In the aftermath of an earthquake in American politics, and widespread anxiety about what course this country may take over the next few years, many Asheville clergy are wrestling with finding answers for themselves — and for congregants caught up in a raw moment of soul-searching.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 9, a nasty, bruising campaign ended in political newcomer Donald Trump’s stunning upset of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — defying leading polls and media pundits.
Asheville was a lonely bubble of Democratic blue amid a sea of Republican red counties, state Board of Elections maps show. Buncombe County voters decisively favored Clinton over Trump, 54.3 percent to 40.1 percent. But the real estate developer-turned-reality-TV-star garnered 73.3 percent of the vote in McDowell, 62 percent in Haywood and Henderson, and 60.2 percent in Madison. Trump went on to win 76 of the Tar Heel State’s 100 counties, claiming North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes early on in a preview of the eventual outcome.
Yet many in Asheville and the rest of the country never saw it coming, which added to the shock and bewilderment some people felt.
The following Sunday, the Rev. Steve Runholt took the pulpit at Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church. Rattled by the election results and the Trump transition team’s first controversial moves, he had to dig deep into his Christian faith, his experience as a pastor and his understanding of theology. The resulting sermon offered no easy consolations.
“In moments like these, when the world we’ve always known shifts underneath us, when we feel threatened or uncertain or anxious about the future, we all want to be assured that things are going to be OK,” said Runholt. “I’m not going to make that promise, because I think we all know that things are not going to be OK — at least not in the short term. America is going to change in the days to come. Sadly, there is no doubt about this, because the change has already started.”
Like so many others, the Rev. Jim Dykes says he was surprised by the outcome. “The election upset, I think, does speak to what pollsters missed: this very broad disappointment and frustration with the last eight years of progressive administration, maybe the last 16 years,” notes Dykes, pastor of the 1,800-member North Asheville Baptist Church for the last 27 years.
And looking ahead, he thinks Trump and his team now face a huge responsibility. “It’s important for the president-elect to try to move us together and bring the country back together. How he does that, I don’t know, but it’s up to him.”
Powers and realities
The Rev. Guy Sayles, former pastor at Asheville’s First Baptist Church, had been scheduled as guest preacher at The Cathedral of All Souls in Biltmore Village that Sunday.
“Part of the frustration — and anger and grief — that Clinton’s supporters felt was their stunned realization that about half of the people in their country weren’t frustrated at all,” he told his audience. “They didn’t want to believe that their fellow citizens had put a man they see as a racist and a misogynist in the White House. Trump’s supporters, on the other hand, couldn’t understand how anyone could have wanted to elect someone they see as dishonest, too scripted and beholden to special interests.
“We can all see that we live in a bitterly divided nation, and the division isn’t simply into two different worlds but into multiple ones.
“We all share fear in common. Fear voted, and fear takes to the streets.
“All of us — left, right, center; red, blue and purple — feel gripped by powers and realities we can’t comprehend or control and which diminish and demean us. The fear we have in common is the greatest threat to the love we could have for each other. Fear keeps us from singing and dancing together as beloved children of God.”
A call to keep working
The Rev. Todd Donatelli, the rector at All Souls, reached out to his parishioners in a blog post, cautioning against easy answers or trying to process complex emotions too quickly. “I’ve talked in the past about the importance of our need as a culture to breathe after significant events in our collective lives: how we need to resist the idolatry and hubris of the 24-hour news ethos, in which is practiced the belief that we can name immediately what momentous events are about.”
Instead, Donatelli wrote, this is “one of those times where some deep breaths, some deep pauses, are called for; where some spaces to feel and connect to the myriad feelings emerging in us as a people are needed.”
Many, said the Episcopal priest, are going through the various stages of grief defined by psychiatrist and author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. “I’ve been thinking about anger, denial, despair, bargaining — they are never in neat order,” noted Donatelli. “We get to the despair part when we recognize the anger and bargaining aren’t getting us anywhere. How do we then move into an acceptance that isn’t submission but a call to keep working on our lives, both communal and personal?”
Stopping the vitriol
At Congregation Beth HaTephila in Asheville, Rabbi Batsheva Meiri preached on Veterans Day, the Friday following the election, paying tribute to those who’d protected the Constitution and the nation with their lives.
“For me, the future depends on ceasing fire, stopping the vitriol and beginning the work of peace,” she said. “It’s time for all the citizenry of the United States to get to work on making our nation worthy of you, our veterans, and also those who sacrificed their lives so we could pursue peace and share our prosperity with all those who live in our country.”
Meiri urged soul-searching rather than placing blame. “If I learn anything from this bloody battle for the future of our country, it is that I shouldn’t be surprised. I fell asleep — we fell asleep — on the job. We closed our eyes to so many people in the heart of this country who were left behind, who have until this moment felt invisible. We shut our ears and didn’t listen to those whose voices have been silenced or whose lives are so bitter they haven’t strength to speak up, to speak out,” she continued.
