“Now I get what you are saying”

October 1, 2020 - 12:00am -- Susanne R Janssen

“Now I get what you are saying”
John and Lori Chesser, a couple from Des Moines, Iowa, share about their 30 years developing a dialogue of life

By Susanne Janssen

Although you are both American Catholics and law school graduates, you come from different backgrounds and political beliefs. How different?

Lori: I grew up mostly in a small Midwestern college town. My dad was a college professor and my mom was a newspaper editor until I came along. I absorbed my political views from hearing them and my grandparents talk.

My own interest was in justice, which at that time of my life was focused on women’s rights and equality. I identified as a Democrat but had not investigated it much.

John: And my family is from the South and all super-conservative Republicans. My dad was a lifelong employee of a huge corporation, and my mom gave up her job as a chemistry teacher to raise four children.

I was interested in politics and already had a Reagan sticker on my car in 1976, four years before he was elected president.

How did you even start talking to each other?

Lori: We met at a party and connected based on our both being Catholic. I didn’t realize there were so few Catholics in the South. We initially focused on our world views more than on politics particularly.

I learned a lot from talking with John. His consistent principles were something I was not used to seeing lived out. He is also a deep thinker. I was challenged a bit by his conservative views; however, since my parents were not always in agreement (plus my mom was Catholic and my dad isn’t), I was not afraid of a relationship with someone with different views.

John: It sounds bizarre, but I wonder if we would have gotten married if we had met any place other than law school! In class we were forced to hear arguments we didn’t agree with, and even to make arguments we didn’t agree with.

Respecting people’s arguments can help you respect them as equals. I think ordinarily this isn’t easy. People usually see others as equal or different, but not both.

Focolare’s president Maria Voce said something really striking about equality recently: treating others as equals does not come naturally to human beings; this attitude comes from God.

Now Lori and I understand that the model for being different and equal is the Trinity — but not back then.

My parents also disagree on many points, and only my dad is Catholic. I had also spent a couple of years in the Northeast and my friends there were all left-wingers, which didn’t bother me. Politics certainly wasn’t everything to me when it came to friends or marriage, obviously.

Did your different views later make things more challenging than you expected?

Lori: Yes. We agreed on so much that our initial political activities were in sync, like writing about life issues with a priest friend of ours or being involved in some Catholic lawyer groups.

But I became even more invested in equality for women and found out, when I was asked to do a speech about the Equal Rights Amendment (which then was still in play), that John did not see things my way. He believed that women were equal, but was concerned about what the ERA would mean in practice.

I remember having the wind taken out of my sails when he expressed his views. We had started to try to live the Focolare spirituality of unity, and I remember having to take a big step to give up my ideas to really listen to him.

In the end, I was able to write the speech in a way that he was comfortable with and expressed my views. He took his own step by driving me to the speech, since I don’t like to drive on the highway.

John: We found over the years that we often initially disagreed, and our conversations would help us both grow.

It wasn’t always easy, especially when Lori became more involved in politics because of her work as an immigration lawyer. I wholeheartedly supported Lori’s decision to become an immigration attorney, but I had some concerns about the changes that immigration might have on the country.

It’s typical of conservatives to view change with suspicion, and a change in national identity is an important change. I was frustrated that she didn’t see that, and he was frustrated that I didn’t see her point of view. This went on for quite a while.

Lori: I was frustrated because I saw a reality in my work and political activities that I was unable to articulate to John. He was always supportive, though, and listened to me try. He also shared in my struggles with work and with the political changes we were trying to make.

He was also willing to go with me to events and was not afraid to meet my new friends, many of them had views quite far from his own. In fact, I remember one party we went to where he talked to people going through the immigration system — and some caught outside of it. This seemed to be a turning point for him.

John: Meeting Lori’s immigrant friends changed my perspective. Sure, they had strong views, but they were even more passionate about the American dream. We actually had a lot in common.

Recently, many organizations and writers have been promoting an ethic of civility, given the strong polarization in American politics. Has this effort influenced you in developing your dialogue?

Lori: I agree with the goals, but I don’t think it’s enough. We can’t stop at tolerating people; we have to love them. We must try to understand them. It is not enjoyable. Even with John, the love of my life, it’s hard sometimes. The temptation is to say, “yes, dear” and not change my views.

This is tolerance and ‘civility.’ It is not dialogue. Dialogue is messy and painful and only works if we are willing to love in a sacrificial way.

John: It’s tough to go beyond ‘civility’ and ‘being nice,’ because real dialogue touches on people’s identity. It makes you vulnerable. You can feel threatened. It’s safer to have some things be off limits, not to have your identity involved.

But in order to grow we have to be prepared to change. Focolare’s co-president Jesus Moran said recently that a fixed identity is a weak identity. This is my experience in dialogue with Lori. I’m not freaked out by the same things I used to be. I am more detached from my opinions.

Has your dialogue together changed you in other ways?

Lori: I appreciate the complexity of many issues because John and I discuss them. And the importance of having consistent principles. I think that having principles and having honest dialogue go together.

We must be looking for the truth together, not just pushing for what’s good for us. I no longer approach politics from the perspective of party but from trying to achieve the best results based on my beliefs and life experiences. I think both of us have crossed party lines in voting.

John: About my dialogue with Lori, I think of two things: identity and relationship. Dialogue isn’t just an intellectual exercise; it builds relationships.

God wants us to grow, to change, spiritually, mentally, emotionally. If I am attached to an identity fixed in the past, how can I grow? Our relationships should change us.

Can you give us an example of an issue you have been discussing recently?

John: We’ve been talking about what the “consistent ethic of life means,” practically speaking, in terms of actually voting.

As lay Catholics, we have a responsibility to use our own prudential judgment to apply the teachings of the Church to the political sphere. Even if we all agree on what the teachings are and what the outcome should be, it is less clear what’s the best way to arrive at the desired outcome.

Lori: Here again, we agree on so much, and then find that we have some different perspectives that we can discuss. We come back to the idea of identity and find our understanding is evolving with our life experiences.

John and I are two different people — although we do now often complete each other’s sentences! I hope this means that we can continue to have the commitment and energy to dialogue.

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