On Capitol Hill – cultivating a monastery mind-set
During gnashing of teeth over the stimulus bill, a Thomas Merton-inspired House reflection group was holding hands and taking its weekly step back to reconcile personal conviction and political reality.
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Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, says that the relationships established in the group foster good governing. Though he stopped attending several years ago after House and family responsibilities crowded his schedule, Representative Upton says “the people in my group I’m still very close to. People relay some things that are very personal, that are still confidential to this day ... it’s just opened some doors where you get to know folks and what’s in their hearts and what drives them, so when they speak you listen.”Skip to next paragraph
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Sometimes the relationships prompt action, as when the Ku Klux Klan emerged in Upton’s district. “I went to John Lewis [the Democrat from Gerogia and founder of Faith and Politics] and said, ‘What advice can you give me?’ ”
Representative Lewis came to Upton’s district and spoke to a standing-room-only crowd about race relations. Since then, the midwestern Upton, who’d never been to the South, has joined Lewis several times in Alabama, commemorating Rosa Parks and the civil rights march.
Though current members are all Democrats and all are from Christian backgrounds, the group is open to everyone. In fact, four or five years ago, the groups were predominantly Republican, says Father Kiley. Though current members are in the majority in the House and could be expected to be enthusiastic about the new administration, the sentiment this February day is a mix of resignation and fury.
Some are disappointed with the new president, some with their congressional leadership, and all with partisanship in general: Should I as a person of conscience walk out of a caucus? How do I serve if I’m sidelined? What happened to honesty? When I go home, how do I explain what I don’t even understand myself – how this stimulus will work, how one seats a cabinet member who didn’t pay taxes, how one who watched as Wall Street crumbled is the overseer now? And then there are the Republicans....
The meetings provide a framework for growth to those “making decisions off the back of a galloping horse,” as Rep. Jim McDermott (D) of Washington, describes the life. “People come here because it’s a centering place.” So much so, he says, that in the 10 years since former Democratic whip David Bonior invited him to the group, it’s become a calendar item he refuses to cancel.
Profuse and robust venting doesn’t make the “reflection” billing a misnomer. By its nature the process of reflection isn’t necessarily idyllic. Growth can be messy; its direction not always evident.
“We get off into the dissonance between what we believe and what we deal with here on a daily basis,” McDermott says. “If you believe that there is some spiritual element to life, dissonance can be pretty upsetting.”