Throughout the Republican primaries and the general election, Trump’s message resonated with voters who identified themselves as evangelical white Christians. The candidate won a record 81 percent of this demographic’s votes, versus just 16 percent for Clinton, according to the Pew Research Center’s postelection survey.
For Dykes, however, it was just another Sunday service. “I didn’t preach about it,” he says. “I didn’t think it was something that we needed to gloat about if some folks were happy. I’m sure there were plenty who were. But at the same time, for folks on the other side, not saying, ‘Woe is us.’”
The Sunday before Election Day, Dykes says he’d told his audience that “God would still be on his throne Wednesday, no matter who would win the White House. I didn’t mention the election beyond saying that we have the right and responsibility to engage in the process. As Bible believers, I think we ought to prayerfully engage and vote for the candidates we think would most align with biblical values.”
At Pole Creek Baptist Church in Candler, the Rev. Dennis Thurman says he heard little discussion about the election and steered clear of politics from the pulpit. “I didn’t mention it the next Sunday. You can look at the polling numbers from Pole Creek’s site and note that Trump was the overwhelming choice. Honestly, I didn’t like either choice.”
The quaint countryside church serves as the polling place for Buncombe County’s Precinct 49.1. Trump tallied 559 votes (69 percent) compared with 198 votes (about 24 percent) for Clinton.
“Though I’m glad Hillary lost, I have no great hope that Trump will be much different,” Thurman said in an email. “Of course, I could be wrong — and hope I am. We pray for the nation and its leaders. I’m concentrating on what I can do something about — sharing the Gospel, making disciples, loving people and helping them to grow in their love for God.”
The hand of God
Franklin Graham, the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham and head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, had campaigned in all 50 states, urging Christians to vote for biblical values. As the head of a nonprofit ministry, Graham is barred by federal law from making outright endorsements, but he’s never been shy about supporting conservative policies. And Trump was among the long list of politicos and celebrities who showed up for Billy Graham’s 95th birthday celebration at the Omni Grove Park Inn in 2013.
In a Nov. 9 Facebook post, Graham congratulated Trump on his upset victory while calling for unity. “We need to pray for our new president, vice president and our other leaders every day — whether we agree with them or not,” he wrote. “It is my prayer that we will truly be ‘one nation under God.’”
Two days after the election, however, Graham took a stronger stand on Facebook, writing, “While the media scratches their heads and tries to understand how this happened, I believe that God’s hand intervened Tuesday night to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control of our country.”
Taking deep breaths
Over at the Great Tree Zen Temple, the Rev. Teijo Munnich says she finds herself meditating more, focusing on the “tonglen” practice of Tibetan Buddhism to deal with difficult emotions and cultivate lovingkindness and forgiveness for the president-elect.
“If we get caught up in fear and anger and just protest movements, you’re going to miss the real thing that you need to be doing right now,” she maintains. “For my practice, that’s the value of sitting down and taking a few deep breaths and asking yourself, ‘What is going on right now?’ And saying that for the next four years.”
Munnich says she was shocked by the election results, perhaps as much as Donald Trump himself. Having watched Trump’s victory speech, she says, “There’s a man who can’t believe he just won.”
Elder Alfred Blount of Tried Stone Missionary Baptist Church says he’s been hearing similar sentiments from congregants unsettled by the prospect of a Trump administration.
“What are we going to do? What’s going to happen? Where do we go from here? That’s what I’m hearing from folks,” Blount reveals. “But we have the reassurance that the God we serve is able to deliver us, carry us through, regardless of who is in the White House. For his children, we’re going to be OK.”
Still, a minister’s job isn’t easy at such times, he concedes, since parishioners often hold diverse opinions. “You’re dealing with people who are uncertain, and you have to deal with people who don’t think church is the place to deal with political matters.”
Beacons of light
Many local religious leaders, though, are urging not just faith and prayers but concrete action.
The day after the election, Byron Ballard opened the Mother Grove Goddess Temple on Woodfin Place, lighting candles on the north altar and playing soft music. Friends who practice earth religions and faith in the divine feminine gathered to express their fears.
“We all feel that we are facing enormous challenges that will require our best — our thinking, feeling, strategic and worshipful best,” she said afterward. “Challenging times require strength and vision, and the help of the divines and our ancestors. These are the times we are made for.”
Runholt, meanwhile, says his congregants are starting to move past their initial shock. “People are starting to ask, ‘What can we do?’”
He’s urging people to contact or donate to the NAACP (naacp.org), Anti-Defamation League (adl.org), Southern Poverty Law Center (splcenter.org) or the Asheville-based Compañeros Inmigrantes de las Montañas en Acción (cimawnc.org).
Beyond that, continues Runholt, “We’re thinking about specific ways we can be a beacon of light and hope to our neighbors who may be feeling lost or afraid in these anxious times, to assure those who now wonder if their lives matter that they do matter, and to build relationships with our fellow citizens who may not see the world in the same way we do.”