The experiment of Congress Camp called into question long-established conventional wisdom and began to chart a new path. Could Republicans and Democrats sit down around a table and talk charitably and productively about real issues? Could people of different ethnicities, generations, and backgrounds hear one another’s concerns and perspectives? Could we as potential candidates for Congress demonstrate that people are more important than party?
On the final day of Congress Camp, I sat at a folding table next to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as we filled out Federal Election Commission paperwork to begin our campaigns for Congress. We could not have been more different: a white Generation-X pastor from Arkansas and a millennial Latina waitress from New York City. I was from a bright-red, rural district in the South; she came from a densely populated, deep-blue district in the Northeast. A Republican and Democrat.
We were from different tribes, but we were on the same team.
The trust we developed that weekend in Knoxville carried on throughout our campaigns. We rooted for one another. We encouraged each other through the difficulties of running for office. We shared resources and ideas that would make us more effective on the campaign trail. We celebrated our victories together and cried together in our defeats. We believed in each other.
I realized at Congress Camp that conversation can overcome tribalism. There is no substitute for sitting together and hearing other people’s stories. Honest and authentic dialog opens us up to see the world differently. It’s when we talk together that we remember that most of us are not the worst stereotypes of our tribe. Instead, we are people who are most often searching for solutions to the common challenges we face. Our journeys may have taken us on different directions in the past, but when we truly listen to one another, we find that we can apply to our own experiences the lessons others have learned.
When employed with authenticity and empathy, conversation builds trust. So much of the current American political divide is predicated upon suspicion and distrust. But it’s hard to mischaracterize a person whose story I know and whose struggles I’ve heard. I can’t assume the worst about someone with whom I’ve shared vulnerably. I can’t dismiss someone with whom I’ve made a connection. The relationships cultivated in the soil of conversation can grow into meaningful connection.
This is one of the reasons why I am a follower of Jesus. He exemplified this kind of connection. Every time I read John’s Gospel, I am struck by the series of conversations Jesus had with people. He talked to Nicodemus, a rich and religious man of privilege and power. Jesus answered his questions and challenged his reality. He talked to the Samaritan woman at the well, a marginalized seeker who responded to his engagement. He talked to a paralyzed man whose only hope was superstitious folklore about the healing properties of the waters of a local pond. He talked to the crowds of people who were looking for someone who would deliver on their promises that their needs would be met.
In each of these interactions, Jesus demonstrated that the things that divide us can be overcome through authentic connection. Because he talked to them, people trusted Jesus. They believed in him.
When we talk to one another, we can learn to believe in one another as well.
Those who are cynical about American politics are convinced that the tribalism of the two-party system can’t be overcome. They frequently complain that their elected officials won’t cross the aisle to compromise. But how can we expect our leaders to put people ahead of party if we’re unwilling to do it first? Congress Camp disabused me of my own cynicism and was a rebirth of hope.
Praise for Running for Our Lives
“I’m grateful that the Spirit is stirring women and men to engage in public life for the common good, through both US political parties and as independents. Robb Ryerse may not have won his race in 2018, but he and many others have stepped up to shift the moral narrative in America. I’m grateful for him.”
—Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, author of Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good
“Robb Ryerse is the kind of guy who believes in big ideas that are daring enough that they just might happen. As I found in my travels across red-state Christian America, our country desperately needs those big ideas, and the kind of people—like Robb—who are willing to risk it all with the hope that things might get better for us all. As a pastor, a journalist, and a parent, it gives me hope to know that Robb’s story exists, and that despite his electoral defeat, he hasn’t stopped believing. We need more stories like Robb’s in today’s America, stories that prove some people do still get into politics hoping to make things better for someone other than themselves.”
—Angela Denker, author of Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump
“It’s likely that the only thing to save our divided and anxious country right now is courageous acts of love taken by brave people of grace. Thankfully, Robb Ryerse shows us how it’s done. He and his wife, Vanessa, say yes to the ridiculous notion that extraordinary ordinary people—full of courage and love—are who our country needs right now to lead us. Sure, our political atmosphere feels hopeless at times, but Robb reminds me that as long as good people keep doing good work, there’s always reason to hope.”
—Colby Martin, author of UnClobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality and The Shift: Surviving and Thriving After Moving from Conservative to Progressive Christianity
“Terminal toxicity now defines the words Christian, evangelical, and Republican. For those (like me) who still hope for the good side to faith and Republicanism to reemerge based on grace and the common good, Robb Ryerse’s Running for Our Lives offers real hope. If there’s any way back to sanity for the Republican and religious faithful post-Trump, this book offers the road map.”
—Frank Schaeffer, author of author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back
About the Author
Robb Ryerse serves as Executive Director of Brand New Congress. He is the author of Fundamorphosis: How I Left Fundamentalism but Didn’t Lose My Faith. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he copastors Vintage Fellowship with his wife, Vanessa.