In American politics, we pretty much know how to talk about Tim Kaine's brief-but-important youthful experience as a Jesuit Volunteer in Honduras.  We can---and do---argue vigorously about the many ways to interpret that experience: 1 - a transformative faith journey that led him to become a civil rights lawyer and care about the poor and oppressed, 2 - a typical do-gooding liberal who wants us all to give him an award because he spent a few months without air-conditioning, 3 - a radical gospel experience betrayed over the years as he's become part of the establishment, executing death row prisoners and protecting bankers. (You can come up with more.)

A young adult has a short (1-2 year), powerful, immersive, formative experience that changes the direction of their life?  We know that story. It's a narrative most Americans recognize because it's an experience many of us have had (or at least, someone we know has had).

For some it's a nephew who hung with the wrong crowd in high school, barely graduated, and then went into the service where he turned his life around. For others, it's an entrepreneurial daughter who planned to work on Wall Street, but joined the Peace Corps and ended up starting a string of socially responsible businesses.  Or a neighbor or classmate doing a stint with Job Corps, or Teach for America, or even a term in jail for a youthful indiscretion. Because we know the story, we can talk about it---and debate its meaning---when someone like Sen. Kaine suddenly emerges on the national stage.

But what about the formation that comes from 32 years of being a White parishioner in a Black Catholic church?

Kaine and his wife, Richmond native Anne Holton, were married at St. Elizabeth's in November 1984 and it's been their parish ever since. It's where they raised their children, and it's the first place they went after Kaine's initial campaign appearance with Hillary Clinton last month.

That's not a story we know well, because it's still true---56 years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went on Meet the Press and said it---that "...11:00 on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour, in Christian America".

So what do we make of that formation experience---the 32 year one, not the 9 month one?

The slow and patient building of relationships through common prayer, reflection and action. The thick layers of meaning acquired by the repeated singing of a beloved song, listening to the proclamation of scripture, exchanging of a sign of peace. Meals shared, small courtesies exchanged, accomplishments celebrated, losses mourned. The experience of watching your children---all of your children---grow up together in the same community. The drop-by-drop accretion of moments of grace, wearing away, like water on stone, unconscious (and for that reason, all the more hardened) assumptions and prejudices, first over years and then (where did the time go?) decades of life together.

And how does it affect our understanding of the man who may be the next vice-president of the United States?

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.