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Our Compassion Needs a Bigger Umbrella

By Marilyn Sewell

Photo credit: Jlhopgood

This essay appeared originally on The Huffington Post.

Nobody I know, not a single one of my friends, voted for Trump. No one of us could imagine that he would become the next president. We are staggered, shaken, as we watch his Cabinet fill with those who would dismantle programs that serve our most disadvantaged, in favor of the wealthy. Surrealistic, we say. How did this happen?

The answer is multifaceted, of course, but the overriding reason is that we liberals (and Clinton and the Democratic party) were caught unaware of the pain and frustration of the forty-seven percent of the voters who chose Trump, voters who overwhelmingly reside in the middle of our country. They are the white working class, the ones who don’t go to college, the ones who still believe in God, the ones who send their sons and daughters to fight our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are not poor, but middle-class. They struggle to find meaningful work in an economy that has shifted from domestic to global, that has displaced workers with robots, that has favored finance and communication over production. The mill is shutting down? Well, get a job in retail.

We liberals passionately address the suffering of those on the margins—undocumented immigrants, LGBT folks, people of color. The watchwords of the left are diversity and equity, and no one can deny the gravity of these goals. But at the same time we have disregarded the pain that has driven many working class white men to opioid addiction and increasingly, to suicide. They turned to Trump, not because he is an honorable man and a capable leader, but because he is a symbol of hope. Their women, unsurprisingly, mostly voted with them—sixty-two percent, to be exact.

So I don’t know anyone who voted for Trump? I should know better. My father, who dropped out of high school after his junior year, was an oil field worker in N. Louisiana. It was dangerous work, but paid well. He sent three of us children to college by squirreling money away in a deer skin bag in the bottom of his chest of drawers. Now I’m out there on the barricades, chanting “Keep it in the ground.” And yes, we must. But what is happening to men like my father?

Nobody paid attention, nobody noticed, so these voters were ready to “throw the rascals (of both parties) out.” They became easy prey for the demagogue they elected, a deeply flawed and dangerous man. Now progressives have to address that reality. A crisis is upon us, as we see our vaunted democracy—the envy of aspiring people around the world—being ripped to shreds.

The day after the election, sixty-five spiritual leaders, all progressives from various faith traditions, met in a circle in the basement of a local church in Portland, Oregon. Some were weeping, some were angry, all incredulous. A microphone was passed around the circle. During two hours of shared heartbreak, two clear questions emerged: What can we do? Participants were particularly concerned about those on the margins—undocumented immigrants, LGBT folks, people of color, disabled individuals. They are the most vulnerable people we serve. In the best of times, they are fearful, wary. Now many of them are terrified. Then the second question began to surface: How did it happen? We faith leaders had to acknowledge our ignorance about the lives of millions of people in the white working class. We had to confront our self-righteousness, our arrogance. It appears that our compassion needs a bigger umbrella.

Like many of us just now, I need to broaden my understanding of the people I’ve forgotten. They live in rural areas, towns where unemployment runs high and young people go off to the city. The women take a casserole to a family who has lost a loved one. They carefully clip coupons, lest their food budget suffer. Their men see no future for themselves. We have blamed them for their failure instead of seeing them as casualties of a changing culture.

I write about climate. I march. I testify against Big Oil. I’ll continue to do so. At the same time I need to remember the father who “stabbed pipe” in the oil fields of Louisiana, who came home bone-tired and black with oil, but who was proud of his work, and proud that he could send his three children to college.

So go ahead and cry, grieve, sigh, and wonder. But then get up from your couch and move. Participate. The fabric of society has been rent, and it’s going to take all of us to do the reweaving.

We have to tell a new tale, write a different story with an expanded cast of characters. Together.


About the Author

Marilyn SewellMarilyn Sewell is the editor of Claiming the Spirit WithinCries of the SpiritResurrecting Grace and Breaking Free. She is minister emerita at the First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter at @marilynsewell.