Despite our small population, and you might say BECAUSE of it, many extraordinary and world changing people have been from Montana. Who could forget Jeanette Rankin, Gary Cooper, Dana Carvey, and of course, Evel Knievel all hail from this great state. But recently, I got to hear a story about one of the most important and game changing Montanans of all- Senator and Ambassador Mike Mansfield. I had the honor of attending the Mansfield-Metcalf dinner a few weekends ago (thanks Klaus!), and the guest speaker was Vice President Joe Biden. A force all of his own (see the pic of what happened after I profusely thanked him for standing up for refugees- ahhh, did this really happen?!?!), he gave an amazing and heartfelt speech. The thing that struck me the most, and what I feel resonates so much with what we stand for at Soft Landing Missoula, was the story he told about the important and life-changing advice he received from Leader Mansfield. I can’t say it as well as he did so here is a transcript of the story in his own words from his Yale Commencement speech in 2015…
“After only four months in the United States Senate, as a 30-year-old kid, I was walking through the Senate floor to go to a meeting with Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. And I witnessed another newly elected senator, the extremely conservative Jesse Helms, excoriating Ted Kennedy and Bob Dole for promoting the precursor of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But I had to see the Leader, so I kept walking.
When I walked into Mansfield’s office, I must have looked as angry as I was. He was in his late ‘70s, lived to be 100. And he looked at me, he said, what’s bothering you, Joe?
I said, that guy, Helms, he has no social redeeming value. He doesn’t care — I really mean it — I was angry. He doesn’t care about people in need. He has a disregard for the disabled.
Majority Leader Mansfield then proceeded to tell me that three years earlier, Jesse and Dot Helms, sitting in their living room in early December before Christmas, reading an ad in the Raleigh Observer, the picture of a young man, 14-years-old with braces on his legs up to both hips, saying, all I want is someone to love me and adopt me. He looked at me and he said, and they adopted him, Joe.
I felt like a fool. He then went on to say, Joe, it’s always appropriate to question another man’s judgment, but never appropriate to question his motives because you simply don’t know his motives.
It happened early in my career fortunately. From that moment on, I tried to look past the caricatures of my colleagues and try to see the whole person.”
Yes. This. We have sooooo much to stand up for these days and of course, STAND UP. QUESTION. Fight with all you can for what you believe in. But lets all heed this advice from a statesman from Montana and also LISTEN. Talk to people who you may not agree with. Listen to people’s stories. Ask them about their lives. See the “whole person”. Refrain from calling names and placing people in boxes just because that is easiest. If we are going to rebuild this invaluable and humanitarian program that is refugee resettlement, if we are going to be effective at bridging the great divide in our country, we have to stop assuming motives. We have to stop being “enemies” and go back to being neighbors who are willing to sit down with each other at the same table to talk about differences and arrive at similarities. It is going to be from support from both sides of the aisle, as it previously was for decades, that resettlement thrives again and that America is allowed to renew our ability and honor to provide refugee to the vulnerable and persecuted. Thank you Vice President Biden and Senator Mansfield for reminding us how truly important this is.