I went to Congressman Jeff Fortenberry’s Town Hall Meeting. I’d met the congressman before, but this time was different.
About seven years ago, H and I went to one of those fundraising banquets for a local faith-based organization. H was there to give the invocation, and we were seated at the same round table as the politicians. Why do organizers of these events believe politicians and clergy should be seated together? We don’t, by default, see things the same way, as was the case in this particular instance. That night, H and I were seated at the table with our congressman and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Jeff Fortenberry.
At the time, I was mad at this particular congressman. I don’t remember why I was mad. What I do remember is that, after the introductions and fake (mine) smiles, I basically ignored Mr. and Mrs. Fortenberry, pretending the table number sticking up from the centerpiece was blocking my view of them. Back then, I wasn’t really concerned about finding common ground. I was still operating primarily from an “us vs. them” world view.
When I look back on that night, I know I missed an opportunity. That moment was the perfect occasion to get to understand the congressman and his positions better. If I had been further along on the journey, I’d have seen that. The congressman and I would have found we have something in common, beyond the fact that we’re each married and we live in Nebraska. We would have found something that made us seem more human to one another.
That night, I missed the mark.
1000+ in Attendance
Fast forward to last week, when the congressman announced he would hold a Town Hall meeting at the high school from which my children graduated. I added the event to my calendar — Congressman Jeff Fortenberry’s Town Hall Meeting, March 13, 5:30PM — and made plans to attend. But, this time, my attitude was different.
The event was sure to be loud and there would be people with strong feelings and even stronger words. I hoped the congressman would help bring some healing to what I’ve been calling Our Current Reality.
I attended the event as an observer, not taking either “side.” It felt like a sociological exercise; much less personal than that banquet table shunning I had exercised years before. But, also more personal.
I stood at the edge of the 1,000+ crowd, up on a step where I could see the entire venue, and I positioned myself so the congressman was on my left and those who were seated were on my right. The event went down pretty much the way Nancy Meyer describes it, here.
As things got under way, it was clear people were angry, afraid, frustrated, and disappointed. More and more anger rose from the crowd, and I found myself asking what my response should be to what I was seeing, and hearing. Across the room, I could see my yoga instructor, leaning against a wall, just behind one man who was yelling loudly. Members of the crowd asked for him to be removed. The man, thankfully, was allowed to stay.
Hovering Above the Room
I found myself praying, sending out silent prayers over the crowd and toward the congressman. Soon, I noticed my yoga instructor standing silently across the room, and I imagined that she was offering love to the room and toward the congressman. In my imagination, my prayers and her offering of love hovered above the room, waiting to rest on and in and through whomever would open their heart to receive them.
There wasn’t a shift in the room; no calming of the anger that had taken hold of so many. The congressman did not alter his strategy and become less politician-y. In the room, the mood remained the same.
When the ninety minute meeting was over, the only thing that had been accomplished, as far as I could tell, was that a group of people with real concerns about complex issues met in a room together and no one really heard each other. Oh, the congressman will be able to say he went home to Nebraska and held a meeting: Congressman Jeff Fortenberry’s Town Hall Meeting. The people who were there will be able to say we were there. No one was physically hurt, so that’s something. But there was no forward movement that I could detect.
The Importance of Being Heard
On my way to the exit, I stopped to watch the congressman. He was now surrounded by a group of people who continued to ask him questions. A woman standing next to me quietly said, “Everyone simply wants to be heard.” She said the word, “heard” almost in a way that makes me want to put it in italics. There was gentle forcefulness in her voice, like a green shoot pressing up through concrete. I knew she’d had her own experiences of wanting to be heard. You too?
David Isay, the creator and president of Story Corps once said, “I knew that being listened to was important to people, but I don’t think I understood how important it was. And how widespread it is that people feel like they’re not listened to and never heard, and have things that they want to say and leave behind.”
There would have been less yelling and shouting if the congressman had arranged for microphones for his constituents. Perhaps there could have been more of a sense of being heard, both literally and figuratively. What would happen if the congressman held a yoga and prayer session for his constituents—one that he participated in, without television cameras around?
Acts of Silent Solidarity
It may be ridiculous to believe our congressmen and women truly want to hear what their constituents have to say. Surely, we need a time and place to air our grievances and lay our fears on the table for all to see. If nothing else, a Town Hall Meeting serves that purpose.
I guess, if I were giving out advice, I’d say let’s keep showing up at these things. But, let’s show up to pray and to send love out over the crowd. Let’s show up to practice acts of silent solidarity, with the hope of moving things forward a bit. Let’s join in by voting and marching and petitioning and calling. But let’s also marshall the power of Love.
My prayers and my yoga instructor’s gift of love may not have changed the room in ways that I could see. But they certainly kept me grounded, peaceful, focused, and open.
I wish I’d tried that all those years ago, sitting at the banquet table across from the congressman and his wife.