Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

Prayer, not Politics, on Wednesday Mornings - by Sen. Chris Coons

Author: 
Chris Coons ’92 M.A.R., ’92 J.D.

Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware is a member of the Senate Appropriations, Foreign Relations, Judiciary, Small Business and Entrepreneurship, and Ethics committees. He is known for his bipartisan efforts in the Senate to solve national problems.


When I appear on TV for an interview, a small banner typically appears across the screen, identifying me as US Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat, from Delaware.

Sometimes, the banner will include that I’m a member of one committee or another, that I’m the sponsor of this bill or that one, or that I’ve just voted for or against a particular piece of legislation.

But that’s it.

That’s all the viewer, whether they’re a Delawarean watching the news after dinner or a student in New Haven keeping up with current events, is told about the person who’s speaking on the screen.

It doesn’t say anything about my family or my values, my strengths or my weaknesses. As far as I’m concerned, describing me as just “a Democrat from Delaware” doesn’t scratch the surface of who I am and what I believe in, but anyone, including my colleagues, could be forgiven for assuming I’m little more than what’s listed on the screen: Senator, Democrat, Delawarean.

As Americans, we’re viewing each other more and more through overly simplified, inadequate, and divisive indicators – as urban or rural, white collar or blue collar, religious or agnostic. The list goes on.

Because of that, we’re missing the more difficult, more complicated, and more accurate pictures of people who aren’t just our political allies or enemies, but our fellow citizens.

In the Senate, we’ve found one small way to try and counteract that.

It isn’t the product of a bill, a commission, or a committee. It’s actually pretty simple: Once a week, a bipartisan group of two dozen of us get together, pray together, sing together, and most importantly, listen to each other at something called the Senate Prayer Breakfast.

It takes place on Wednesday mornings in a small, tucked-away room on the first floor of the Capitol. We don’t talk about policy, and we definitely don’t talk about politics. Instead, we talk about who we are beyond the clipped, cable news biographies written about us. We talk about our fears, our hopes, our challenges, and our families, not as legislators or politicians, but as people. The Senate Prayer Breakfast is about seeing each other as more than a Democrat from Delaware or a Republican from

Oklahoma (as my breakfast co-chair, Sen. James Lankford, might be described on cable TV).

What we do every Wednesday morning is seek out the real people behind those simplistic labels, the man or woman with whom we’ll have to have difficult conversations on the Senate floor or the committee room later that day. That can be hard for anyone, and it’s only possible through a willingness to be truly honest and even vulnerable not only to friends, but also rivals and enemies. That’s what makes the Senate Prayer Breakfast different from a congressional delegation trip or running into a colleague in the Senate gym: the attitude of humility and trust with which we open our hearts to the work of the spirit.

The point is that a difficult conversation with a stranger, or even worse, someone about whom you know nothing more than their political affiliation, isn’t likely to go well. If instead, that difficult conversation is with someone you’ve prayed with, confided in, and trusted with your own challenges and worries, I’ll submit that you’re more likely to find a way forward, to compromise, or at the very least, to amicably agree to disagree.

So, as a member of Congress, a famously dysfunctional organization with approval ratings in the teens, allow me to suggest that much of the important work that goes into successful “difficult conversations” is actually done before the conversation itself. They often don’t need to be as difficult as they are.

If we actively choose to seek out those that we’re likely to disagree with, whose backgrounds and profiles are different than our own, we’re more likely to see our assumptions about them proven wrong than confirmed. We’re more likely to find a person not so dissimilar from ourselves, with their own perspective but a shared humanity.

If we, as Hebrews 10:24-25 suggests, “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another,” we might find that our difficult conversations are more about our ignorance of one another than the divisions between us.

Most weeknights, after busy days of meetings, hearings, and votes, I take the train home from Washington to Wilmington to be with my family, sleep in my own bed, and get ready to do it all over again in the morning.

On Tuesday nights, though, I usually stay overnight in Washington, so that I can be at the Capitol at 8 a.m. to see my colleagues, hold their hands in prayer, and try to see them for who they truly are.

 

Issue Title: 
Let's Talk: Confronting Our Divisions
Issue Year: 
2018