Note: This piece was originally created by The Village Square and published on respectandrebellion.com
In 2009, when Iowa legalized same-sex marriage, political activist Donna Red Wing decided to move from the mountains of Colorado to the Midwest so she could marry her longtime partner. Four years later, another friend of Donna’s died unexpectedly - someone who had believed in “the power of bringing together people on opposite sides of an issue,” with a life-long goal “to promote civil dialogue, reconciliation and respect."
Inspired by this friend's work to improve the world, Donna decided she would try to honor her by attempting some reconciliation of her own and making peace with her biggest nemesis. As she later put it, “For a long time I’ve been really tired of the hate, and the aggression, and the snarkiness” – adding, “We are winning, but I started asking myself, ‘What kind of winners are we going to be?...I’m tired of all the hate.’”
She decided to attend a Family Leadership Summit led by a man named Bob Vander Plaats, executive director of "The Family Leader” a conservative Christian organization that advocates for public policy consistent with biblical values. Among other things, Bob’s organization had fought to defend a traditional view of marriage and successfully campaigned to unseat three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled for gay marriage. But Donna went there not to “stir up trouble,” but with a curiosity and hope to listen and learn.
With a chance to hear Bob more directly, Donna felt impressed by his sincere conviction. So she went up after the event and briefly introduced herself - finding him “surprisingly friendly.” She suggested they meet for coffee sometime. And a few days later, she emailed the organization to see if they would pass along a request for coffee - not expecting him to say yes, and even admitting that she “never thought that he would respond.”
This wasn’t just any woman in the community, after all. In her own words, Donna was “a sometimes agitator” once described by a conservative writer as “the most dangerous woman in America,” given her decades of activism for social justice and specifically in LGBT rights. Even as a newbie Iowan, Donna had taken leadership of the LGBT organization One Iowa to fight for the legalization of gay marriage. As a result, Bob and Donna were “often quoted in the news media on opposite sides of contentious issues.”
With her own limited expectations, Donna admitted in one interview, "I thought I could make the grand gesture...and I would be done."
Bob remembers asking his staff the day her email arrived, “Is this real? Yeah - it’s real..but I never thought she’d follow up on it!”
But she did. And he did too.
Nervous and skeptical
As the day of their agreed upon coffee meeting at Des Moines' Smokey Row came, Donna, a woman who is “not afraid to speak to hundreds,” admitted that she was “very nervous” with “no idea what to expect, none at all.”
For his part, Bob was doubtful: “The skeptic in me thought she would have an agenda...and she would probably think I had an agenda too. But as soon as they sat down, that idea dissipated.”
“She was very Iowan,” Bob recalled. She came right on time and bore gifts of chocolate and pomegranate lip balm” (One Iowa brand) – which he still uses regularly.
Although neither approached these meetings primarily to persuade each other, as one observer later described it, “I like to think that in meeting like this, they were engaging in a different kind of social activism: performing routine maintenance on the civic structure that makes free speech and the free exchange of ideas possible.”
Later she would call her spouse, Sumitra, with an interesting dilemma: "I don't know how to deal with this. He's really nice."
Humorously, Donna later reflected, “What surprised me was not that he liked me. What surprised me was...I really liked him.”
They agreed to meet up again for coffee. Then again once more. Every couple of months, these two political rivals continued meeting for an hour at a time for coffee and pastries, with no agenda or talking points. For a long while, no one else knew about their meetings.
Finally, after meeting for a year, journalist Rekha Basu found out about the clandestine coffee chats and was left "nearly speechless" - ultimately "begging" Donna to be able to write about this unlikely friendship in the Des Moines Register.
So what was so stunning about this covert friend-shipping?
Seeing a human being
Rather than black-and-white demon opponents, listen to how they came to describe each other:
"He’s an incredible dad, really funny - we laugh, we laugh a lot.”
“Donna’s a really good person - a passionate person.
“A really good person…?!”
Does that sound like how political opposites talk in America today?
Their friendship became national news when Washington Post journalist Robert Samuels wrote a piece entitled, “He saw her marriage as ‘unnatural.’ She called him ‘bigoted.’ Now, they hug.” There, he summarized: “As the dynamics shift breathtakingly fast in the long-running battles over gay rights, some of the most hardened combatants are embarking on a surprising new strategy: being friends.”
If there’s only one thing you watch, enjoy this short clip capturing their friendship from Mutual of Omaha's My Aha Moment series.
But this friendship wasn't simply about respect and humor. On this foundation, Bob and Donna clearly were able to experience what they called some "tough conversations."
