Pastor Walter Mitty sat at his office desk at the Poplar Park Community Church earlier this morning staring out the window at the maple tree whose leaves were starting to turn yellow.
He’d often slip into this meditative kind of zone when he was frustrated, and this morning he was having a severe case of brain freeze. What happened was that early last week he felt that he had to write a sermon on how being a follower of Jesus should change the way you vote in the upcoming election.
His problem was that the more he listened to people talking about whom they were going to vote for and why the more unsure he became regarding what to say when he would climb into the pulpit.
For example, after church on Sunday he had driven up to Manitowoc to celebrate his nephew Brian’s birthday. It was a cozy family affair—Brian, Brian’s brother Matt, and Mitty’s sister-in-law Susan. As he was about to blow out sixteen candles Brian confessed, “It’s been three years since dad died, and I still miss him.”
In a way, everyone was relieved that Brian had acknowledged the elephant in the room. And all nodded their heads when Brian added, “But lately I find myself not choking up when I talk about him. Three years ago I wouldn’t have thought that could be possible.”
Brian’s acknowledgment seemed to open the door to other topics.
“Hey, Uncle Walt,” began Brian’s younger brother Matt. “My friend Koobmeej asked me to help with the Immigrant and Minority Farmers Conference coming up soon. It’s a lot of work, but what I really like is listening to Koob’s grandfather tell stories about when he was growing up in Vietnam during the war.”
Mitty turned to Susan and asked, “So they’re doing OK since the government settled them here as refugees?”
“Yes, for the most part,” answered his sister-in-law. “I think the latest census revealed that there are around 1,400 Hmong living in Manitowoc, and especially the third generation kids like Koob are fitting in. What tickles me is to see Koob wearing Packer gear. Growing up in the mountains in northern Vietnam his grandfather didn’t even know what football was, and here we have Vietnamese kids playing on our high school football team.”
Mitty took a chance and said, “When President Trump was in Wisconsin on Wednesday he didn’t say anything good about immigrants.”
Susan sighed and replied, “I know. I know. Walt, you’re very aware that I voted for Trump two years ago, even though I thought that he was a spoiled little boy who treats people like crap. I voted for him because he promised to put pro-life judges on the Supreme Court, and now that that has been accomplished, I’m done with him. I’m voting for Tony Evers for governor. Walker thinks he’ll win by hanging on to Trump’s coat tails and I think he’ll be in for a big surprise on Nov. 6.”
On the three-hour drive home from Manitowoc, Mitty pondered how this red state family which he loved did not fit the stereotype of a redneck, white supremacist Trump voter.
On Monday, Mitty and Michael Rosenthal decided to get a cappuccino at the Retro and who should walk in but Fr. Bob Sullivan, who joined at the table by the window. Mitty had been telling Michael about his short visit to Manitowoc, so he brought the Franciscan up to speed with the story.
He then confessed that he was thinking about preaching the next Sunday on how Jesus would tell people to vote on Nov. 6. Michael laughed and said, “You think that would cut ice with this Jewish boy?!” but added, “I know what you mean, Walt.”
Fr. Bob said, “Yeah, I struggle with that, too. First, I think you know that Catholic teaching declares that a fetus is a human life from the moment of conception. Cardinal Bernardine used to talk about the seamless garment. That is, if you are against war and capital punishment and are for a ban on killing wolves, then to be morally consistent you have to be pro-life.”
“I’m pretty sure,” said Michael, “that in my temple most of the women, especially the younger ones, would say they are pro-choice, but if you would take a poll, say in Skokie, I think you’d get a whole different response.”
“Here’s what I struggle with,” Fr. Sullivan said after a minute of thoughtful silence. “I think my church’s teaching on the sanctity of life is consistent with God’s intention for us. On top of that, I saw that a poll two years ago showed that six in 10 Americans, including 61 percent of women, say abortion is morally wrong and that one-third of pro-choice Americans agree.”
“My question,” he continued after another pause, “is what happens when the government tries to make a crime out of having an abortion. I do worry about back alley abortions and I think we learned something from the failure of Prohibition to rid society of the scourge of alcoholism.”
So, Mitty sat staring out the window at the maple tree this morning trying to figure out what he should say. The gospels record nothing from Jesus on the subject of abortion, partly because 2,000 years ago it was not an issue. What’s more, his conversations lately had focused on abortion but there were issues like the environment, gun control, the budget deficit, foreign policy, taxes, tariffs, racism, the income gap, the achievement gap, immigration, health care, LGBTQ rights, the size and scope of government and sexual harassment.
And then there was local politics. Candidates were already lining up to challenge Mayor Ernie Romano in the spring election and the ads were already getting personal and nasty. Carl Reiniger, for one, made a post on Facebook that implied that Romano’s judgment was being limited by dementia, so one of Ernie’s supporters made a post that accused Reiniger’s wife of having an ongoing affair.
As of lunch time the maple tree hadn’t shared any wisdom with the pastor of Poplar Park Community Church. As he ate his toasted coconut flavored Greek yogurt, Mitty decided that anything Jesus might have to say about the election would have something to do with love, but how in the world he could apply that to next Tuesday he still had no idea.
One thing that he knew for sure, however, was that anything he would say would be said with a humility informed by the fact that he didn’t know all the answers.