Between the Iowa Caucuses, January 3, and Epiphany, January 6
We gathered at the E. B. Lyons Interpretive Center. It was dark driving down the lane to the Nature Center at the south edge of Dubuque, Iowa. One could hardly find the way. But once there, arriving even before the announced 6:30 door-opening time, the parking lot was already full. And inside were our neighbors. I saw colleagues from Wartburg Seminary, where I'm a professor here in Dubuque, who waved us over to sit by them. There was Pat Murphy simply helping out, our State representative and former Speaker of the Iowa House. I spotted Carolyn Farrell coming in, a Roman Catholic nun from the next neighborhood over, who once served as Mayor of Dubuque.
But mostly they were the ordinary folk…no, I take that back, including Pat and Carolyn, we were all ordinary folk. Who meets at the Nature Center in the middle of winter? Well, the press wasn’t there. It was, after all, the “other” caucus night in Iowa. But people kept streaming in. At last count there were 150 and standing room only. Yes, many had come to hear the president (streaming video with some precincts in Iowa, not ours), but more significant, I believe, was these people had come to be part of a conversation in participatory democracy.
The Democrats, unlike the Republicans, each four years, do not take a secret ballot. We meet, listen, talk and then go to different parts of the room in preference groups and simply count the number of people there. Then, if some groups are too small to select one person to go on to the county caucus, people talk with each other some more, reconfigure and count again until there are viable groups.
So what was the big deal last night? I know, I know, the media was on the other side of town. I’m not sure they could have found us out in the dark woods anyway. (There were other precinct meetings in Dubuque; ours just happened to be south of town where there’s a growing population.) But I wish the media had been there, or at least some witnesses to this event at the Nature Center.
After hearing from Pat and the president and about the organizational structure of this form of participatory democracy, the question was asked if anyone there wanted to caucus for any other candidate than the president. That option was there, but no one did, so we did not divide into preference groups. Four years earlier, when the Precinct 2 Caucus was held at Wartburg Seminary, it was quite a different scene…and exciting night which ended in Barack Obama garnering about 50% of the precinct goers…but you know all about that.
Because a few precincts were gathering together last night, we then divided with half of us going downstairs to the science lab where we took small stools off tables and talked with our closer neighbors, those from down the street and the next streets over. We talked about issues and decided who would go on to represent us at the County Caucus coming up in March. We could send 7 delegates. We decided. And then one woman proposed that everyone else of us be listed as alternates. We could do that because anyone can go. Who would serve on the Platform Committee and who on the Credentials Committee? (The last is not a pro forma issue if you read my last blog.) We signed the petitions for our state and national candidates to represent us. It was easy to be involved. Oh, and yes, we passed the hat (an envelope actually) for funds to support our party’s work. Then we ratified our decisions. There was conversation, laughter, seriousness of purpose, and inclusive participation.
During Christmas…Epiphany won’t come until Friday…many of us have gathered in large churches and small, and yes in living rooms and kitchens. Two Christmas programs are memorable because of the people who participated and the message they sent. To be sure, I’m not comparing Caucus Night and Epiphany, only (because I write this day) in so far as the importance of gathering for inclusive participation. One program was on a Sunday morning in a tall sanctuary in Waterloo, Iowa, where my husband is interim pastor. No doubt in years past there were hundreds of children in the sanctuary, but this year, because the downtown congregation is smaller now, we heard the Christmas story from a rather small group of children, and, adults. Every child and youth, including the youngest who would hold the star, and the three young men who had been confirmed and, typically, no longer in attendance regularly, was included meaningfully. They knew why they were there and the importance of their participation.
The woman who wrote it told me afterwards that she had been a child she remembered not having a part and she now wanted everyone to be involved. Those robed to be the cast of Nativity figures, however, were adults, of all ages, from one holding a real baby, to a shepherd who needed help getting off his knees at the end. The children had prepared questions and the adults, in character answered them. All of us were moved by the thoughtful, real, answers, from the struggles of Joseph, to the dilemma of the in-keeper, to Herod, who confessed that sometimes people with power make bad decisions. We were there, all of us, and no one was insignificant as we pondered what we knew and what we had yet to learn from one another in this baby Jesus.
The second Christmas program I attended was here in Dubuque on a Sunday evening. The church was full; it was hard to find a seat. The script was well written and all knew their parts, challenging us to consider the story of the nativity amid our contemporary pressures. The evening ended with what might have been considered an “add-on,” but which I found to be a moving way that brought us all worshipfully together. Tina St. Aubin, a Wartburg Seminary student, doing her Educational Ministry field work at this congregation, had been teaching the children some liturgical movement in addition to their practice for the program. She had told me the adults had been standing at the edges of the practice session, joining in. And so, this Sunday evening, with the children in the nativity scene, the pre-school young ones filling the sanctuary, all the others gathered around, on the steps, up the aisle, surrounding us all. We all become participants as two women sang “Mary’s Song” (by Mark Lowry and Buddy Green):
Mary, did you know? Did you know that your baby boy would come to make you new? Did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters? Did you know that the child you delivered will soon deliver you? Did you know this sleeping child you’re holding is the great I Am?
Did you know?
Now, on a morning-after-Caucus Day of ever-ending interpretations of what an 8-vote margin means, that’s a question to ponder. Blessed Epiphany