Jess King

Jess King

Between running for office and now serving in local government, I have had the privilege of talking with and listening to an incredibly wide, diverse cross section of Lancastrians: city and county, young and old, newcomers and those rooted here for generations. Democrats, Republicans and independents. 

I have been thinking a lot about these conversations. The interconnections between us abound, and yet we are as separate as we have ever been.

Two people in the same family see the circumstances of the world from polar perspectives.

Two neighbors on the same street experience their neighborhood in fundamentally different ways.

Two people who center their lives on faith and obedience to a moral code have opposite political perspectives.

Two children in my kids’ schools represent the poorest among us and the most affluent — the taxes on one of their homes alone cost twice the other family’s gross income for the year.

At a moment that feels as polarized as I’ve ever seen in my 46 years, I find myself searching for what we hold in common and returning to the first lessons I learned as a native daughter of Lancaster County.

First and foremost: to love your neighbor as yourself. I grew up Mennonite, with Anabaptist roots going back to the 1600s in Lancaster County. We went to church every Sunday and Wednesday. Church friends were my best friends. I learned that within all of the moral teachings, commandments and laws, the one that was most important was to love God with your heart, mind and soul, and the second was just like it: to love your neighbor as yourself. I saw my Leola church resettle refugee families, package relief kits to send to war-torn countries and start a food bank for neighbors who had more month than money. I saw businesses and individuals give generously to support this work, sharing their privilege widely.

Lancaster, I know you, and it feels like we’re missing each other in translation. Top of mind is that you need to know that what is sending people to the streets in our community and across the country isn’t just a reaction to the police. It’s a culmination of four centuries of injustices against people of color that are still felt by far too many and haven’t been reconciled.

We could write pages about the relational and moral motivations to heal this inequality, but Lancaster, I also know you look at the bottom line: Citibank issued a report last week that pegged the real cost of Black inequality in the U.S. at $16 trillion in lost gross domestic product over 20 years. It is real. It is profound. It impacts all of us, and collectively we have big work to do.

Lancaster, you need to know that our young people — including those who are incredibly plugged in but may not have all the rights of adulthood like the right to vote — are deeply concerned about, and invested in, the country they are inheriting. They are concerned about racial equity and policing. Concerned about climate change. Concerned about whether their voices — or other marginalized voices — will be heard as decisions are being made.

Just last week the national divide over racial equity and policing continued to unfold; smoke from California’s unprecedented wildfires clouded Lancaster’s skies; and our state government argued over the validity of mail-in ballots based on secrecy envelopes and postmark dates, representing potentially far more than the entire margin of votes statewide in 2016.

Lancaster, I ask you to think where this kind of division and fear leads. To think about the community and country we are creating for our children. To remember that a house, a city, a nation divided cannot stand.

In contrast, we know that we are better and stronger together. We know that love is a renewable resource that never runs out. And for the vast majority of Lancastrians who are moored to a faith tradition, we are literally commanded to love others as much as we love ourselves.

I know you, Lancaster, as a place that has resettled more refugees per capita than any other place in the country. I know you as a place where Amish and Puerto Rican and Burmese people peacefully and joyfully frequent the same places. I know you as the most generous county in the commonwealth, giving more of your income to charity than any other. I know you as compassionate and caring.

I ask you, Lancaster, to re-center on these values these days and this season. To discover what you have in common with your neighbor instead of what you think you don’t. To listen to the fears and concerns of those around you as much as you heed your own. I ask you to reject the fear-based politics and economics that only win when the divisions between us are deeper than our bonds.

Jess King is the chief of staff for the City of Lancaster.