At the end of March 2020, I found myself driving a route I’d taken many times: Interstate 80 followed by 90 across six states along the southern shores of the Great Lakes. A flat, dull route across farmlands I’d come to know well since moving to Iowa in 2015 and driving at least twice a year to visit my elderly parents in Buffalo, New York.
But this was no ordinary journey. The previous night I’d made a snap-judgment decision, packed a suitcase in haste, and was at that moment driving empty roads lined with signs announcing stay-at-home orders. Two weeks prior, the rapidly spreading Covid-19 virus had been declared a global pandemic. Governor Andrew Cuomo had locked down New York State, with a special order for elders not to leave their homes. My parents, who are staunch Republicans and loath to take orders from a Democratic governor, had no intention of following those rules. They continued to visit friends, eat in indoor restaurants, and receive communion at Mass even after the diocese had officially called in-person Masses off. They were, at the time, 80 and 78. Both had pre-existing medical conditions. I feared I would never see them alive again.
The next three and a half months were not easy. As soon as I got back to my childhood home, I parked my parents in and hid their car keys. I did all their grocery shopping, deflecting my father’s complaints that I had bought the wrong bread or inadequate ice cream. I cooked for them most days, accompanied them on rides to natural areas, tried to make Easter and Mothers’ Day at least somewhat bearable. And I bit my tongue when they talked about their beloved president, Donald Trump, and what a great job he was doing in handling the pandemic. My mother went so far as to write a letter to the editor of the local paper praising Trump’s leadership, a letter I typed and submitted for her online while praying it would not be printed (it was not).
For the past 20 years, my parents and I have stood on opposite sides of the political fence. Though never ones to vote straight down a party’s ticket, by this century they had both settled quite firmly on the Republican side: my father primarily for economic reasons (a blue-collar worker, he has always felt a firm right to not have his hard-earned money taken from him), and my mother because of her firm stance against abortion.
The very first election I voted for was in 1988, when my kindergarten teacher made us write our choices on small strips of paper, with a “B” for Bush or a “D” for Dukakis. I guess this was the teacher’s way of gauging the parents’ political views, and it was the only time I voted for a Bush. My next election was not until 2004, when I was legally of age. That time I picked John Kerry, and I have generally voted for Democrats since. My parents, meanwhile, have become more staunchly Republican, voting for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 and watching Fox News daily. My father swears that the US is on the verge of becoming like Stalinist Russia; my mother fears that the Democrats will one day round up elders such as herself and subject them to forced euthanasia.
My parents are good people who love me more than anything. They provided me with the best education available in the US: Catholic school from pre-K through grade 12, followed by four years at a prestigious liberal arts college. Over a period of 15 years, they hosted exchange students from five countries; they regularly donate to charitable causes; they would stop to help any stranger on the street who needed to jump-start a car.
They also display a delightful sense of humor. Just a few Christmases ago, I struggled to react politely to the main gift they’d gotten me: a raised toilet seat. “There was a buy-one-get-one deal at the store,” explained my mother, who had herself been using a raised toilet seat while dealing with bad arthritis. “You sometimes have older people come to visit,” my father said. When I opened the box, the actual gift was a gorgeous new winter coat. The toilet seat had been a Christmas prank.
My parents taught me several of my core values: generosity, compassion, and hospitality. So how, I wonder, have we come to sit on opposite sides of the US political divide? That question becomes even more puzzling when I ponder how my entire upbringing occurred within the structure of the Catholic Church.
Until I turned 14 I did not know a single person who was not Catholic except for my aunt, a Christian fundamentalist. Everyone else in our social circle was Catholic. We attended Mass every Sunday at Infant of Prague, a church whose post–World War II architecture mirrored the 1950s Buffalo suburb where we lived. My earliest memories are of sitting beside my mother at age two or three, watching people with their heads bowed and wondering why they were making such strange postures, feeling slightly bewildered as they intoned words in unison, seeing everyone line up for communion and knowing the Mass was nearly at its end.
My second grade teacher explained the rhythms of the Mass, the meanings behind the Liturgy of the Word, the offertory, and the Eucharist. It began to make sense. Soon I was preparing for my first reconciliation followed by communion. All of this was in the context of parochial school, where I spent preschool through eighth grade with pretty much the same group of 20 kids. We began each day with a morning offering. At noon we interrupted our class to stand and say the angelus. There was a prayer at the final 2:30 bell. On Fridays the whole school attended Mass. In October and May we gathered to pray the rosary. As we got older we learned about liberation theology, with my eighth grade teacher showing us a biopic on Oscar Romero. We also learned, at the high school level, about sexual morality as taught by Pope John Paul II.
Today, recalling the Catholic bubble I grew up in provokes much nostalgia. My parents never moved houses after they married; my childhood bedroom remains intact in the house my parents still own. An older millennial, I am of the last generation who spent hours reading, writing, and daydreaming in solitude without the constant company of electronic devices. I was a prayerful child, often saying a rosary novena in solitude. By seventh grade I often attended daily Mass before school. At that age I had never doubted God’s existence.
This religious practice was infused with a strong ethnic consciousness. My great-great uncle was a priest commissioned to migrate to the US and establish Buffalo’s first Polish-American church. When I was nine years old my mother signed me up for a Saturday language school held there, something that would have a huge impact on me later. On multiple occasions as an adult I have traveled to Poland to study the language, volunteer as an English teacher, and relish Polish culture.
