PHOENIX (RNS) As a reporter who covers atheism and nonbelievers, I’m not often inside a church on Sunday morning. But on the weekend after an election that left me feeling more than a little bruised and scared, I felt a driving need for some healing, reconciliation and a good dose of hope.
My husband and I were away from home, visiting suburban Phoenix. So on Sunday, while he knocked around a tennis ball, I sought out a local church to visit not as a reporter in search of a story, but as a civilian in need of some balm for a very banged-up, frightened spirit.
I deliberately picked a nearby evangelical church because I wanted to reach out beyond the Methodist circle I have been a part of. I got there before the opening worship music started and looked about. I liked what I saw — blacks, whites, Latinos all mixing together, greeting each other with what I recognized as “the kiss of peace” common to many Christians. There were multigenerational families, lone older men and women and young couples with babies.
The service was opened by a young woman who said, “I feel like reality hit me very hard this week and I feel blessed to be able to come to a church where I can worship freely, no matter what.” She then launched into a lovely song of praise. Great, I thought. My kind of place.
Then the pastor, a man who appeared to be in his early 30s, introduced the guest preacher — an 87-year-old woman who mentored him in his rise through the church. How great is this, I thought! At this historic moment, this evangelical church is giving its pulpit over to a woman, one who will give us some perspective and advice.
And she did. The title of her sermon, she informed us, was “Make Jesus Great Again.” She then described Donald Trump as a “godly man” who is “God’s instrument” and “a miracle” — proof, she said, that a country can “only wallow in sin so long” before God sends a savior. The congregation punctuated her words with scattered “amens” and a couple of “hallelujahs” and, as I looked about me, I noticed that many people — blacks, whites and Latinos — were nodding their heads in agreement. “I know,” she said to the congregation of about 80 people, “nobody in this church voted the other way. You’re too nice.”
Well, she was wrong. I voted “the other way.” At first, I thought, “I’m leaving. I don’t have to listen to this.”
Then I said to myself, “No, this is what you should be listening to. This is what we missed — so many of us, reporters, everyone I know. We missed THIS. And it’s huge.”
But I only lasted through another 10 minutes of triumphalism, gloating and intolerance. Not one word I heard come out of the preacher’s mouth was a word Jesus would have said. I left, more broken and in need of solace than I was when I went in.
How did we get to this place? How did we become so focused on our own ideas of what America ought to be that we — both Trump and Clinton supporters — missed each other’s howls of pain, cries for help and wailing of grievances? Can we ever get back from where we are now to a more unified country?
As an eternal Pollyanna, I would like to think so. But I left that church last Sunday feeling rebuked, rejected and foolish for thinking that by staying to hear the America I and many other reporters missed, ignored or wrote off, I would find some common ground, some way to hurt less. I did not.
I know that as a San Francisco Bay Area resident, I live in a big, shiny, Berkeley-tinted bubble. But I did not realize how big and completely imprisoning that bubble was until the moment the preacher said no one in this church could possibly have voted “the other way.” Go ahead, call me naive. But my personal bubble burst right then — exploded might be a better word — and for the rest of our trip I found myself staring at people in restaurants, in the rental car office, on the plane. Were they so far away from me, so utterly different, even as we seemed so close?
Later, I emailed the pastor, with whom I had chatted amiably just before the service about San Francisco, where he has family. I said never, in 25 years of visiting churches, temples, mosques, synagogues and madrassas from New York City to Pakistan had I heard anything so hurtful in my life. And because I don’t want to feel that way, I left him my name, my number and my email address to hear his side of the story, anytime. I still believe we might find a way to hear each other.
He has not called me. He has not emailed me. And I have no plans to return to a church in anything but a professional role again.
(Kimberly Winston is a national reporter for RNS)