Everything we do to address the looming challenges of our time — health care, climate change, racial justice, economic stimulus — must be taken seriously.
We would do well to begin with something that lowers the temperature. It may not end polarization, but it might help us envision a more unified future.
Thanks, rural America — I’ve been trying to listen.
Hans Lee, of Minneapolis, is pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church.