A shooting on Saturday at a synagogue in Pittsburgh left at least 11 people dead. Earlier this week, at least 14 pipe bombs were sent to prominent Democrats and their supporters — apparently because of their political views.
But even before this week’s events, people across Pennsylvania were saying they are frustrated with the tone of the country’s public discourse and the lack of civility. They say they’re hoping for more unity.
That message might have special resonance in Gettysburg — the site of the epic civil war battle in 1863. It went down as one of this country’s bloodiest, where more than 50,000 Americans were injured or killed over the course of three days.
But now, in 2018, a group of residents in Gettysburg has been meeting up in a historic church to practice what others preach: bringing people of different political views together. It’s called Politics, Facts and Civility.
Democrat Kerr Thompson, a former college professor, founded the group in 2017. Darcy Maier, also a Democrat, joined the group through her friendship with Thompson. Republican Chad Collie is also a member and says he got involved after the 2016 presidential campaign.
“During the 2016 campaign, I saw a lot of incivility, a lot of anger, a lot of resentment and saw that coming to a boiling point in many ways and it encouraged me to stop and think about what was going on in the nation,” Collie says.
In 2016 and years prior, Collie says he was very politically involved and served as the vice chairman of the local Republican Party. After the election, he says he resigned from the position “and made a vow to myself to get more involved in the community, in talking to people who were on the other side of the aisle.”
While Collie joined out of what he felt was a need he had, Maier says she didn’t initially seek out this bipartisan conversation.
“I have always been a pretty staunch Democrat,” she says. “I never really thought about how important it was to bridge the divide until I got involved. I think that realizing that there is valid points to be made on both sides and that there is a balance that we can find is, has just been a real eye-opening experience for me.”
Maier says the conversations she’s had have been “invaluable for me opening my horizons.”
When Thompson started the group, he says he just hoped people would come together and “come to understand each other more.”
“I am very convinced … that there are valid points on all sides,” Thompson says. “I am very blue, blue voter, but I think that that red voters have valid points that it will enrich all of us if we can listen to each other.”
Maier says it took Thompson’s encouragement to come to the group, but “it was the surprise at the civility of the conversation that made me stay.”
As a fairly quiet person Maier says she doesn’t often express herself well in group situations and doesn’t want to go to places where there will be arguing, but in the group’s environment, everyone encourages each other and listens to what the others say.
For members of the group, the rhetoric of President Trump is a frequent topic of conversation.
“Well, I would I would just begin by saying that I was also concerned with Trump’s incivility during the campaign specifically and some of the things he’s said since then have been very uncivil,” Collie says. “Every president that we’ve ever had has had pros and cons, and if I was able to talk to President Trump today, I would I would challenge him on that and I would encourage him to be more civil, especially on Twitter.”
Seeing this as one of Trump’s weaknesses, Collie says that’s why he is participating in these conversations.
“That’s one of the reasons that I try to speak up more for civility, because I think everyone should have influence, including the president of the United States,” Collie says. “I think his tone has changed some. I think some of his policies, some of the things that have been enacted have been very good for the country. But I think that’s something that he specifically has to work on himself. And I’m not afraid to say that.”
Hearing each other
Maier admits that she and Collie do have differing opinions and views on a lot of issues, but that they still keep their discussions civil.
“It’s because we both have a commitment to listening and when we sit down at the table with each other, we come with an open mind, really wanting to know what the other person thinks about an issue and not trying to win the argument,” she says.
She says they know the conversations won’t end with one of them changing the other’s mind, but that that’s not the goal.
“Our goal is really curiosity and an open heart,” Maier says.
As people begin to head to the polls for this year’s midterm elections, the group says there are some things to keep in mind that could help open up similar discussions in other parts of the country.
“My first advice to people would be ‘vote,’ ” Thompson says. “I think we need to come to realize that we have started thinking of politics as win-lose, or life in general as win-lose, that I have to beat you to do well. And, actually where we have had the most progress and civilization is when we have learned to work together to everyone’s benefit.”
The groups also acknowledges their location in Gettysburg might give their conversations a special resonance.
“I think that when we think about the fact that we’re meeting at the church, called the Prince of Peace, which was built as a memorial of reconciliation between the North and the South after the Civil War, I think that that says a lot about what our community stands for and the work that we’re trying to do,” Maier says.
NPR’s Hiba Ahmad and Ammad Omar produced and edited the audio for this story. Wynne Davis produced it for digital.