For instance, Donna once asked Bob “if he accepts that people don't necessarily choose to be gay or straight." He answered, "I think I was born a lot of ways as well. All humans have a fallen nature. If I need to deny myself, I deny myself."
In response, Donna shared her own faith as a Unitarian and Buddhist when it comes to her family relationships: "We're good with God...God is big enough to love you and to love me.”
He replied, "I do believe God loves everyone - all of us. But I don’t think He loves everything we do. I would take a bullet for my sons - but doesn’t mean would love everything they do or everything about them.” Bob later described some of those moments as “very real...Some were tender.”
Dialogue and passion
As reflected here, these conversations are not an alternative to strong disagreement - or a way to avoid and distract from them. It's just the opposite! Dialogue allows people with strong disagreements to turn towards them, within conditions where you might actually be heard by the other person!
Among other things, this can bring the deep wrestling and legitimate fights into the open light of day, where they can be pursued with more transparency and fairness. As Donna puts it, “We can fight the good fight in the court of public opinion, but we don’t have to hurt each other. That’s the big take-away: we don’t have to hurt each other.” Bob's own summary of one of the secrets of this kind of dialogue is: “Speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
Although their primary goal was not persuading each other, then, Bob and Donna were clearly still able to share their strong convictions and best arguments together. And naturally, each retained a hope in the other, better seeing as they did (even completely). As Bob said, “I would have loved that - to say ‘Donna saw the light.’”
That didn’t happen, at least not in the sense of fully conversion one way or the other. While Bob later reflected, “Donna’s friendship did not change my convictions about God’s design for marriage or biblical sexuality, and neither did my friendship change her position,” he added, “but that was never the point.”
So what was the point?
Bob described a desire, "to get to know one another as real people beyond the headlines” - later reflecting, “We were often opponents on policy, but instead of lobbing rhetorical grenades at one another from the relative safety of our own echo chambers, we met face to face.”
And Donna's goal was “to put a face and voice to what Bob thinks of when he hears of [her] community,” acknowledging, "Sometimes when people are on opposite sides, you tend to paint them all with a broad brush. She added, “It's easy when things are black and white. It gets really complicated, and better, and richer, when we can look through different lenses."
It's on this level of seeing the real human being, rather than our stereotyped stories, that clearly new understanding emerged. And from that insight emerged significant changes in how each of their organizations interacted.
Although, once again, their core beliefs hadn't shifted, there were clear differences in their approach. As described in a Washington Post article, “No more calling Vander Plaats a ‘hater’ or a ‘bigot,’” Donna insisted with her group. Bob likewise “constantly reminded his staff...'Treat them with love.'"
Bob often found himself asking, "I wonder how Donna will view this" - and "before I put an idea out there, ‘How would Donna receive this?’ Because I love her.”
Bob later reflected “It changed us both. I know it changed the language and the tone we employ at our organization. Getting to know Donna taught our whole staff to stop and think, ‘How can we advocate for our position while still being conscious of and honoring the real people (like Donna) who disagree with us?’"
This wasn't some kind of stunt on either side. The sincerity of their friendship showed in how easily they embraced when meeting on TV - as Bob put it, they had become “honest, real, and true friends.” As time passed, they became "close enough that I envisioned I would be at her funeral - or hers mine" - long in the future.
No longer an enemy
In subsequent years, various colleges invited Bob and Donna to share with students the secrets of their civil dialogue. Bob reflects, "We sure enjoyed going out as pairs - to different colleges, civic groups, social clubs" - including the University of Northern Iowa, and Drake University.
They would share what led her to reach out, and what led him to accept. "It was a little like sharing about your first date," Bob shared with a smile. (You can check out one of their dialogues right here.)
In an article called, “Your political opponent is not your enemy” Professor Carol Spaulding-Kruse, from Drake University describes having Bob and Donna come speak with her first-year seminar students in a class called, “Talking With the Enemy: Dialogue in a Polarized Age.”
One lesson from the dialogue, she writes, is "no longer obvious to Americans today: your political opponent is not your enemy. There is a difference between someone with whom you disagree and someone with whom you are actively hostile.”
A second lesson from the dialogue was that "no matter our differences, we can work toward finding, as Bob put it, “Some common interests, and a lot of common ground.” Donna once said she never expected and still doesn't expect to change [Bob's] views about marriage, but they have found common ground on other issues, like human trafficking and education" - not to mention payday lending! He appreciates her love of children and says she appreciates his service to special-needs people, with both of their families sharing common pain and empathy over the challenges of having a child facing a disability.
