By Thom Little, Ph.D.

America is a divided nation. Everybody knows that. Everything we read and everything we hear or watch tells us that. We disagree on policies. We disagree on politics. We watch different cable networks. We read different websites. We follow different people on Twitter and Instagram. Democrats don’t like Republicans. Liberals don’t talk to conservatives unless they are screaming or typing in ALL CAPS. Can we ever come together? Can we ever bridge the many gaps that seem to divide us? I think we can and I am encouraged by the work of many, including SLLF, to do that.

For the past several years, SLLF has had the privilege of working with an organization that is making great strides in helping us build bridges and break down barriers–the National Institute of Civil Discourse (NICD). NICD was established in May, 2011 at the University of Arizona after the tragic Tucson shooting that killed six people and wounded thirteen others including former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. They are dedicated to providing advocates, elected officials and the public with the tools to work together collaboratively to tackle the problems that too often divide us.

NICD holds training programs across the country and has worked with policymakers in numerous states to bring civility back to the pubic forum. However, I want to bring to your attention one story, one relationship, that has inspired me and I believe will inspire you as well. It is a story about a very unlikely friendship between an evangelical Christian leader and a lesbian advocate for LBGTQ rights.

In 2015, Donna Red Wing was the Executive Director of One Iowa, Iowa’s largest LGBTQ organization. She was once referred to as “the most dangerous woman in America” by the Christian Coalition. Bob Vander Plaats was the long time President and CEO of The Family Leader, an evangelical Christian organization whose mission is to “Strengthen families, by inspiring Christ-like leadership in the home, the church, and the government.” When a friend of Red Wing’s passed away, she decided to honor her friend’s memory by reaching out to “the most unlikely person on the planet I would reach out to,” so she reached out to Vander Plaats and ask if he would meet her for coffee.

 According to Vander Plaats, he never expected her to follow up on her offer, but she emailed his office to confirm the meeting. Over coffee, both found they had more in common than either realized and, perhaps more importantly, that they genuinely liked each other. They talked. They laughed. They drank coffee. In short, they saw beyond the stereotypes and the differences and became friends. So they decided to meet on a regular basis. To better understand the relationship between the most unlikely friends, take a few minutes to watch this video.

 So, did these two “enemies” all of a sudden “change their stripes?” Did their ideological and policy differences disappear because of a few cups of coffee? Of course not. However, the animosity between them did disappear. They no longer viewed each other as enemies and when formulating their own positions and making public statements, they began to consider how the other would respond and be affected. According to Vander Plaats, “It hasn’t changed my beliefs. It may have changed my approach, because when we do put out a press release, when we do make a public statement, many times, I think, ‘I wonder how Donna will view this?”” Red Wing shared a similar view of her relationship with Vander Plaats, “We can fight the good fight in the court of public opinion, but we don’t have to hurt each other. That, I think, is the big takeaway for me. We don’t have to hurt each other, because when we do that, we are hurting ourselves.”

Sadly, Donna Red Wing passed away in 2018 after a months long battle with cancer. Surprising to many, Bob Vander Plaats gave the eulogy at her funeral. In that eulogy, he spoke emotionally  of his love for Donna and his compassion for her surviving wife, children and grandchild stating, “I love her. I respected her. I will miss her. And I will never be the same because of her.”

NICD’s Next Generation program has used the video of Bob and Donna for nearly 5 years to inspire state legislators to consider building relationships with members from across the aisle. In early August, Next Generation invited Bob and Donna’s wife Sumitra to speak together at their annual meeting. 

I had the honor of meeting Bob Vander Plaats and his wife Darla at the reception that followed. They were seated and chatting with Sumitra. As you can see, Donna Red Wing left an inspiring legacy of friendship and bridging a seemingly unbridgeable divide simply by asking someone for coffee. In her own words, Red Wing stated, “Here’s the deal. If Bob and I can have coffee. If we can tell stories and get to know each other, if we can like each other, I think almost anyone can find that person in their life and maybe they can reach out their hand and invite them in.”

Do you have the courage to reach out “to the most unlikely person on the planet” and invite them for coffee? If you do, you may find that your opponent does not have to be your enemy and we will all be the better for it.