By Abigail Crutchfield, Dana Bash and Jeremy Harlan
(CNN) — Can the racial divide be bridged with a meal? That’s the very simple idea behind an initiative started by Sens. Tim Scott of South Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma: “Solution Sundays.”
The idea is alarmingly simple: invite a family of another race over to your home for a meal on Sunday.
The light bulb went off for the lawmakers in 2015 after violent confrontations across the country between African Americans and law enforcement officers.
“There seemed to be this dichotomy that was growing which you can either be for the police or what was happening in the black community, but you couldn’t be both,” Lankford said. “And our response was no, you can be.”
Lankford explained that he started asking people in Oklahoma and in Washington whether they had ever had someone of another race in their homes for dinner. “Very few people could answer yes,” he said.
Scott said he had a similar experience, and realized that this personal disconnect between races is a huge part of the problem.
“For me, it’s hard to hate what you know,” Scott said. “And it’s just so simple. It’s hard to hate what you know.”
So, the senators issued the challenge to their constituents and to fellow lawmakers.
“Sunday is a significant day for most families in America — still, in whatever way with their families, or faith or whatever it may be,” Lankford said. “And we said, ‘If you want to be part of the solution for race in America, set aside lunch or dinner and just invite a family over of another race, and just sit down and have a meal together.”
Part of the hesitation they found was about the conversation itself. Lankford said the question that came up over and over again was, “What would we talk about?” He explained that this “stiffness” is part of what creates barriers between people.
“While we’re dealing with voting rights, and we’re dealing with all these other inequities, and we’re dealing with all of these other things over decades, we’ve still not finished the work of the heart and of families,” he said.
Scott said he has gotten very positive feedback from constituents who have given the idea a shot.
“It’s surprising how many people come back and say, ‘They’re just like me.’ What did you expect?” he said laughing. “It’s one of the reasons why people are comfortable with people like themselves. What they don’t realize is that we’re all about the same. We all struggle with finances, with kids, with spouses, some people struggle with the Patriots. I love the Cowboys.”
The sentiments may seem old-fashioned in 2017, but the lawmakers both insist simplicity is part of the beauty.
“It doesn’t cost anything,” Lankford said. “There’s no program, there’s no website, there’s not app for it. It’s just your family inviting another family over.”
At a recent lunch at Kenny’s BBQ Smokehouse on Capitol Hill, the senators took a break from Washington’s divisive politics and replicated a typical Solution Sunday meal with a group of local community and religious leaders. Over messy containers of cornbread and ribs, the group shared stories about their experiences with diversity.
Senate Chaplain Barry Black said he grew up in Baltimore and didn’t shake hands with a white person until he was sixteen years old.
“Now how does that happen in the United States of America? But we never invited someone who didn’t look like us home for dinner either,” said Black, who was elected the Senate chaplain in 2003 and typically begins Senate sessions with apolitical prayers.
Molly Teas, who runs a reading mentoring program in Washington, D.C., pointed out that part of the issue comes down to early exposure to people who are different. She said that for her son, who is one of three white students in his school, a homogenous environment makes him uncomfortable.
“I’ll never forget taking him to Wyoming,” Teas said. “We got to the airport and he goes, ‘Mom where is everybody’?”
“It’s not as simple as I have to look at you.” said Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, gesturing across the table. “It’s sort of like, what do I see in you?”
Deborah Chambers, who works at an organization that helps the homeless, said there is something unique about mealtime.
“There must be something about relationships that are built around eating, around food, around the dinner table, and we have just desegregated that,” she said.
For Scott, a black Republican from the South — a “unicorn” in his words — the program is an extension of his own experience, which is why he believes it can work.
“Every day of my life it’s a Senate lunch or a meeting in South Carolina, I find myself in a room that is consistently 100% white,” he explained. “And when I go home almost every weekend I’m having meals with my family and often times that could be all black. So it happens that I get to have both experiences, and that’s how I know how close we are all. We’re very similar. Very similar.”
For the two politicians, the idea is strictly apolitical, but some see the problem of race relations as bigger than one that can be addressed with a meal. Over lunch, Rev. David Beckmann, who is president of the anti-hunger organization Bread for the World, asked the lawmakers what they think can be done legislatively to tackle the systemic issues contributing to racial division.
“Having dinner together is really important, but there are big things that divide us,” he said. “The unemployment rate, the rate of incarceration, and those things take not just getting to know each other. And you’re in a better position than most of us to deal with some of those things.”
Lankford and Scott emphasized that the initiative is about healing outside the bounds of formal legislation.
“Legislative solutions can be additives, but they’re never primary,” Scott said to Beckmann. “Never has it been primary for a man’s heart to be changed by what you do in a legislative body.”
Scott argues that bringing government into the equation could actually make things worse.
“When you start bringing political issues, legislative priorities to the table, you start seeing people drift to their corners,” he said. “What you first have to do is build the rapport and credibility so that you actually can solve some of the problems that government has not solved in at least 50 years of intentional effort because it really can’t be solved there.”
When asked if they have felt more need for this initiative since President Donald Trump’s election, Lankford stressed that it’s not about a political leader.
“His rhetoric is not artful, to say the least, and at times he makes statements that I wish wasn’t so divisive in that statement,” he said. “But I think the need still remains. This started for us a year and a half ago or so. This is not new for us. This is not new for the nation.”
Still, after an election that has left the country feeling more divided than ever, encouraging people to come together over a hot meal could be more necessary than ever.