With Make America Dinner Again, politics gets a place at the table

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1 of 9 Emily Nelson, the host of the Seattle edition of Make America Dinner Again, chats with attendees over appetizers at the Commons on Queen Anne. (Rebekah Welch / The Seattle Times)
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2 of 9 Mark Fosdal, left, Zawadi Morrow and Lauren Pattie get to know each other over appetizers before participating in a program called Make America Dinner Again, where people of different political views gather over dinner to talk with the goal of promoting understanding and unity. (Rebekah Welch / The Seattle Times)
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3 of 9 Dinner was potluck-style at the Make America Dinner Again event. Here, host Emily Nelson talks with Mark Fosdal as they fill their plates. (Rebekah Welch / The Seattle Times)
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4 of 9 There were quiet moments during the Make America Dinner Again meal. Participants are encouraged to practice active listening, which means allowing the occasional silence to fully absorb what the last speaker said. (Rebekah Welch / The Seattle Times)
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5 of 9 At the start of the meal, Make America Dinner Again paired up to discuss their similarities and differences. (Rebekah Welch / The Seattle Times)
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6 of 9 Zawadi Morrow, left, Lauren Pattie and Mark Fosdal talk over appetizers at the Commons on Queen Anne before participating in the Make America Dinner Again program. (Rebekah Welch / The Seattle Times)
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7 of 9 Host Emily Nelson kicks off the Make America Dinner Again event. The event invited people of different political views to gather for a potluck-style dinner in order to promote better understanding of one another. (Rebekah Welch / The Seattle Times)
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8 of 9 Jessica Foster shares what she learned she had in common with another attendee, Brendan Perko, during an icebreaker exercise at the Make America Dinner Again potluck. (Rebekah Welch / The Seattle Times)
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9 of 9 In one exercise, Make America Dinner Again participants lined up along a wall according to how strongly they agreed or disagreed with a statement. (Rebekah Welch / The Seattle Times)

In a divisive time, a nationwide organization is bringing people of divergent views together over dinner — with intense, cathartic results.

Ray is tall and lanky. He seems maybe a little shy, but sweet. Did he bring the macaroni and cheese? No, he brought some store-bought subway sandwiches. “Triple meat!” he says, with satisfaction. I brought couscous made with veggie stock, in case of hungry vegetarians at the potluck, but I tell him about my dear departed grandmother’s small cattle ranch in Eastern Washington, and we discuss our mutual love of meat. “Beef’s my favorite,” he says. We are in full agreement about the greatness of steak.

Ray has come to Make America Dinner Again (M.A.D.A.)— a nationwide organization bringing people of divergent political views together for supper and conversation — after seeing a video on YouTube. (He didn’t want his last name used.) “I thought, ‘This is fantastic, that people are willing to talk,’ ” he says. He’s had people delete him on Facebook because of his politics. “Family and friends,” he says unhappily. “I haven’t defriended anyone,” he notes. His sincerity — his hope for connection — seems clear. Who does he support? “President Trump,” he pronounces extra clearly, seeming a little surprised to be saying it, to a stranger, in person and out loud.

It’s great that Ray’s here — Seattle-area M.A.D.A. chapter head Emily Nelson initially didn’t get a lot of potential dinner guests from the conservative side of the political spectrum. She reached out to a few Republican Facebook groups to get the party started; she’s hosted one other M.A.D.A. before, and this is the fourth in the area. The process to sign up is simple: Just go to makeamericadinneragain.com and answer a few questions, e.g., “Which of the following political perspectives do you identify with the most? Check all that apply :)” You can also find out how to be a host.

M.A.D.A. dinners are potluck, but you don’t have to bring anything; they’re free, though donations are encouraged. This one is held in Queen Anne’s All Saints Church event space, The Commons, a pretty room that’s not too big and not too small, with a couple of handsome wood beams overhead decked out with twinkly lights. The table is elegant, white-clothed with gold charger plates under china ones; the jazz soundtrack includes Nina Simone. The spread is formidable, enough food for a big party, but this is to be more intimate, just dinner for 10. As the guests arrive and make first-name tags, a wine cork pops. “That’s a good sound!” someone says.

Mark Fosdal, a friendly cancer researcher who lives on the Eastside and describes himself as “more to the right,” is the one who brought the macaroni, made with garlic, lots of butter, hot sauce, cheddar, mozzarella and Parmesan. Andrea Baker, who lives in Issaquah, emanates warmth as she talks about her busy life — she’s a singer/songwriter, mom, and church music director, and she and her husband also have a meat-and-cheese distribution business. She’s brought a very generous cheese board including aged Gouda, sweet sopressata and truffle pecorino.

Zawadi Morrow, also a musician and an adjunct professor of music at Seattle Pacific University who lives in Mountlake Terrace, is tossing a kale slaw, although he didn’t bring it. He’s too selfless to mention that he personally funded a lot of the organizer-prepared extra food — tri-tip and Hawaiian chicken kebobs, the slaw, more. Brendan Perko, the pastor of All Saints, brought chips and salsa and guacamole to represent his upbringing in Pueblo, Colorado, even though, he laughs, “I look like this” — tall and blonde and blue-eyed.

