A Story of Awakening
A fellow campaign aide walked outside to where I stood, outside the party on the paved patio beneath the night sky. I’ve never been a big fan of huge parties, and that night was no exception. The results were in; I was on the phone talking with a sibling about the future and what it would bring. The aide handed me a glass of champagne. We were going to Washington.
“You’re young. You can’t really make a career move that’s going to hurt you yet.”
I think my college advisor told me that many times over the four years I pursued a Political Science degree, and probably in the first few years after I graduated too. Bachelor of Arts in hand, it seemed I was aimlessly wandering around the country working for Conservative causes, logging hundreds upon hundreds of miles in my car from Tampa Bay, to the State of Louisiana, to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. And of course there were near weekly trips in South Carolina, once I moved back, driving a never ending loop from Greenville, to Greenwood, to Aiken, Orangeburg, Charleston, and a dozen small towns in between.
“Do you want to work on the Hill?” she asked.
I don’t truthfully think I’ve ever really had an answer to that question. The Hill always seemed so stuffy, so self-inflated, so self-important.
“I want the experience of working in Washington,” I said. “I don’t want to be fifty and working in politics and never have learned what it’s like on the inside, how DC operates.”
“I want you in Washington.”
The opportunity finally came. I was ready to say yes. It’s funny to think about it now, but it scared me too. I knew I’d have to prove I had “what it takes,” (although to this day I have no idea what that phrase is supposed to mean). I’d have to wear a suit, most days, and the chances were high I’d be pretty important, I must have thought. At the very least, we were going to roll back the Obama agenda, because Republicans had won the House. We were going to get spending under control, stop ObamaCare, and restore economic freedom, all in just a few months, with Obama still in office and Democrats controlling the Senate.
I was fuming. America was being destroyed in front of my eyes as the TV screen showed a live shot of the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Even with Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts, the Democrats had pulled it off. ObamaCare was going to become law, all of its mandates forced onto the land of the free.
The agitated talking heads on Fox News confirmed what I feared: it was a total disaster.
“There will be hell to pay for this,” I posted on Facebook.
The response of the American people was swift and decisive. Republicans stormed the House, and I was going to be there as we set things right.
“I’m going to Washington.” I called and wrote everyone I knew after the victory party.
“You’ve waited so patiently for this,” my advisor wrote back.
The road to Washington from South Carolina somehow wound back through Lima, Ohio, my hometown. I had a visit to make. Jean Winegardner, my grandmother, was the most beautiful person I’ll ever know, probably by a hundred thousand miles. She used to sing all the time, often about God’s love, how “once you’ve experienced it, you’ll spread his love to everyone, you’ll want to pass it on”.
We held her up, my brother and I, so she could drink briefly, just a sip of water. She was sleeping most of the time now, and her mouth kept getting unbearably dry.
She used to pull us in the wagon to the park, or ride down the sliding board, splashing into the pool to keep us entertained. I think she taught us all how to swim.
Today she couldn’t even drink a sip of water without being carefully held.
I stepped out. For better or worse, there were appointments and meetings to be scheduled back in South Carolina, and somehow it all had to happen that day, right then. I sat outside in my car, carefully holding my phone now, cradling it to my ear.
“I love you,” I said, reaching over to give my Grandma a hug in bed.
A good friend of hers had come in moments before, a huge smile on her face.
Grandma’s face lit up in one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen. Friendship, community—for a brief moment, they brought her back to life. But now it was time to leave again.
“I know you do, I love you too,” she said, giving me a kiss.
“I’ll see you at Thanksgiving,” I said.
“I s’pose I’ll be right here.” She said, using her goodbye voice, making a funny “ch” sound as she connected the words “right here.”
If I’m honest, I was glad to be busier than ever when January came. “I can force Grandma’s last days out of my mind,” I thought as the new Congress was sworn in to office.
Months and months went by, and mostly I just worked. Even on weekends, I’d go into the office sometimes and stay until midnight. When I couldn’t sit still any longer, I’d spend the last few hours wandering through the Capitol alone. One night I stood in the House Chamber, just taking it all in, wondering what to think of it all. It’s funny to me how all of the lights are on in the Capitol even late at night when nearly no one is there. The building was empty. So was I.
“I’ve got to find community,” I thought, fighting for clarity as I sped up I-95, back to Washington after a trip, searching for answers on the open road. I’d been in DC for over a year, and still hadn’t found any sense of community or friendship anywhere, instead living isolated in a world surrounded by politics.
I hadn’t heard of Redemption Hill Church when I moved to DC because it didn’t exist.
“Everything about this feels right,” I thought, as I walked in the first time. It was a small crowd, maybe sixty people in the room.
