By Jacob Sahms
As the senior field director for Republican senator Bob Corker of Tennessee (2007-19), David Leaverton had seen the way people were polarized against each other over issues of politics and society. Prior to his political stint, Leaverton had punted for the University of Tennessee’s 1998 National Champion Volunteers (tackling Florida State Seminole Peter Warrick in the process), and briefly in the pros. He knew what a winning team looked like — and the impact that individuals can have on organizations. But when his wife Erin asked, “If kids, mortgage and finances were not a factor, what would you wake up and want to do tomorrow?” in the midst of the 2016 election, he took his family on the road … to find out why the nation was so divided.
Over the course of 2018, the Leavertons took their three children on a state-hopping tour of the less-than-United States, creating a project called Undivided Nation. In the process, they became part of the documentary The Reunited States, exploring how they could be more open to others, to hear their stories and understand. In the process, the Leavertons have learned quite a bit about the country – and themselves.
“The identities we take are not adequate to describe us and each other,” shared Leaverton. “I’m not looking for moderates or centrists; I’m looking and drawn to people who are open-hearted. It’s such a joyful connection, to come across people of any persuasion, if their hearts are open. My worldview was not wrong; it was just incomplete. As I’ve gotten a chance to be in conversation, I walk away with something richer. We have found that there are open parts on every part of the spectrum, politically, religiously. There’s beauty in opening our heart to another person.”
Erin knows that if she and Dave had taken the trip pre-children, that it wouldn’t have been as profound. But while they were teaching their children history as their “roadschooling,” the parents were learning, too. We were learning about the history of ourselves, the nation, the church in America. It was the darker side of what church has been involved in, colonization and displacement, slavery, a lot of heinous injustice, that’s woven into the tapestry of who we are as a nation. We were compelled to share with our children. It was a unique year academically. It was an American story we had been shielded from and were not familiar with.”
One moment stands out for the mom of three, as they stood on the front step of Little Rock, Arkansas’ Central Heights High School, where nine black children were integrated into the all white school in 1957. Erin considered what the parents had gone through, as they explained that the children were threatened with lynching – and then her five year old asked what lynching was. After they explained to the little girl, the wisdom of children shone through.
“That’s what they did to Jesus,” the little girl said. Added her mother, “My five year old pointed out that white Americans threatened to murder those children in the same way that Christ killed on a tree.”
For all that they’ve seen, the Leavertons remain incredibly optimistic about the future of the country and the church. But they know that real change is necessary. Spiritual change in each of us.
“The church is made up of flawed people who have done some great and done some evil,” admitted Leaverton. “The church has been a part of, complicit with, the division and brokenness that we’re experiencing today. We see it play out in large sections of the Christian community, as parts become aligned or active with a particular individual and less with the gospel. It challenged my faith, and made me ask how my story and journey is part of the problem. We have to own that the good things and the things we are proud of like people’s lives being transformed are true, and own the parts we’re not as proud or aware of. We can’t cherry pick the parts we tell. It’s a lot more complicated.”
Driving around in an RV, Leaverton says he came away with a more complete view of God through different people’s eyes, and an awareness of the way that the culture we live in impacts our faith. He cites Psalm 89:14, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you,” admitting that he’s been part of a stream of Christianity that has missed out on justice, missed out on peace. But he sees God more clearly through the people they met along the way.
“Going around the country showed me the heart of the Father,” added Erin. “People doing the best they can with what they can in their community regardless of the odds stacked against them. There’s more beautiful expressions of the true heart of God than what is confined in the four walls of the church. That shook me and made me evaluate many things.”
“I had a view of us vs them, in believers and unbelievers, and our journey cured me of that. God loves people, and there are countless expressions of His nature.”
The family drove through the South, and walked through Los Angeles’ Skid Row, meeting successful church people and homeless addicts. But Erin says that they met people of faith and love everywhere.
“I can see people as all of God’s children who He wants to get along. I love theology and getting into the Bible but at the end of the day, we’re really good at fighting in the church and being divided in the church in age, race, abilities, and socioeconomic status,” she proposed. “The further we can get away from segregating ourselves and the more we can work to truly being in the integrated life of God, the better.”
“That’s the invitation right now.”
See the Leavertons’ story and others in The Reunited States available now on Amazon, iTunes, and On Demand or for more information, go to https://reunitedstates.tv/