Friends, then enemies, then friends
JANESVILLE – It’s 10:15 a.m., and folks are quietly milling about in the fellowship hall at Trinity Episcopal Church, an edifice built out of stones so thick that it seems that not even an Act of God could pull it from its perch on a hill in downtown Janesville, a city full of quickly changing trees.
The service just ended a few moments before and older women and young families, their screaming kids reluctantly in tow, slowly file in. Weak coffee burns on a warmer near a wall rack full of communal coffee mugs from tourist spots across America. A diverse assortment of sweet goods wash across a foldout table; cheese strudel, sticky buns, cinnamon sugar donuts cut into eight pieces.
Father Mike, the pastor, comes in and gives a hello to everyone. They all know him, of course. It’s a small parish.
Paula DeRubeis and Buneva Deuel stand nearby, making conversation, trying to talk above the screaming kids. They share the same city and faith. But talk to them for a while about anything but those few things and you come to the conclusion that’s about all they share in common.
Paula is a staunch Democrat. Buneva is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. Both women are rooted in their beliefs like giant Sequoias.
“I had to stop sharing stuff on Facebook because she would start arguments,” Buneva says, smiling at Paula.
“It wasn’t the Christian stuff, Buneva, it was the political stuff I had a problem with,” Paula says. They laugh.
“We can still be friends, though,” Buneva says. “We don’t really argue that much.”
Paula takes me aside, near the hall’s elevator, 10 kids huddled inside it, opening and closing the door. She gives them what many a teacher has called “The Look.” The door closes, and the elevator heads downstairs.
Paula is a Democrat, she says. Always has been. A retired Kindergarten teacher, she thinks that health care is a human right, volunteers at a summer school where most of the kids come from poor families. That they and their families cannot afford healthcare is abhorrent to her. She thinks that President Obama was handed such a massive mess by George W. Bush that fixing the economy in four years would have been impossible.
Like just about everybody here, she has known Rep. Paul Ryan for decades. The city’s favorite (or least favorite, depending on who you talk to) son was a student in the high school biology class her husband taught.
“I could never vote for him. Never,” she says. “He didn’t support equal pay for women and he wants to disband Planned Parenthood. His financial policy would lead us in completely the wrong direction.”
She looks at her watch. She’s got to go, she says. Plus, Buneva is walking over.
Before Buneva can finish her first bite of a piece of crumb cake, Paula is halfway to the steps leading outside.
“I’ll see you all later!” she says, her voice being eaten by the room’s emptiness.
“Ok,” Buneva says. She turns and looks me straight in the eyes. “Where were we? I need to sit down. I don’t feel good.”
We head over to a table near windows 10 feet tall, the sunlight from outside filtered into fuzziness by long, thick shades that look like comforters.
“They make those here,” she says, proudly.
“Nice,” I say. “When everyone’s done with the fellowship, they can take a shade down and take a nap.”
Buneva is a fifth-generation Janesville resident and is rah-rah for Ryan. His home sits just a few blocks from the church, way back in a quaint, pretty neighborhood full of Victorian homes with huge porches. Don’t bother trying to get a look at it though. The Secret Service have blockades up through the entire ‘hood and stakeout the area 24/7 in heavily tinted, plain white vans.
“I just came up from Madison last night,” I tell her.
“Oh, you mean ‘Moscow in the West,’” she says. “That’s what we call it.”
That’s what she calls it.
Buneva, a member of the Daughter of the Revolution, is your typical blueblood conservative. She’s for more defense spending, less political correctness, getting back to traditional values, but she is a “tree hugger,” she says. It runs in her family’s blood. Her son has sung the National Anthem at the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual meeting twice.
There is no reason for anyone to apologize for America, she says. We’ve gotten soft as a nation; wimpy, to concerned with what the rest of the world things about us, fearful that we might offend a nation thousands of miles away. We’ve got a liberal-imposed anxiety disorder and it’s high time we exorcised that nonsense.
The pill: the firing of Obama, Buneva says.
She’s not all political, though. Buneva wants more jobs and better economic opportunity for folks. Things are stagnant here, she says, and many younger folks leave town for better jobs in bigger cities. They should be given a reason to stay in Janesville, she says, to start a life and make the city their own.
How to make that happen? There are no easy answers, but one thing is for sure – the political jabbing and partisan one-upsmanship has got to end. Compromise and pragmatism should rule the day.
Maybe lawmakers could get a lesson from Buneva and her best friend.
