NEWARK, Ohio — Janine Shipley and Ron Hall don’t agree on anything.
They live five miles apart from each other. But politically, they might as well be on different planets.
Shipley, 62, is an unapologetic Democrat who married into a proud liberal family of dairy farmers in Licking County, 45 minutes east of Columbus. She’s a retired pharmacist and a loving grandmother who has made the mistake of going down a political rabbit hole in the comment section of a Facebook friend’s post one too many times.
Hall is an unabashed Donald Trump supporter, a former hippie and the interim minister at the Newark Central Christian Church. A computer software programmer by trade, Hall, 71, also belongs to a local “old man coffee klatch,” where he often ribs his liberal buddies across the political aisle.
The duo met in 1991 when Hall came to pastor at a little country church north of Granville where Shipley was a member.
When Hall, who retired from the pulpit four years ago, was asked to step in at Newark Central Christian last fall, he asked if Shipley would be a guest organist. She agreed.
It was around the same time Shipley stumbled across Braver Angels, a nonprofit founded in the wake of the 2016 election to help reunite “red” and “blue” America.
Braver Angels:‘It answers a call’: Depolarization workshop encourages Ohioans on both sides of political divide to practice empathy
After 30 years of friendship, a shared sense of faith and a desperate urge to understand – not just each other, but also the deeply polarized country we live in – Shipley and Hall were seemingly perfect candidates for the virtual “Red/Blue Workshop” Braver Angels hosted over two Saturday afternoons in May.
Drop your guard and listen
The “Red/Blue Workshop,” which Braver Angels moderators host over the course of two, three-hour sessions, is focused on debunking stereotypes, establishing trust and building skills to have one-on-one conversations between “reds” and “blues.”
Prior to the workshop, Shipley had a hard time listening to conservatives she disagreed with, even though she had been to previous Braver Angels events.
“I became more aware of how defensive I can get,” she said. “I was argumentative before, and did not listen well because I was always thinking of the next thing to say.”
Hall said he was impressed that the organization focused so intently on stereotypes and recalled that many of the “blue” participants were amazed that not all conservatives wanted to end immigration or were blatant racists.
“The demarcations in our society are stark and deep,” he said.
As a young adult during President Jimmy Carter’s administration before Hall went into the seminary, he was a self-proclaimed “hippie.”
“By the end of the ’70s, I came to the conclusion that a lot we thought should happen already had, but the results weren’t good,” he said.
So Hall voted for Ronald Reagan and turned his back on the Democratic party. But he can respect the liberal-leaning positions others take, partly because of his own political history and partly because of the varied personalities and perspectives he’s encountered through the church.
“I always consider the active possibility I could be wrong,” he said.
Shipley said having those active listening skills reinforced, learning not to interrupt and ask clarifying questions led to refreshing and productive dialogue.
“You have to open your mind that the opposition could be right and you could be wrong,” she said.
Finding the ‘humanity’ in each other
Both Shipley and Hall agree that solving the deeper polarization in our country won’t be as simple as logging into a Zoom call for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon.
Shipley was partly motivated to attend the workshop because of her fear that the country is headed for a civil war between fringe groups on the left and right. The attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 especially terrified her.
“You can’t erase those pictures from your brain,” she said. “And I don’t want it to happen again, and I live in fear that it will happen again, and I fear it’ll be the Democrats if they lose the next election.”
Hall, on the other hand, understands why there are folks who were motivated to such extreme acts. There are many people, including himself, who are still skeptical that Trump lost the presidential election.
And according to the latest poll conducted by Reuters/Ipsos, Hall is not alone. A quarter of Americans, including 53% of Republicans, still view Trump as the “true president,” despite the fact that the Electoral College certified Joe Biden’s victory and former Vice President Mike Pence declared Biden the winner just hours after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
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“I think anybody who views somebody that thinks differently than them as less human has lost part of their humanity,” Hall said.
He sees that friction tearing apart the church as Christians divide among themselves either as members of the liturgical left or religious right.
And while he can jab his liberal pals over coffee, Hall also knows there are some people among his family, friends and parishioners with whom he can’t begin to talk politics.
“I question whether there’s anything that can be done in a macro way to deal with this,” he said. “But Braver Angels’ attempt to do this in a micro way is good.”
‘Our nation is worth saving’
Despite the uphill battle, Shipley and Hall are committed to establishing a Braver Angels alliance in Newark.
The three decades of friendship between the pair has led to a lot of arguments, but a lot of productive partnership as well.
“I want to bring it to our church,” Shipley said. “I think it would be good breeding ground for people wanting to run for office to understand the other side.”
Hall believes they can spruce up enough in the community to create an alliance, especially because he and Shipley both believe there is truth in the news — caught somewhere in between Rachel Maddow and Tucker Carlson’s rhetoric.
“Once the 24-hour news cycle started you had a situation where different networks found a niche,” he explained,” and they strengthened that niche by being as inflammatory as possible.”
Hall and Shipley both hope their contribution to Braver Angels’ grassroots movement will encourage Ohioans in Licking County to critically think about how they perceive the news, research both sides of an issue and take time to develop an analysis.
“Because if we do,” Hall said, “I hope we’ll be able to recognize each other’s humanity and we’ll be able to dig deep and say that’s what really happened.”
Admittedly, it’s going to take a lot of work, Shipley said.
“But our nation is worth saving.”
How to get involved
The USA TODAY Network Ohio has partnered with Braver Angels since January, as part of the news organization’s Healing Ohio initiative.
That initiative — to foster conversations between fractured Ohioans — is part of the news organization’s mission this year throughout all 21 news sites around Ohio, in cities such as Akron, Cincinnati, Columbus and smaller towns such as Alliance, Bucyrus and Chillicothe.
“Our news organization partnered with Braver Angels in part because one of our roles in society is to foster conversation,” said Alan D. Miller, editor of the Columbus Dispatch and regional editor of USA TODAY Network Ohio. “We also know that we need to be active participants in the conversation — especially when it comes to listening and working harder to understand what Ohioans across the political spectrum are thinking and feeling.”
For more information about Braver Angels’ workshops, or to sign up for a one-to-one conversation, find more information at https://braverangels.org/online/1-1-conversations/ (Ohioans can enter OH in the “code” field) or email Beverly Horstman at [email protected]
In addition, USA TODAY and the USA TODAY Network would like to invite you to take part in America Talks, a virtual event bringing thousands of Americans together across political differences.
The dialogues will be held during the weekend of June 12 and 13. The event kicks off the fourth annual National Week of Conversation, from June 14 to June 20.
Céilí Doyle is a Report for America corps member and covers rural issues in Ohio for The Dispatch. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation at https://bit.ly/3fNsGaZ.