While rehabbing homes in Tennessee, our group was based in a school with volunteers from two other out-of-state churches. We headed out each day in our smaller teams, reconnecting in the evenings for dinner, devotions and lines at the showers. We sang and worked jigsaw puzzles. On our final night, we shared the Eucharist.
For much of our trip, we lived largely disconnected from the larger world. Late in the week, a friend checked her phone for news, and I saw her face fall. Bad news from the Supreme Court. We were alarmed and disheartened.
Not everyone I held space with that week likely would have agreed. Our coincident experiences did not necessarily extend to politics.
The struggle is real as I try to reconcile my abhorrence for policies like separating families at the border with the conviction that those with whom I disagree are also God’s beloved children. To be better people tomorrow, we cannot ignore the suffering today, but what does better look like if we can't get along?
Among groups working to help bring people together across the politics dividing us is Better Angels, a national organization with a local presence. Founded in 2016, the group takes its name from a line in Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, speaking to a nation on the verge of civil war about “the better angels of our nature.”
The organization strives for leadership equally divided between people who are politically conservative and liberal. It includes among its principles that citizens will try to understand different points of view even if they cannot agree with them, that they will look for common ground and ways to work together and that they will support political ideas and leaders that unite rather than divide.
Duane Beck, a retired Mennonite pastor and the Better Angels state coordinator for North Carolina, said that volunteering with the group felt like a natural continuation of his work in mediation and reconciliation. Growing division and bitterness are impacting families, friendships, churches and businesses, he said.
“People are looking at each other as evil rather than having a difference of opinion,” Beck said. “We need more people willing to come to the table with their strongest argument and a willingness to listen.”
Better Angels offers highly structured community workshops to break down stereotypes and build communications skills. In additional gatherings, people with different viewpoints discuss topics like gun rights or use of force by police. All of the work takes place with a trained moderator, like Beck, present as a guide.
Local alliances can continue after the initial workshops. In Wake County, Traci Griggs is part of a group in the early stages of forming an alliance.
“We’ve all said we have lots of other things we could be involved in and we’ve all set other things aside to make this a priority,” she said. “There are those who use fear to achieve their goals, and it’s not good for our society. We’re allowing ourselves to be manipulated into hating and distrusting each other.”
The focus of Better Angels is not on everyone coming to agree on an issue. Griggs said it is about sitting across from one another and realizing that there is intelligence and caring even when there is disagreement.
“This way we’ve become accustomed to talking with one another is not beneficial,” she said. “We’re working on way to have meaningful, productive conversations with people we disagree with.”