After the 2016 election, the people of ISAIAH knew something had gone terribly awry.
The multi-faith group—some 200 congregations strong—believes in the old-time religion you may have learned in Sunday school, or even from the most secular parents. The one centered on caring, sharing, and grace toward others, especially those in need.
Yet these precepts had been shoved from the public stage, considered antiquated if not naive. They’d been replaced by the teachings of a meaner Jesus, one the original might have charged with identity fraud.
Under this theology, the stranger was suspect, poverty was the bitter fruit of sloth, and the money changers were the most exalted children of the realm. By doing everything to ensure their good fortune, salvation would eventually trickle to the rest. But it never quite seemed to show up.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in rural Minnesota. The land of hard work and small-town values had backed a thrice-married sexual harasser known for stiffing his employees and bailing on his debts.
It made no sense.
The less charitable in the Twin Cities were quick to dismiss their country brethren as hypocrites and morons, voting for the whip that would eventually lash them. ISAIAH saw something else: despair.
Over the next year, the group convened hundreds of meetings in homes across the state. The idea was to simply listen, to press beyond the tribal discourse of winning and losing to matters of the heart, says organizer Alexa Horwart. “What keeps you up at night?” they asked. “Where are you and your family struggling?”
What they found was a pervasive anxiety slithering through countryside. The American Dream had turned on them, people sensed, and was now using them for target practice.
Their fears orbited basic survival—paying for health coverage and child and elder care. They worried of disaster should a spouse become too sick to work. It was the same sense of disquiet you’d find anywhere in the Twin Cities.
But where rural Minnesota differed was on who to blame. The draining population of whites was refilling with Latinos and East Africans. “If you look at actual percentages of diversity in Worthington, Willmar, or Faribault,” says Horwart, “they’re probably more diverse than many of the suburbs.”
And it just so happened these newcomers arrived as greater Minnesota spiraled in decline. To many, this was no coincidence. If the president called them moochers and criminals, it must be so. They were gobbling scarce resources, only adding to the burden of lifelong Minnesotans with nothing more to give.
“People were really feeling divided in their communities, their country, their congregations,” says Kathryn Lozada, an ISAIAH organizer in southern Minnesota. There were fears that someone was about to get hurt.
So the discussions dove deeper. After all, the Somali next door had no say in the tripling price of insulin, the poverty wages of poultry plants, or the economics driving the little guy from the farm.
Slowly but surely, they arrived at the obvious conclusion: Their neighbors weren’t to blame, for these matters were decided by people far more powerful, those in the executive suites and their disciples in Washington and St. Paul.
It was with this revelation, and by changing hearts one by one, that ISAIAH built an army. It would fight for those survival issues critical to families, the kind neglected by governments buried in campaign cash from the wealthy. It would do so by packing committee hearings, unleashing thousands of volunteers, and building coalitions among everyone from day care providers to the patrons of black barbershops.
The mission was simple, if not ridiculously ambitious: to create a state that funnels its choices through those of old-school tenets of kindness, charity, and service to thy neighbor.
Says minister JaNaé Bates: “We’re calling people back to their better selves.”
By last fall’s elections, the magnitude of that mobilization was clear. ISAIAH’s separate political arm, Faith in Minnesota, made 270,000 phone calls and knocked on 10,000 doors. A 70-person phone bank called 14,000 Muslim voters.
Though the Republican Party had increasingly become morals-optional under Trump, Faith in Minnesota was making headway with the DFL. It trained 3,500 leaders to participate in the precinct caucuses. At the party’s convention, a full 10 percent of delegates and alternatives were Faith members.
The idea was to push the kind of home-and-hearth platform popular 50 years ago, before America defaulted to survival-of-the-fittest mode. “Honor thy mother and father” meant pursuing paid family leave and accessible health care. “Love thy neighbor” meant building a rapid response team to defend Muslims under attack. With its churches and mosques representing 250,000 parishioners, ISAIAH couldn’t be ignored.
One might forgive Minnesota for being leery of another religious movement. If you haven’t been to church lately—and most people haven’t—you never see congregants building ramps at the homes of handicapped parishioners, or old ladies making hot dishes for the funeral lunches of people they never knew.
What you do see are pedophile priests, red-faced men screaming at pregnant ladies outside clinics, and televangelists preaching the prosperity gospel, where gated communities with marble flooring are the preferred launching pads to Godliness.
Throw it all into a character sketch, and Jesus looks a lot like Mitch McConnell.
“People have turned away from religion for all the insidious ways it’s been used,” concedes Bates.
Yet ISAIAH’s “prophetic resistance” is more in league with the women’s suffrage or civil rights movements. Members range from Catholics to mainline Protestants to everything in between. “There are a lot of people who are increasingly engaged who would say, ‘I don’t know if I’m a Christian,’” notes executive director Doran Schrantz.
