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It’s now been almost two weeks since the first presidential debate. Words like “disaster,” “debacle,” and “embarrassment” have been used to describe it. Neither candidate fared well. Trump was, well, Trump—self-absorbed, dishonest and deflecting. But the spotlight has mainly been on President Biden and his mental acuity. The president’s prime-time interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulus this past Friday night, clearly intended to do damage control, hasn’t quelled real concern about Biden’s physical and mental fitness for a second term.

I haven’t had many conversations with folks since the presidential debate (more on that later). But even before the debate most of the talk in my circles has been some version of “Trump and Biden again? Is this really the best we can do? How’d it come to this?”

It’s human nature to cast blame, and there’s plenty to go around. We can blame the state of American politics. We can blame the political parties. We can blame the candidates themselves and the people closest to them.

As blame is dished out, what I don’t hear much talk of is any responsibility we, the American people, have in this mess. A key insight of systems thinking is that everybody plays a part in keeping the system going. I recently heard Chris Butler, co-host of the Church Politics podcast (with Justin Giboney), put it this way:

“One of the easiest things to do is to look at Thursday night’s debate and see it as a reflection of Donald Trump and Joe Biden, a reflection of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, and not see it as a reflection of all of us, as citizenry, as communities of people, as communities of faith. And I think there is something for us to see of ourselves in what we witnessed on Thursday…” (The Holy Post podcast, Episode 624).

That’s a tough pill to swallow. I’d rather point the finger than look in the mirror. But I believe Butler is right. As the saying goes, “We make our leaders, and then our leaders make us.”

If it’s true that we are all part of the problem, then it’s also true that we can each be part of the solution. And this is where I’m finding hope right now.

I have agency.

You have agency.

We have agency, together.

We can decide what kind of people we’re going to be and how we will show up with one another.

The solution for me has been to focus more locally—to invest in the place and the people where I live. One of the most troubling things I’ve noticed over the past eight years is that the theater of national politics has increasingly been projected into our local communities, churches, and families. This has only heightened anxiety and fear and it’s torn us apart. It’s prevented us from truly seeing one another. In some cases, we’ve been pulled so far apart we’re not sure how (or if we even want) to find our way back to each other.

But as a Christ-follower and a pastor, I believe that the movement of the Holy Spirit is toward one another, not apart. To see one another in our shared humanity. To work together for the healing and flourishing of our neighborhoods and communities. To tackle challenges in our communities that, together, we can actually solve as we strive to make things better.

One of the reasons I have had hardly any conversations about the presidential debate is because, frankly, it hasn’t come up. We’re too busy responding to all the damage wrought by severe flooding that has hit our region hard. I’ve never seen anything like it. So many communities utterly devastated. Hundreds of homes and businesses completely destroyed. Many have lost so much. Some have lost everything. It’s heartbreaking.

A drone view shows a flooded area following heavy rainfall in Rock Valley, Iowa on June 22, 2024, in this still image obtained from a social media video. Photo by Chris VB/via REUTERS

But here’s what I’ve also seen: I’ve seen the kindness and compassion and resilience of northwest Iowans. I’ve seen not only neighbors loving one another well, but entire communities coming together. I’ve seen people from different towns traveling to other towns, across county lines, to empty out basements submerged in water (sometimes even sewage), rip up carpet, clean up sludge, hand out water bottles, serve meals, and simply put their arms around strangers in solidarity and support.

Suddenly it’s not about what “side” you’re on, who you’re voting for in November, what politician’s name is on your yard sign or bumper sticker. It’s about showing up for each other. It’s about being neighbors. It’s about each of us doing our part to help out. This is what we’re best at in northwest Iowa, and it’s what I love most about living here.

I don’t know what all of this will mean for my town and our region as we get closer to Election Day. Maybe once we get beyond the devastation of the floods (which is going to take a while), we’ll get pulled back into the dysfunction and division. I pray we don’t. I’m actually hopeful that, through our shared struggle, we’ve rediscovered some things about each other. My mentor and friend, the late Matt Floding, introduced me to the Latin phrase si vales valeo. It means, “If you are strong, I am strong.” Maybe that’s what we’re finally learning: We really are stronger together–stronger than we can ever be on our own.

Thank you to all of you who have reached out and expressed concern. Please keep praying for us. There is a resilience in this place and these people that is beautiful, and I’m proud to call northwest Iowa “my home.”

Si vales valeo.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.


  • Rodney Haveman says:

    I am traveling home from Europe today so I’ve heard nothing of this flooding. My prayers are with you and your community. I trust God’s hands will be surrounding the entire region. I pray folks will see them.

    As for your blog, I agree with so much of it and work in the same ways. The only thing I would add, and not in negation of what you said, but follow the money.
    Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Where the money makes its way into our system will be where the systems of power set their heart.
    All the avenues of power you offered must find a way to overcome that money, ultimately, to make the changes we need, locally and nationally.

  • CB says:

    Thank you for your thoughts Brian.
    “We really are stronger together- stronger than we can ever be on our own”……. Please Lord help us make it so.

  • Deb Mechler says:

    This has been my experience also in Spencer, where 80% of the buildings were affected by flooding. So much compassion and goodwill, with no regard for political convictions. Surely some folks will be changed by it for the better. But systems theory also predicts how anxious people behave, and there is much anxiety ahead. We will lose a significant chunk of our population due to loss of jobs and housing, which means less money for schools and civic recovery. All the more reason for non-anxious leadership and integrity to be exhibited by the faith community. I’m thankful that the clergy here already have a strong bond. May this be the impetus to reveal the love and compassion of Jesus as we face the challenges together. Thanks, Brian. Prayers for the beloved OC community here.

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