Seeing our Nation with 20/20 Vision
At the beginning of 2020, I went to the optometrist for my annual eye exam. I depend on contact lenses so I might hide the 12-inch bifocals that would otherwise weigh down my face. As he completed the examination and started to write out my new prescription, I could just barely make out a curious look on his face. With a lifted head he revealed the issue,
“Somehow your vision has gotten significantly better over the last year.”
I asked if this was a common occurrence. He replied that this can happen, but the degree to which my eyesight improved was unusual. As a person of faith, I just figured that Jesus had healed my blindness like he had so many other times in the Bible.
I thanked him, wished him a happy new year. He said,
“Happy new year, Mr. Polk. I hope you have 20/20 vision when I see you next.”
I did not think much of it then, but as I look back, his statement now rings prophetic. From COVID-19 to the death of George Floyd, and the extremely polarizing nature of partisan politics, I can see more clearly that we should not take for granted the current state of our country. As I’m writing this, historic mob violence is taking place on Capitol Hill -- evidence of how imperative it is that persons of all faiths restrain from letting today’s partisanship cloud our principles. Instead, we should be working together to rebuild communities that are commissioned and equipped to empathetically bridge divides and solve our most intractable problems, including preserving the basic tenants of our democracy.
Martin Luther King, Jr. did not build a movement that was exclusive to one faith. The civil rights movement embraced people of all faiths and creeds. As a Christian preacher with a prophetic message, he reached into the hearts of people saying, “I have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” His message was not one that apologized for America’s failings but instead called us to accountability, to live up to the highest of standards set by the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Today we must still hold these truths to be self-evident: that we are created equal and are therefore capable, when all barriers are removed, to live up to our greatest potential.
It has been rare for me to find safe places where I could process the impact of COVID, how I planned to vote in the presidential election or even my feelings about racial injustice in America. I pride myself on ‘riding the middle’ so hard that it’s difficult for others to put me in an ideological box. I’m confident that I’m not unique in this, but our faith communities must take up the responsibility and mantle of leadership that models how to create spaces for civil discourse, forgiveness, and redemption without threats of coercion, disconnection, or retaliation.
We are all desperately in need of connection and belonging and yet somehow, we have predictably fallen prey to fear, causing us to withhold respect and kindness from one another. One need only look to the Americans who have lost their jobs and are not able to make rent payments or keep their businesses afloat. We don’t have to look beyond the social isolation that K-12 and college students are enduring, sparking increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. We have grown to a place where even violence has become an increasingly more acceptable means to manage our anger and pain.
During my time leading our work on racial justice and the Courageous Collaborations Initiative, I have seen firsthand the impact of nonprofit leaders and social entrepreneurs across the country, especially those who are taking a faith-based approach to encourage peaceful pluralism, nonviolence, and collaborative problem-solving. We embarked on this work very intentionally in the last year, investing $2 Million in social entrepreneurs to address the threats of identity-based violence and to build a national bottom-up movement for social healing.
I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of working with groups like Interfaith Youth Core to advance programming for students that empowers courageous pluralism on college campuses. One America Movement is an organization that takes an interfaith approach to train faith leaders on how to combat polarization in their congregations and communities. Our partnership with Millions of Conversations aims to eradicate anti-Muslim sentiment by bringing Americans together around common values for a shared future. In the wake of George Floyd’s death Stand Together has worked closely with Urban Specialists, a group that works to reduce violence in urban culture through building bridges, to produce the Heal America Tour which brought together influencers and experts from across the country to have an honest conversation about race, citizenship, and viable solutions to issues like segregation in K-12 education, policing in communities, the drug war, poverty, and more.
Despite the disturbing normalization of intolerance and violence, we have seen today, groups like these give me hope that we can see the change we are longing for. Faith-based organizations have long been supporting local communities through conflict mediation, acts of service to the disenfranchised, and community organizing. They are closest to -- and therefore understand best -- solutions to the most pressing issues. We will not achieve the goal of creating a healthier society that bridges cultural, political, and racial divides by ignoring faith communities or without investing in programs that empower them to model patience, curiosity, hope, and compassion while producing outcomes that remove barriers to personal transformation and flourishing.
This work of healing will eventually move beyond conversations and into some form of action. There is a call for us to not stray away from interfaith cooperation that lifts up the ideals of this country, that believes in people, in our potential for transformation, and in our uncanny ability, even when surrounded by darkness, to grow even more in our resiliency, rising alongside the sun with a fresh commitment to one another and to create a better world.
Branden Polk is a program officer at Stand Together and the Charles Koch Institute focused on racial justice and Courageous Collaborations.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.