‘Thank you for opening my heart to Mitch McConnell’

Sen. Mitch McConnell

‘Thank you for opening my heart to Mitch McConnell’

By Steve Valk

In the grand scheme of CCL’s efforts to enact Carbon Fee and Dividend legislation, the state of Kentucky looms extremely large. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), defender of coal, is the Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate and gatekeeper standing in front of any legislation that aspires to reach the floor for a vote.

Needless to say, the official launch of our first Kentucky chapter in Louisville last weekend carried outsized importance.

To build a productive relationship with McConnell, of course, requires our volunteers to release the negative thoughts and feelings they may harbor about the senator, to begin viewing him as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

Not an easy task for many of us, I totally understand.

My workshop to train our volunteers was held on Sunday afternoon, and in the morning our new group leader in Louisville, Jean Christensen, arranged for her friend Virginia to take me to Mass at St. William Catholic Church, where I could meet and talk to some of the parishioners about CCL.

The congregation at St. William is very liberal, and though the church is located in a poor, African-American neighborhood, the members are mostly white, coming from other parts of town. Because of the church’s strong commitment to social justice and outreach ministries, it attracts Catholics who truly take the message of Jesus to heart.

From the moment I walked in the door, I realized this wasn’t my mama’s Catholic church. The traditional pews had been removed many years ago, replaced by wooden (and padded!) folding chairs on each side of the sanctuary that faced a wide center aisle with the altar located in the middle. At the front of the church, where one would expect to find the altar, was an impressive musical ensemble – piano, keyboard, bass, guitar, mandolin, flute, drums and several singers.

An impressive ensemble provides the music at St. William Catholic Church in Louisville.

An impressive ensemble provides the music at St. William Catholic Church in Louisville.

My immediate question – Where’s the choir? – was quickly answered when the music began and everyone started singing: The congregation itself was the choir. I found this quite remarkable considering there were no hymnals. Lyrics were printed in the order of the Mass handed out to everyone as they entered the church, but there was no musical notation. Somewhere along the way, the members had familiarized themselves with the tunes.

At the beginning of the Mass, the lector invited people to introduce any guests. Virginia and I stood up and she introduced me as the Communications Director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, here in town to start a CCL chapter and work with Mitch McConnell on the issue of climate change. Several members of the liberal congregation snickered at the thought, and I said, “No, really, we’re going to do that.” Virginia said I would be around after Mass and invited folks to come and hear about CCL.

Later, during the part of the Mass known as the Petition of Prayers, congregants were invited to stand and offer up their prayers. After a half dozen or so parishioners shared their petitions, I summoned up my nerve and rose to speak:

“That we may have a change of heart about Mitch McConnell, about who he is and what he is capable of doing to save the world.”

This time, there were no snickers. My words were met with quiet contemplation.

For those unfamiliar with the Catholic Mass, there is a part in the service following the consecration of the Eucharist where everyone is invited to offer one another “some sign of peace,” a handshake or a hug. At most churches this rarely takes more than a minute, with people exchanging the sign of peace with those immediately around them.

Not at St. William.

Everyone circulates throughout the church. No soul is left unhugged in a weekly ritual that lasts at least ten minutes when the musical ensemble – like the orchestra at the Oscars cueing a long-winded honoree to exit the stage – starts playing, signaling parishioners to return to their seats.

During this lovefest, a big man named Don came up, embraced me and said, “Thank you for opening my heart to Mitch McConnell. I really needed to hear that.”

Wow. It was a moment I will not soon forget.

When Mass ended, members lined up at the lectern to make announcements, and Virginia reminded everyone to come and speak to me if they wanted to learn more about CCL. Like a bee buzzing through a field of flowers, she quickly rounded up a group of parishioners, and before I knew it, there were ten people sitting in a circle of chairs around me. They sat for almost 15 minutes as I explained our Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal and the workings of CCL. We passed around a sheet of paper, and everyone provided names and emails, which I gave to Jean, our Louisville leader.

I don’t expect that Mitch McConnell will sponsor our legislation or even vote for it. What I am hoping, though, is that our volunteers in Kentucky will develop a relationship of mutual respect and trust with him that, despite his misgivings, moves him to allow our legislation to come to the Senate floor some day for a vote.

The change of heart needed for our success starts with us.

Steve Valk
Steve Valk is Communications Coordinator for Citizens' Climate Lobby. Steve joined the CCL staff in 2009 after a 30-year career with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter at @valklimate.