There’s no bonk-you-over-the-head theology. No unofficial purity tests like those administered by partisan activists. Talk to members, and you’ll find them unfailingly reflective, gracious, humble. Absent are the shrill demands customary of politics, the yowling denunciation of foes.
Nor do its leaders elbow for the limelight. Look up Schrantz on the group’s website, and you’ll find her buried at the bottom of the staff list. Instead, everyday volunteers are trained to lead. Since faith breaches color and economic divide, these leaders range from grandmas on the prairie to Uber drivers from north Minneapolis.
“They’re not lobbyists or the normal activist types,” says Schrantz. “We’re bringing a lot of what aren’t the usual suspects to the table.”
And they possess a refreshing sense of self-determination. “It’s about how you are accountable to your community, not just what you’re going to get,” says Jessica Rohloff, a volunteer in Willmar.
“You’re responsible for the government that you have, the leaders that you have. It’s about breaking people out of the mindset, ‘I’m the victim. I’m powerless.’ You can’t just talk about what you don’t want. You have to present a vision of what you do want.”
What they want is to relieve that anxiety flooding Minnesota, the feeling that misfortune is a moment from washing them away.
Take Minnesota’s child care crisis. If you don’t have young children, you’re likely unaware there’s a crisis at all.
The state now has the third most expensive prices in the country, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The average cost of infant care is $14,000 annually, more than in-state tuition at some colleges. Factor that into a minimum-wage paycheck, and you’ll work from January till October before you see the first dime to spend on something else.
“A lot of parents I talk to say the cost of child care is more than their mortgage,” says Camille Roberts, who organizes ISAIAH’s 200-member provider coalition.
Low pay means preschool teachers can’t afford to educate their own kids. Subsidies for poorer parents are based on an expense formula that’s eight years old. Who wants to open a center when the economics point only to misery?
This recipe has left child-care deserts across Minnesota. Some parents drive 40 miles to find a place for their kids. Others simply pack up and leave, faced with the dilemma of either working and going broke, or staying home and ensuring they’re broke.
Yet it’s the kind of issue governments ignore. It’s complex, expensive, among the many cancers of a have-and-have-not economy. To fix it requires shifting resources to the struggling, whose hardship is often painted as of their own making.
The same goes for paid family and medical leave. Nowhere is our reverse-Robin Hood economy more exposed than when someone falls ill.
If you get sick, you can only hope it will be covered by the most expensive insurance in the world. If you need medicine, you will pay two, three, four times the price that same drug costs in other countries. And if you’re too weak to work, prepare for a swan dive to insurmountable debt.
In Minnesota, only 13 percent of workers get paid medical leave, making our sense of compassion barely visible compared to much poorer places like Bulgaria, Chile, and Croatia, where paid leave is law.
So ISAIAH and a band of other groups are pushing for a state pool, funded by employees and employers alike, to cover these times of trouble.
The idea stems from the religious theory of abundance, that we’ve been given enough to survive and thrive, if only we share it. But the virtue of sharing, so important in childhood, tends to face immediate suspension upon entering the adult world.
“We’re always told we don’t have enough because your neighbor’s taking it, and they don’t deserve it,” says Bates.
The problem is that “those who have the plenty are hoarding,” she adds. “We’re a very wealthy state, and we’re abundant in people power. Minnesotans are very caring.”
So ISAIAH is calling legislators back to this childhood value, hoping to convince them there might be a life more uplifting than seeing who can grab the most nickels on the table.
Bringing gas to the fire
If converting the haves is arduous, the have-nots are proving just as hard. Willmar, a farm town of 19,000 on Minnesota’s western prairie, is where loving thy neighbor is known for its frequent vacations.
Consider it the epicenter of a state transforming. While surrounding towns fade and die, Willmar is growing, thanks to immigrants drawn by turkey processing and industrial dairy jobs. “It’s a place where they see a lot of opportunity for people with limited language skills,” says ISAIAH volunteer Jessica Rohloff.
She points to her nine-year-old niece’s class at school, where a third of the kids are white, a third Latino, and a third Somali.
The newcomers arrived as the old economy was retreating. “We started to watch every business close, and people started to give up their farms,” says Rohloff. “That pain is still real, not feeling like your kids can stay and earn a living. You’re watching these new people come in and fill those spaces, and a lot of that pain gets misdirected.”
Of course, Willmar’s fortunes would be in free-fall without these newcomers, who work the jobs whites don’t want, create the businesses whites cannot. Still, there was a sense they were stealing the whites’ way of life.