Emily calls us all to the table. An icebreaker game about similarities and differences reveals some funny ones: Ray and Zawadi differ on meat-matters, but are both part Irish and share a distaste for gin. Politics are one thing, Mark says, but at gin-haters, he draws the line — “I’m out of here!” Everybody laughs. Pastor Brendan is paired with Jessica Foster for an animated, obviously fun conversation; they both have earrings (“Two!” Brendan points out) and tattoos, but she’s not at all religious. Mark just did the Seattle-to-Portland bike ride; Andrea, he’s learned, isn’t that into the outdoors, as he tactfully puts it. “You can just say I don’t like it and I’m lazy, that’s fine!” she laughs.

Those who choose to dine with strangers with contentious topics on the table may be of a special creed; there’s a charge in the air, but the atmosphere already feels convivial. Emily builds a philosophical framework — “I believe that humans are amazing, and we can do better” — and lays down ground rules, explaining active listening, encouraging “I” statements and questions. We are instructed to expect, and allow, uncomfortable silences. Our whole selves, Emily says, are welcome at this table; she’s a calming presence, a preternaturally good host with a sense of humor too. Our safe word, she says, is “avocado.”

There are, it turns out, only a few moments of quiet, and they feel less awkward than thoughtful, portentous. “More wine helps!” Mark points out, and by the evening’s end, several bottles of Two-Buck Chuck will be gone through. The first question for the group is about feeling misunderstood vis-a-vis political leanings. Mark feels that with our present-day labels, so many assumptions get made — that if you describe yourself one way, you must watch Fox News all the time. “I just keep thinking of the word ‘assumption,’ ” Andrea agrees — as a person of faith, nonbelievers tend to categorize her one way, while those of other religions have their preconceptions, too.

“I feel misunderstood on almost every political point,” Ray says. “It’s really hard to just have a conversation … so many people have deleted me.” A respectful silence. Jessica talks about the notion of “triggers,” and how it’s become a shorthand buzzword for liberal-snowflake syndrome, but that for her, what it signifies is real. “Politics can be very personal,” she says.

As the evening goes on, it’s hard to believe how personal the conversation gets. A new question: What factor has influenced your politics the most? People talk about their upbringings, about religion or the lack thereof, about abusive parents, bigoted relatives, divorce and trauma and more. It’s almost shocking to hear such candid, entirely individual stories from real people, face to face.

Andrea says that “Since Ferguson, things feel really different for me.” As someone who’s upper-middle class, white and religious, she says, she’s realized she has to “Listen. Listen. Listen.”

Mark has taken to describing his politics more proactively, talking about how he does want to take care of the environment and of people. “Politics is me making a difference here at this dinner table, not yelling at the TV,” he says. Lauren Pattie discusses how our current polarized climate in some ways mirrors her past, in which she was exposed to both sides of the political debate, “caught between these two worlds.” It taught her how to talk about it, to listen carefully but still question: “Yes, but have you thought — perhaps we should consider …” she laughs. Brendan talks about the dual influences of being raised evangelical and finding Biggie Smalls. “I think I landed somewhere in the middle!” More laughter.

Fact-checking the president: Is it fair? Brendan starts to answer Ray’s question, then pauses. “Is this OK?” he asks Emily. “Can this conversation go here?” Absolutely, she says, and a civil but serious debate ensues. “Does he lie on purpose? Yes … Is he under a microscope more than others? Yes. Is that fair? Yes,” Brendan says. Mark asks photographer Rebekah Welch and me to explain journalism and bias, which we try our best to do succinctly, without bias. Later, he’ll give an impassioned explanation of why he thinks tolerance as a goal has been a terrible misstep — only putting up with each other isn’t working. We need, he says, actual engagement.

More important questions, more earnest talking and listening, then Emily asks everyone to say at once what their favorite dish has been. “Avocado!” one person shouts, and everybody laughs.

If you want to liven up your dinner party, try what Emily calls a “spectrum exercise.” Get everyone up from the table (“Bring your wine!”); designate one wall “strongly agree” and the garbage can “strongly disagree”; then ask a series of increasingly controversial political questions. What stands out here is less Ray ending up alone on one side, though it happens, or the women clumped by the garbage and the men spread out elsewhere, though that happens too. What stands out is everyone looking at where everyone else stands, thinking and talking about it in terms of the group, with openness and a feeling of belonging, no matter where they end up.

Zawadi takes off his shoes; at one point, he sits down on a couch that happens to be perfectly, comfortably positioned along the spectrum for him, to the group’s amusement. A question about abortion finds Brendan leaning against one wall, his face in his hands. Seeing the difficulty he has in taking his stance — human, conflicted, real — brings the room to silence.

Gun control. Immigration. Black Lives Matter. The electoral college. At one point, Brendan mimes pulling the pin out of a grenade and tossing it on the table, which is now messy with pens and notepads, crumpled-up napkins and half-full glasses. All the things you’re not supposed to bring up at a dinner party are raised, and it’s not a disaster. In fact, it’s nuanced and challenging, fun at times, intense at others, cathartic and comforting.

Toward the end, Lauren says that she’s a quarter Armenian, that her grandmother came here from Syria. “Thank god America was accepting refugees from Syria when my grandma needed somewhere to go,” she says. There’s always a new group vilified by the dominant group, she says; now it may be Muslims, but at one point, it was the Irish and Italians.

Eloquently, calmly, she discusses how conservatives call for bigger walls, while liberals call for bigger doors, when what we need is a bigger table — not to just keep people out or let them in, but to know and nourish each other. Listening and nodding all around.

Bethany Jean Clement: 206-464-2050 or bclement@seattletimes.com.