Cracks began to appear in the edifice of my belief when I turned 13. It started when I left my suburban-neighborhood parochial school for an urban high school where most of the students came from much more affluent families than mine. Though the school was Catholic, it was the first place where I was exposed to people of other faith backgrounds. On the first day at lunch, a secular Jew who would later go on to become a dear friend questioned my beliefs in God, sowing a doubt I’d never felt before. Though I have remained Catholic, I have perennially questioned my faith ever since.
It is amazing how so much in our lives comes down to chance. On September 11, 2001, I was a freshman at a small liberal arts college just outside New York City. Like everyone else, I was horrified. I remember my mother calling my dorm-room phone in a panic: “A plane just hit the World Trade Center—there’s going to be a war!” My first reaction was denial. But as classes were canceled and students gathered on the lawn to wait for more news, I realized I had just emerged from the sheltered bubble I’d been raised in. The world was a much scarier, more complex place than I had known. But while my friends at more conservative colleges found themselves attending “United We Stand” rallies in support of the war, I was soon sitting on a bus to Washington, DC, joining groups of young people from around the country gathered to march against it.
My father blames my education for inculcating me with liberal ideas. However, I maintain that my core values stem from what my parents taught me. As a kid my father took me on countless hikes and fishing expeditions, teaching me an appreciation of nature that to this day fills me with concern for the loss of biodiversity on our planet. My mother’s determination to make sure I knew my roots by placing me in the Polish Saturday School also taught me to resist racism, as the school’s old Polish neighborhood is now predominantly African American. During the urban crime spike of the 1990s, some relatives told my mother that she was “looking to get us shot” by bringing me to that area, but she taught me not to be afraid of a community that looked a little different from the one where we lived. As a volunteer for an organization that helps mental health patients, a member of the parish pro-life committee, and a volunteer in a nursing home, she introduced me to activism and civic engagement.
It is due to my parents’ influence that I now volunteer as a Spanish-English interpreter for immigrants—documented and undocumented—in my current home of Dubuque, Iowa. It is due to their influence that I got involved with the Catholic Worker movement and over the past few years have hosted low-income youth in my home as they get back on their feet. It is due to them that I continue to attend Mass, to pray, and to try to live by Christ’s teachings as best I can. It is due to them that I still love and cherish my Catholic faith.
Today, it is a point of sorrow for me that my mother refuses to get the Covid-19 vaccine, fearing that it contains Bill Gates’s microchip or some other damning substance. My father follows her lead. While at the start of the pandemic I was willing to resort to anything—even outright manipulation—to protect them from the virus, I now know that I need to respect their choices. We do at times engage in heated discussions over politics. But these are tempered by the deep love that we have for each other: the awareness that we have more in common than not.
As I write these words, the US remains a deeply divided place. Many thinkers, both within the church and outside of it, have raised the question of what we need to do in order to hold our nation together. During the Cold War we were bound by a common enemy; though 9/11 and its aftermath gave voice to jingoism and Islamophobia, it left Americans united in a shared sense of grief and against what was perceived as a common terrorist threat. I believe that the pandemic offered us a unique opportunity to come together as a country—indeed, as a world—to fight the virus. However, we did not take that chance. Science became politicized, which has in part led the US having the highest known rate of cases and deaths in the world. Social media has isolated us in echo chambers where we cannot even agree upon what is true.
I believe that the antidote to much division lies in our personal relationships and connections. I place much faith in the “gentle personalism” that the Catholic Worker movement espouses, recognizing the dignity of all individuals. It is our family connections and friendships that ultimately hold us together. Jesus did not teach us to love those who agree with us, or those who belong to our tribe. That is, after all, very easy to do. He specifically told us to love our enemies—a revolutionary idea both in its time and today.
Since the 2020 election I have been speaking to many people about how they communicate with loved ones across the political divide. I have spoken to two Catholic friends—one a liturgical traditionalist and staunch Republican, the other a Democrat—who formed a bond while doing Eucharistic adoration. I have spoken to a retired history professor who recently walked a part of the Appalachian Trail to find common ground with his four brothers, who all hold different political beliefs. I have spoken to a social worker who has devoted his retirement to leading workshops on overcoming polarization in our church. In all of these cases and more, I see how people are working to keep the lines of communication open, to suspend judgment and meet one another where they are, and, most important, to follow the dictum Jesus gave us on Holy Thursday: to wash one another’s feet, to put in practice the charity that we have been taught. Ultimately, it is the bonds of love—both within and across bloodlines—that will hold both our church and our nation together.
Jeannine Pitas is the author of three poetry chapbooks and the Spanish-English translator of several Latin American writers. Her translation of I Remember Nightfall by Uruguayan poet Marosa di Giorgio was shortlisted for the 2018 National Translation Award given by the American Literary Translators’ Association, and her translation of An Introduction to Octavio Paz by Mexican writer Alberto Ruy Sánchez was published by Mosaic Press in 2018. A graduate of University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature, she currently lives in Iowa and teaches literature, writing, and Spanish at the University of Dubuque. Things Seen and Unseen is her first full-length collection of poetry.