A shared commitment to freedom
It’s not just payday loans and family commitments that unite them, however. Even if Bob continues to fight against same-sex marriage, Donna once said their friendship would continue: "I guess part of my journey is to learn empathy towards him, even if he is working against us" - seeing larger principles at stake: "I would fight for his right to believe in what he does to the death. I'll also fight for our rights."
As Bob later reflected, “I believe the reason she Donna really believed that was that when fighting for same sex marriage, she had to rely on freedom of speech. If she had not that freedom, they would not have achieved what they achieved. She believed in those freedoms very, very deeply.”
He added, “Getting people to believe your way is not shutting the other side. That was a fear we shared: Now that we have same-sex marriage, [there's real fear that] if someone says anything different, they shouldn’t be allowed to speak. I think she believed that was dangerous.”
Pearls before swine?
Since that classroom visit, Dr. Spaulding-Kruse “learned that both of my guests were criticized quite deeply by colleagues on their own side. Sadly, to some, reaching out is just a form of giving in.” Bob reflected, “She took a lot of flak from her side - for basically humanizing me: ‘Good guy, funny, good dad...talented leader.’” We received some of the same type of criticism, but we thought it was an opportunity to educate those who make up our constituents.”
One person told Bob that he shouldn’t “throw your pearls before swine.” In response, Bob remembers telling that person they were taking scripture out of context and insisting with emotion, “in no way, shape or form does our Lord see Donna as swine. She was someone created in His image; he calls us to love our neighbor - and even our enemy.”
These kinds of comments were mostly outliers, though. In balance, Bob said, “We received way more compliments and encouragement than the occasional, ‘we shouldn’t be doing that.’ Many Christians appreciated the example as a tangible example of 'loving your neighbor as yourself,' and reaching out to those who don’t believe like you do, don’t think like you do.”
Then came cancer. The day after Donna was diagnosed, she texted Bob and asked for his prayers. That next morning, Bob and his wife went to visit her in her hospital room.
After an eight month battle that she fought with the energy of an activist, Donna passed away April 16, 2018 at the age of 67.
Soon after, Bob was surprised to get a call from Sumitra asking if he would read Donna's eulogy. "That’s a great honor," he remembers saying, "but I don’t want to be a distraction in any way. That hall will be filled with people who don’t see the world like I do.”
Sumitra responded, “I’ve already thought about that and decided that’s their problem, not your problem."
So, he accepted the honor. He recollected afterward, "They treated me unbelievably. They put us right behind Sumitra, like part of the family. And they applauded - enthusiastic applause after I got done until I sat down."
"When we got ready to exit, people were lined up - many in tears. It was a powerful time in my life."
That's what the funeral of a "dangerous woman" looks like. Reflecting on her life, Professor Carol Spaulding-Kruse, quoted the philosopher Martin Marty, who said: 'You cannot have justice without argument ...so the issue is to make it civil.' before adding, "In a time of polarization so divisive some of us find even our own families have been split by political divides, that’s what I call living dangerously.”
“I’m deeply grieved that my friend is now gone from this world,” Bob has since reflected, “but I hope her example of reaching out will challenge others to do the same. I want our commitment to restoring civil dialogue in America to continue as the lasting legacy of the day Donna Red Wing invited me for coffee.”
As Donna once put it, “Here’s the deal - if Bob and I can have coffee, share stories, like each other, then I think almost anyone can find that person and reach out and invite them in.”
Donna had reached out to Bob in honor of the passing of her friend who had done the same. Like Dr. Spaulding-Kruse did in her own tribute, we’d like to encourage readers to honor Donna by reaching out out to your own political opposite - someone you have a hard time with - and see what magic might just emerge.
Special thanks to Bob Vander Plaats for an interview that contributed to this report, along with Rekha Basu's rich original Des Moines Register piece that gave us all a chance to enjoy these remarkable people.
If you haven't had enough of Bob and Donna, and would like to enjoy more, check out a great podcast here where they are interviewed on local radio: A Lesson in Civility
— The Village Square’s Respect + Rebellion
Respect + Rebellion stories are written by colleagues (and now real-life friends) Dr. Jacob Hess (right) and Liz Joyner (center left). Jacob is the author of "You're Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You're Still Wrong) Conversations between a Devoted Conservative and a Die-Hard Liberal" and editor of Public Square Magazine. Liz is the Founder & President of The Village Square, a unique community-based model to heal the political divide.
This piece was reviewed and edited by managing editor Henry A. Brechter.