“My best friend in the world is a super left-wing liberal. I mean, she’s pro-abortion, I’m pro-life. She’s very democrat. We’ve worked on projects for 30-something years in this town and love each other dearly,” she says.
Pack it up
A side door at the Zoxx 411 bar opens, allowing a shaft of sunlight to break into the bar’s darkness and the play-by-play of the Packers and Saints football game to scream out into the early afternoon.
The bar’s tiny property cuts into a chain link fence that runs for a mostly vacant mile past the shuttered GM plant on West State Street in Janesville, giving the impression that the bar is an island in the middle of a hard, crumbling sea. It is the only real sign of life here.
For 90 years, the plant churned-out vehicles and jobs, handed down like heirlooms from father to son to grandson. The plant, many here say, was the light that kept the middle-class dream here illuminated.
Then the light went out in 2009. Thousands lost their jobs, or were transferred to GM plants in Indiana and other states, far from their families. Jeff Gilbertson, sitting at the bar with a tallboy of Keystone Light, knows some of them.
“There’s a lotta hurt here,” Mr. Gilbertson says. “A lotta hurt.”
It’s halftime, and Gilbertson walks outside, throws in a thick pinch of chewing tobacco and leans against the fence. The plant sits behind him like a sleeping giant, surrounded by a cracked parking lot, which spreads out like a still asphalt lake, saplings taking up residence where thousands of employees used to park.
The jobs of today don’t offer much in the way of benefits, he says. He sees the government playing a bigger role as the provider of retirement pensions – and that worries him.
“Social Security is dying, but I want to make sure it’s there when I need it,” he says. “I paid into it my whole life. It needs to be fixed – no Band Aids, no quick fixes – a real kind of reform. But I don’t see either party doing that right now.”
He hates voting for the “lesser of two evils,” but he will – he just won’t say which evil he likes more.
“There’s no working back and forth, and as long as that’s going on, we’re in trouble,” he says. “We’ve always been a nation of optimists, and like to think that a new election is going to bring something new, but I don’t know.”
But more than all that, Gilbertson talks about this plant, about the guys he knew who lost their jobs, about how he’s frustrated with those in town who keep talking about how the plant might come back to life, how the jobs might return and husbands can come home and eat dinner on a Tuesday night, maybe watch some TV and then put the kids to bed.
“It’s not coming back,” he says.
Gilbertson takes out the plug of tobacco and flings it to the ground where it lands with a wet whack. He walks back inside the bar, and gets swallowed by the darkness.
Moved by the Lord
PLATTEVILLE -– It’s not hard to know that Kyle Bennett is not from around here.
The 25-year-old has an accent that casts strongly against the upper Midwest lexicon of his fellow employees at Badger Brothers Coffee in downtown Platteville, a smooth southern drawl that is light and airy, like the foam that’s forming in a can of milk he holds as it becomes quickly steamed.
Kyle is a proud Southern Boy, and he will tell you that. So how did he end up here, in this quant town painted with utterly Wisconsin culture – Lutheran churches, Bucky Badger, cheese curds?
On a wing and a prayer, that’s how.
A few years ago, a friend and fellow North Carolinian decided to move to Wisconsin to start a church, feeling that he was called by God to begin a ministry. Several times he asked Kyle, then working part-time in the Morganton, NC public schools, to join him.
He declined every time. But then he started to pray about it, and could feel a tug. He's been here since this summer, living the life of a dutiful disciple; sacrificing, scrimping, saving for the ministry. He lives in a friend's basement, works two part-time jobs. Life is not easy and it's not always comfortable.
“I said, ‘Why not. I’m 25 and young. Let’s move to Wisconsin.’”
Hidden Valley Church, the name of the ministry, has no building. They meet in a movie theatre downtown or in the living rooms of their members. Their faith compels them to take the word of God in a simple, fundamental way. But they are a young church, and represent a growing trend in community-based faith groups; being open, accepting, loving folks through sin as opposed to judging them.
“Christ came to love, not to judge,” he says. “Churches nowadays are known for what they are against instead of what they are for. We’re getting back to the roots of what church is – a sense of community.”
Kyle has felt the healing power of Christ, he says. His dad was in and out of the house when he was growing up. He’s seen his mother struggle to make ends meet. His faith has gotten him through life’s hard spots.
But he is also a man who lives in the world and has opinions and passions of a more “earthly” nature.
The United States does a lot of good in the world, he says. But it’s time to start looking inward, begin investing here.
“We need to start taking care of our own,” he says.