My ride with the Tea Party

Sitting next to me in the Dayton airport was a middle-aged woman with a Liberty Township Tea Party lawn sign. I wondered where she was going – and why. Then, after I found my seat on the plane to D.C., she sat beside me again. For the next 70 minutes, we talked non-stop.

Susan, a co-founder of the Liberty Township Tea Party (located in the southern part of Ohio) was on her way to D.C. to attend Congressional hearings about the IRS scandal. Her local Tea Party was one of several targeted; some months after they had applied for non-profit status, they were still waiting. She told me of the intrusive questions she and her husband were asked – like what other groups they personally support.

I asked her how her local Tea Party group got started. It was the story of so many small, citizen-driven groups throughout American history. A small group from Liberty Township attended a meeting at Miami University of Ohio and connected with the Cincinnati Tea Party. Afterward, they returned home and called their first meeting, held at the local volunteer fire station. Scores of people showed up. Years later, they are still going strong, with some 1200 members.

Susan runs the group out of her home basement. It's entirely volunteer-run. The group supports itself by passing a hat around at their monthly meetings. The group chose neither to affiliate with the state tea party, nor to attach to any national tea party groups (though they do work with Freedom Works). They've intentionally kept their independence. As Susan said to me, more than once, they focus on improving life in their community.

Susan is a former elementary school teacher of special needs students. She is a former president of her local PTA and a former school board member. She reminded me of school teachers I knew growing up in upstate New York, and of the hundreds of concerned citizens I meet routinely in communities large and small across our country.

We discussed at length the IRS scandal, Benghazi, the budget deficit, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the plight of public schools, among other issues.

Over and over again we returned to the common theme of "trust" – people's trust in their elected leaders and public officials, and people's trust in one another. On these issues, we held exactly the same views. Too many of us no longer trust public officials. They seem consumed by their own agendas, posturing and scoring political points – and they fail to get things done. When it comes to people's trust in one another, Susan essentially read back to me what I have written in my latest book, The Work of Hope: that we Americans have misplaced our sense of compassion for one another, our connection to each other; that we are too focused on instant gratification; and that we have lost our ability to come together to solve community problems.

No doubt, Susan held firm and negative views of President Obama. But she also expressed similar views about Republican leaders.

I have no love for some Tea Party members who hold our politics and public life hostage; but I feel the same way about some on the left.

I was heartened by my plane ride. In my travels, I find that many people, including some in the news media, believe they know the individuals who make up the Tea Party. Such Tea Partyers are portrayed as if they are from another land, with a dangerous perspective and untoward motives. But what Susan has achieved with her group is what so many of us concerned with American community life want: ordinary people coming together to work for what they believe in.

I intend to learn more about Susan's group, and I hope to go to Liberty Township to visit with them.