Catholics Down the Road, But a World Apart

It was a beautiful day. Too nice, if you ask me, for early November in the upper Midwest, but nice nonetheless. US Highway 52 winds north along the west side of the Mississippi River, crisscrossing northeastern Iowa’s rolling hills and the driftless region of southeastern Minnesota. It was the deer opener, so there were plenty of pickups parked on the shoulder, a fact which should’ve given me a bit more pause before we pulled off so my wife could nurse our two month old son. Despite not wearing blaze orange, our pit stop went just fine.

Looking back, it makes sense what we saw along Highway 52 as we wound our way north the Saturday before election day. The signs. The Trump signs. Lots of them, all shapes and sizes, both homemade and campaign-supplied. Sure, a few Clinton-Kane signs dotted the drive here and there, but this was clearly a trip through Trump territory. And as we pulled into the driveway of our home, nestled in our urban neighborhood, totally insulated in the growing metropolis of the Twin Cities, I thought to myself: “Yeah, well, yard signs don’t vote.”

Fast forward to today, after the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States, and suffice it to say, though they may not vote, yard signs certainly do paint a pretty powerful picture. But besides the signs, what I can’t get out of my head is, on this drive from my hometown of Davenport, Iowa to Saint Paul, Minnesota, we not only passed dozens (hundreds?) of Trump signs, but a good number of Catholic churches as well. No doubt the parishioners of these churches, my fellow Catholics, were some of the farmers, the small town residents, the exurban dwellers who planted those very Trump signs in their yards and then went on to cast the ballots that helped vault him to the White House.

And what’s most troubling to me is this: I don’t know a single one of them.

And how could I? Each Sunday, my family makes the short three-block walk down to our mainly white, mainly upper class city parish to celebrate Mass. It’s a wonderful community of faith and fellowship, with an intelligent, caring pastor and vibrant parish school. While I suspect more than a few members of the parish voted for Trump, they never talked about it. The  tone and tenor of our hymns, homilies, intentions, and conversations leads me to believe that most parishioners, most Catholics, rejected Trump’s candidacy, in large part because of their faith. At least I did.

But just a short drive away, down Highway 52, or east on I-94, or north on Highway 169, it appears that many Catholics embraced Trump’s candidacy, deciding to do so perhaps also because of their faith. This obviously isn’t the first time Catholics have come to different decisions in the political sphere. And the question isn’t so much as to why we ended up at different conclusions on Trump’s fitness for the office. The question, rather, is how we, as Church, have failed to tend to our shared identity as Catholics, how we’ve failed to connect ourselves through Eucharist to those with whom we may share little else besides Eucharist.

I, and many urban Catholics I know, don’t have the slightest clue as to why these rural Catholics voted as they did because, put simply, I don’t know these rural Catholics. And truthfully, I don’t know many Latino Catholics, or African American Catholics, or “insert qualifier here” Catholics either. And while I certainly shoulder the blame for my own lack of bridge building in this regard, this reality of “not knowing” illustrates a central problem: our shared faith, our Catholicity, is not a bridge over the cultural chasms that exist in America today.

And that’s a shame. Because if the communion we claim is to be real, to be lived, it has to unite all of us who gather around the table of the Lord, whether that table is in Minneapolis or Millville, Saint Paul or Saint Charles. The Catholics in the rural Midwest whose signs I saw on the road are every bit as believing as me, and I don’t know a thing about them: their joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties. That’s the stuff of prayer, right there, the stuff we don’t know about each other. And it’s sad to say that we, the Church of rural and urban America, have apparently done very little to make our prayer together.

Still only a few days since the election, and this reality of “not knowing,” of missing communion, lingers. Reasons for this reality and ideas on how to respond pop up in mind like those signs I saw on the road last Saturday. But the questions I return to are these: What does it mean to be Catholic up and down Highway 52? How do believers in the same faith, on the same road, end up at such different destinations during an election year like this? And what are we, as a Church, going to do to move from being just people in cars and people with yard signs to being fellow travelers on the way?

Joe Kolar is a communications and development professional with over a decade of experience in the field of Catholic education. He is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago and holds a Master of Divinity from the University of Notre Dame.