In the much-too-early morning hours of July 20, I boarded a flight full of Fox News reporters, media hounds, and GOP delegates bound for Cleveland, Ohio — the host city of the Republican National Convention. I was there to join Sister Simone Campbell and the Nuns on the Bus for this leg of their national bus tour to “Mend the Gaps” — a campaign aimed at the ever-widening gaps in the fabric of American society.
Over the previous days, the world had met misery face-to-face: No sooner had we caught our collective breath from Brexit, the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the ambush of the five Dallas officers, the terrorist attack in Nice, and the coup attempt in Turkey than the proverbial breath was knocked from America’s lungs once again.
As wheels touched earth in Cleveland, my Twitter feed exploded with news of another shooting: Multiple police officers were targets of an attack in Baton Rouge, La. Scrolling through my feed, my heart sank and felt like it dragged behind the plane as we pulled into our gate.
One thought haunted me: “We are out of control.”
But as I sat at the Nuns on the Bus meet-up location, one word rose to the surface — love. It felt corny. It felt soft in the midst of this world gone mad. But I know too much to have believed that lie. Love was the heartbeat of the strategy of the civil rights movement: love of self and love of “the other,” even the other who seeks your demise.
“We are buying the lie,” I thought, “that love is wimpy, and violence is the answer.”
It is not.
Sitting there under a Cleveland sun, I posted a short FBlive reflection, declaring, “Love is more powerful than power!”
“Tweet that! Share that!” I added. And people did.
Others wrote in the comments section with prayers for my safety on the ground in Cleveland. With violence breaking out all over the world, many worried the Republican National Convention could be the site of the next violent attack … from whom? The violence could come from any number of sources: ISIS, a hate group, police, a riot. You name it.
I joined in with the nuns, who had already toured through multiple cities across the Midwest on their way to Cleveland. We marched side by side with thousands onto the Hope Memorial Bridge, which leads to the downtown area where the convention is located.
When the group filled the span of the bridge, it broke into two lines facing each other. Everyone held hands, making one continuous circle that spanned the length of the bridge. A loud horn sounded. At that moment everyone stood silent ... holding hands ... for 30 minutes.
I scanned the circle, planted my feet beneath me, breathed deep, and looked up, listening.
Overhead, a low-flying plane tugged a banner through the sky — "Hillary Clinton for Prison 2016."
It circled us, slicing the silence.
Another plane circled — "Protect real marriage."
Directly across from me stood a child draped in a rainbow flag, wearing it like a cape. The child was about 10 years old, and seemed to self-identify as a member of the LGBTQ community; perhaps transgender. I hurt for that child, trying to be honest about their gender identity and having to field verbal daggers from adults, inserting violence into a moment of love.
It occurred to me that the language circling above us all right now is violent. It is extreme. It pays no mind to the damage it inflicts on its subjects — real people with real lives. It is the language of war — the language of us and them, allies and enemies. There are no humans in this equation.
For the past year and half, primary season rhetoric has filled our culture with violence — violent language, violent images, and violence against our souls. No wonder violence seems to be permeating our culture.
This "Stand for Love" human circle, organized by Sister Rita Petruziello of the Congregation of Saint Joseph, demonstrated a commitment by residents and visitors to combat fear and violence by placing a hedge of love around the city throughout the duration of the convention.
The next day, clipboard in hand and wearing a bright blue Nuns on the Bus T-shirt, I followed Sister Simone Campbell and 11 other tee-clad nuns rolling lemonade carts through GOP convention crowds with three objectives — to connect, to listen, and to understand
We asked each respondent three questions:
1. What family member is most difficult to talk to about politics? Why?
2. What are your worries for this election?
3. What are your hopes for our nation?
One after another I spoke with delegates, delegate alternates, and guests of delegates. Most could name at least one family member who was hard to talk with, though they also tended to share that they curated their relationships so that they don’t have friends who don’t think like then.
Many shared worries about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. They didn’t like either candidate. But most quickly pivoted to boilerplate rhetoric, listing all the ways Trump is a better bet than Clinton. By and large, the hostility wasn’t focused on policies — instead, it focused on Hillary’s character, and called for action against her: jail or, in a few cases, joking hopes for her possible death.
When asked what gives them hope for the nation, most spoke of a desire to return America to its former greatness. When asked what that greatness looks like, one woman pointed to the 50s — the 1950s. One delegate alternate from Tennessee said he hoped for a “pre-New Deal” America.
“Government was small, and freedom was big,” he said.
I stood in a circle of four tall young white men and one woman, who stood meekly on the outskirts of the circle. When pressed to describe the world they hope for, one summed up the dreams of the group: “Constitutional limited government, free enterprise, rule of law, and religious freedom.”
I asked the group, “What would this America look like? What would you like to see change?”
Blank stares. Then the men raised the same themes, like shields of war: Small government. Freedom.
On our last day in Cleveland, sisters spoke the words of Ezekiel 37 from the pulpit of the Amistad Chapel of the National Headquarters of the United Church of Christ. In the passage, God commands Ezekiel to walk up and down the rows of dry bones. And God asks, “Can these bones live?” I believe that is the question for us. Can the dry bones of our world live? Can we overcome our culture of violence? Can we overcome the ideological warfare that has become so normative? Can we overcome the death that plagues our streets?
“Prophesy to the bones,” God commands.
What shall we prophesy?
That restoration and repair are possible because God is — because God is love — because love intervenes.