The rules call for every floor session of the Legislature to begin on a note of grace.
A prayer, a meditation, a moment of silence.
In the middle of a pandemic, when the crowds at the State Capitol are at a bare minimum, it falls to the lawmakers themselves to open each session with a few good words in these bad times.
“The Legislature is not like it used to be,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who served as stand-in chaplain this week and opened Tuesday’s session with his favorite prayer, the Lutheran Prayer of Good Courage.
“Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.”
This is the time of year when the Capitol is supposed to be a crush of lobbyists and protesters and students filing through for end-of-the-year field trips. It’s supposed to be noisy and messy and stupid and wonderful.
The new normal at the Legislature is empty hallways and masks and desks so far apart some members end up in the upper gallery. It’s remote hearings and remote votes, even though everyone is in town. It’s caucusing on Zoom (zaucusing!) or by phone (phaucusing!)
Winkler picked a prayer of consolation for lawmakers — “busy, noisy, outgoing people” now isolated and faced with impossible choices; and for the legislative staff who field call after call from constituents who aren’t sure how they’ll pay rent, pay their medical bills or save their businesses.
“People are most comfortable when things are controlled, known, expected,” Winkler said. “We are now asking people to take the psychological leap into unknown, uncontrolled, unexpected — and to keep functioning. And do so in a way that denies them the most basic thing we want to do, which is to gather.”
Some things don’t change, and House rules still set the order for each day’s work: gavel, invocation, Pledge of Allegiance, roll call.
“It’s a time for some patience, for unity and most importantly for hope,” said state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who took his turn as substitute chaplain in mid-April. “The verses I chose were justifying why we should all have hope for the future.”
Finding the right words was unexpectedly nerve-racking, he said, but he settled on a verse about suffering and hope from the first epistle of Peter: “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that is the will of God, than for doing evil.”
It felt like a violation of a fundamental Minnesota taboo, he said: Don’t talk about politics or religion.
“I was really nervous about it,” he said, but he pulled on his maroon and gold University of Minnesota mask, highlighted 1 Peter 3:13-17 in his Bible and took on the temporary role of masked chaplain. “I put a lot of thought into what would be a meaningful message that the people of Minnesota could respect, but would have particular relevance to House staff and House members.”
Garofalo spends most of his days fielding calls from constituents, debunking misinformation on social media and trying to answer questions like: Why is Walmart open but I can’t go to church?
The Capitol, he said, is “a ghost town.” Everything is virtual or digital. Situations that might spark partisan fights and grandstanding floor speeches bump along smoothly now, because keeping things civil is the only way to keep things moving. And Minnesota needs the Legislature to keep moving right now.
For some Minnesotans, the shutdown is a nuisance. For some, it’s an existential threat to the business they’ve spent their life building. For some, it may be the thing that saves their life.
“It’s important to recognize that and keep working collaboratively together,” Garofalo said. “This is a pretty tough situation we face.”