This was inflamed by the pundits of talk radio and Fox News, who warned of Mexican gangbangers and Muslims grubbing off the public dole while plotting jihad.
The roving anti-Muslim speakers who ply rural Minnesota—men like Eden Valley car salesman Ron Branstner—carried gas to the fire. They talked of Islamic control of the CIA and the U.N. plot to use refugees to overthrow the Constitution.
Fear has a way of loosening one’s mental faculties. They played to enthusiastic crowds.
City Councilman Ron Christianson liked a resident’s Facebook post about “these Somali intruders who are very open about wanting you dead.” A move to add benches downtown was opposed because it would encourage unemployment. Others talked of getting rid of the parks, since they attracted the wrong kind of people.
Rohloff was the target of a Facebook post by an old high school classmate, who said he would “cure my refugee love with his Second Amendment rights.” Others leaped to encourage him.
“It kind of scared me how quickly it ignited people,” she says.
But it also showed the gaping disconnect between rhetoric and reason. Fear was causing people to lash out recklessly. When Rohloff confronted the man, asking if he intended to shoot her, he simply responded, “Why would you say that?”
So ISAIAH convened a series of house meetings, whites sitting down with immigrants, encouraged to speak of their fears.
“Out here, we see a lot of organizations come and go, and most of the time they do all the talking,” says Rohloff. “ISAIAH came out here and did all the listening. That was new, and there was something exciting about that.”
It wasn’t just the whites who were confused. Both sides worried the other was trying to convert them. And Muslims proved equally befuddled by their Christian neighbors.
“It changed the way the Somali community thought,” says Rohloff. “One person said to me, ‘I didn’t think white people had any problems. I didn’t know white people couldn’t afford their cancer medication.’”
Muslims also organized public dinners to break the fasts of Ramadan. For one, an imam went door to door with a Lutheran pastor, inviting white residents to the neighborhood mosque. A downtown street was blocked off for another. All of Willmar was welcome.
Yet unity would not come quickly. Willmar’s attempt to pass a welcoming resolution was evidence.
These are rather basic gestures, simple announcements by city councils to declare that all are welcome to their towns. But they’re often pummeled by misinformation and panic.
Hutchinson’s was defeated by worries that it would become a sanctuary city. Willmar’s was “extremely painful, like giving birth,” says Rohloff.
It would take month upon month of meetings, where naked bigotry openly flared. This prompted outsiders to cast the town “as not very educated, not very smart, a bunch of racists.” Yet the resolution would eventually triumph.
This gives Rohloff hope for her city. Growth will be paired with agony, she has no doubt. But in a small town, you must deal with it at some point, because you can’t avoid your neighbors.
“I think we have higher conflict and higher possibilities than big cities, because we can’t segregate ourselves.”
By definition, a hearts and minds campaign is not bound for immediate glory. So ISAIAH’s victories must come small but sure.
They can be seen at the state Capitol, where talk of “morals” now means funding survival programs, rather than bagging on gay people.
In Northfield, residents backed the state’s first municipal ID law, allowing undocumented Mexicans and Guatemalans to open bank accounts and at least prove where they live.
In St. Cloud, an agreement was cast between city and citizens “to put down on paper what we want our policing to look like,” says Horwart. “There’s a lot of tension in St. Cloud about race. The police department and community leaders didn’t want something terrible to happen and really tear the community apart. The police department is really trying to address bias.”
In Rochester, where over 50 languages are spoken in the schools, an immigrant defense fund was built, a means of showing love to thy neighbor whose principal sin was being born in a country where he couldn’t provide for his family.
Then come the even smaller moments, the ones that will eventually bring about a better Minnesota.
Donald Crumbley works with ISAIAH’s black barber coalition, Barbershops Creating Change in the Community, a group of 20 shops that host public discussions around the Twin Cities. House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler recently stopped in for one at the Chiseler Barber Shop in Brooklyn Park.
Crumbley witnessed the changing assumptions among the 30 in attendance, who seemed surprised that a top state official would willingly meet with them. “To be honest, you would think you wouldn’t have the ability to talk to them, that they wouldn’t have time,” he says of the sentiment.
Yet since ISAIAH’s way is to question rather than yell, to seek understanding rather than enemies, these are adult conversations without theatrics. Politicians don’t feel like they’re showing up at a shooting gallery, prompting them to lose their scripts for more honest discussion. “They’ve been very realistic, very open with us,” says Crumbley. “It’s been really refreshing.”
And attendees come to realize there will be no quick fix, that our troubles are much like a car stuck in the snow. To stand idle achieves nothing. Everyone must push to set it free.
“It’s amazing to have so many different groups from all walks of life come together,” says Crumbley. “We have more in common than we actually know. We just don’t talk to each other.”