The meeting began with a prayer asking God to give all gathered “ears to hear, hearts to hear.”
The conversation was wide ranging, and it felt to me like the kind of talk – an honest give and take, stepping on a couple toes – that the community and county badly need.
A few weeks ago, the Independence Ministerial Alliance got representatives of the area’s two congressmen and the state’s two U.S. senators to come to lunch and an hour of conversation.
Right out of the bat, someone jumped in with how he’s tired of the “bickering and fighting” and nothing getting done in Washington. Corey Dillon, senior regional director for Sen. Claire McCaskill, said we’re sick of it, too. (Dillon, who worked for McCaskill for 16 years, recently left to become a director of the Jackson County Election Board.)
But it’s also not as simple as blaming the bickering. Look at Facebook, Dillon said. We are a divided country.
“While we want to hold our leaders to a higher standard,” she said, “they are a reflection of us.”
That’s a hard truth, and she’s right.
Josh Hurlbert, field representative manager for Congressman Sam Graves, said mudslinging gets attention but members of Congress do work together across party lines on some issues.
“A lot of that happens, but it just doesn’t get the headlines,” he said.
That’s true to a point. A more accurate way of putting it is that the less confrontational stuff gets reported too, but We the People have a way of tuning that out.
The aides also pushed back – rightly – against the suggestion that they are somehow isolated and protected from the stresses and strains of everyday that the rest of us put up with. Let me follow up with another hard truth: Falling for the usual stereotypes about the political class is not only fallacious, but it lets us off the hook for condoning the bad behavior.
The conversation turned to poverty – church leaders by a show of hands agreed it’s gotten noticeably worse in Independence – and this was the moment when you realized we’d all have been better served if the aides’ bosses had been there.
Garland Land, active in his church and a member of Community Services League board, knows this issue well. He wasn’t shy about calling out specific actions.
He said he was offended by Graves’ comments about poor people taking advantage of food stamps
“I just had the sense that he didn’t show a very compassionate understanding of the people who are struggling,” Land said.
Dillon mentioned research showing that it costs a single mom with two kids about $50,000 a year to get by. If you’re working 40 hours a week at minimum wage and using available government programs, there’s still a gap of $12,000 a year. That’s why people turn to food banks and other means of support.
“They go wherever they can to fill in that gap,” she said.
There were other issues. Someone brought up the state and nation’s abysmal job of taking care of roads and bridges. What compromises and tradeoffs, Dillon asked, are we willing to make to solve that?
“These problems have to be solved collectively,” she said, and then she added another hard, unpopular truth.
“I think sometimes we view politics as a dirty word, and it’s not.”
– Follow Jeff Fox on Twitter: @FoxEJC