“Come sit up here,” a girl with a British accent said. “It’s better with friends.”
And later, “we’re having people over for drinks and sushi on our rooftop,” someone else said.
The view of the city from that rooftop in Rosslyn was incredible. It was a party, to be sure. And I still don’t usually enjoy big parties. But I didn’t want to leave, I wanted it to last forever.
The Hill has a way, though, of making it so that all you want to do on the weekend is sleep. Too tired to take talking any longer, I left, but some of the friendships which began that night continue to this day.
“I think there are Democrats in this church,” I said to myself.
I was plugged into community, and it was great. “I don’t know if I want to find everyone on Facebook,” I thought. “Why ruin community with politics?”
“There’s a dark side of work,” our pastor said, “but we can work to bring order into chaos. Jesus is our model for work.”
My mind was reeling, racing to keep up with what I was thinking, what I was feeling. From the beginning there was a dark side to my motives; they were rooted in a search for significance, approval, validation. I was self-important, stuffy, and lifeless. I didn’t know what to think at the time though, and I didn’t get what I wanted out of work on the Hill—I don’t think I even knew what I wanted.
So it was almost stunning how simply the words came out, a casual observation, but a product of a false perception of reality.
It’s not the best refrain to say to your boss, even if you’re friends with your coworkers as I was, and even if it’s honest. But I said it anyway.
“I hate my job.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever believed God is loving,” I said to a few other men at Redemption Hill Church during one of our Saturday morning “pit groups”, where we’d get together, talk about The Screwtape Letters or Authentic Manhood, and catch up on life.
Maybe they looked at me confused, I don’t remember for sure, but I had spent about a month or so reading the book of First John over and over.
“I mean I know he says he’s loving, and he’s God so we have to believe it. I don’t think I’ve ever believed he is actually loving. I always just thought he could get away with telling us he’s loving and we had to suck it up and accept it, even though most of the time he was kind of a jerk.”
I grew up in church, but somehow missed the part about God’s love.
“I just realized he brings the story back to Jesus, and the gospel every week,” I said in community group, about a year after going to Redemption Hill.
And then a few months later, “I don’t know what has changed over the past year; I may never be able to put it into writing, but my perspective is just different now,” I shared with some friends.
“The world could use a lot more true and beautiful,” I wrote, saving the line in my phone for the book I was writing, “and a lot less partisanship and neckties.”
Truth and Beauty were the antithesis of daily life on Capitol Hill every day.
It took more than two years from the “I hate my job” line, another trip to Ohio to say goodbye to Frank Winegardner, running marathons, going to counseling, men’s retreats, community group beach trips, early morning workouts, early morning breakfasts, and a huge pile of books to discover the vision of healing through freedom. Chances are I’m still not done.
Eventually Truth and Beauty would become the root ideas leading me to launch LIBERATUS in March 2015; the lack of them—mostly in myself, but also in our culture—I am sure now, is the reason for all of my frustrations in politics.
“When I walk through Capitol Hill now, it’s like I see another dimension of reality, one that could be, but isn’t yet—and the contrast is huge. It’s so powerful I can’t work on the Hill anymore.”
I shared this with a board member just a few weeks ago as we caught up over coffee.
“The Kingdom is already, but not yet,” he had reminded me several months back at a board meeting.
How do we live in the already but not yet?
“Gaze further and deeper into the Kingdom,” I said in an e-mail to one of our writers regarding a journal entry on refugees. “See how that changes your perspective.”
Answering this question, I think, is an adventure we get to live every day. We can reimagine political culture where we are; we can find a deeper reality, a truer reality for the way we work and govern. Order into chaos could describe our way of life—especially the way we treat those who disagree with us. There’s beauty everywhere, if we’re willing to look for it. It reflects our Creator, and we get to reflect that beauty too, if we accept it as our calling. I know in our politics, our country is desperate for it. I’m confident all of this dysfunction we experience is creating a stirring in our souls; as we conclude our desert journey, a new spirit is in operation: LIBERATUS—we are set free.
WEEKLY ACTION ITEM:
Spend some time reading First John every day over the next week. Even if you’re not a follower of Jesus, check it out and see how your perspective begins to change—about God, about life, and what it means for your work to bring Truth and Beauty into American politics.
Have ideas you want to share? Comment below. We’d love to hear from you.
LIBERATUS is a weekly journal creatively pursuing Truth and Beauty by empowering writers in American politics to tell the story of healing through freedom. You can join the pursuit by applying to write, subscribing to the journal, or funding our vision by donating monthly or making a purchase in our store.
Cover Photo Credit: Heather Gibbons