I arrived at Sara’s apartment on one of the hottest days of my journey. She handed me a glass of water, “Don’t worry about a coaster. All my stuff is from Goodwill.” I took a drink and squatted on the sofa. Within minutes she sprawled across the largest beanbag chair I’ve ever seen. Two hours passed in non-stop conversation before I even got out of my cycling clothes.
“I am having a moment in life to figure out what I stand for.” For Sara Haltunnen, that moment is long, deep, and all encompassing. Sara holds strong personal beliefs, “I’m a Christian. I’m a creationist.” But her acceptance of life’s ambiguities fill her with unparalleled empathy. Sara explained how she doesn’t accept the ‘gay lifestyle,’ then related a two-hour phone conversation with a guy she met online who’s grappling with his sexuality. For Sara, human struggle supersedes ideological purity. “We all matter to God. Even Evan Bagley (Columbine murderer) matters to God.”
Sara grew up with a single mom who had emphysema, moved out at age fourteen, lived with neighbors, and dropped out of high school after ninth grade. She eventually finished high school at night. “My mother never graduated, my brother and sister didn’t graduate. It was the proudest day of my life.” Sara went on to study at community college. Now, at age 36, Sara is still finding herself. “I was a late bloomer. My ability to make and keep good decisions took so long to happen.”
Sara adopted a father figure to guide her: “Dan Rather is the dad I never had. I just love that man.” His appearance on The Letterman Show a few days after 9-11 still resonates. “Dan Rather broke down and wondered about why they hate us so much. It’s been fifteen years since that interview, and how much has changed? It’s so easy to offend others.”
Sara’s moral exploration centers on issues of sexual violence. “The two things that are closest to me are sexual assault and abortion. They are not black and white issues; they are beyond grey. They are giant bundles of frayed nerves.
“I was a rape crisis advocate. At our core, what we protect is our body. But how can we address the balance of what the perpetrator should suffer? I am trying to work out the limits of what we should forgive.
“Abortion is more complex than we acknowledge. If you’re a woman, you are exalted for your ability to create life. If you terminate a life in you, the emotional residue is devastating.”
After talking, literally non-stop for ninety minutes, Sara said, “The divisiveness of our nation makes me not want to talk.” Then she kept on.
“Look at 911. Awful as that was, I never experienced such unity among Americas. Fifteen years later, we are so divisive. All these different kinds of people matter but they give no ground to anyone else. The oppression that people experience is real, but it is nothing compared to the oppression borne on the shoulders of the people they’ve stood upon. When people today are intolerant, there is no room for ‘us.’
“There has to be a unified moral code within this country or we will wind up having civil war because, and this sounds crazy, we have too much freedom. We don’t understand that there is something bigger than you, your neighbor, even your government. There is something bigger than all of us. There is true right and wrong. It starts with the small things – a guy threw a pretzel in my car the other day – and extends to the big things, like Nice and Sandy Hook.
“People can’t do everything that people want to do all the time. We’re such a self-saturated people. Social media makes us self-absorbed. The thing that’s spreading right now is panic and fear. Until we quench that gay rights, abortion rights, black lives, blue lives won’t matter.”
As twilight turned to night, Sara’s thoughts turned personal. “I’m trying to reemerge into the world and find friends rather than love.” After a series of boyfriends, Sara’s been single for over a year. She would like to be coupled, but is exploring other ways of connection by having an apartment mate and hosting couchsurfers. The reality of being on her own confounds her expectations. “I wasn’t a baby doll kind of girl, but I always thought I’d be married before I was thirty and have children.”
Sara doesn’t dwell on her personal situation for long. “We’re in this weird dance as a country where we can’t come to agreement. When does it just stop? When can we just breathe?
“I had a very organic experience the other day. I met someone, a black women, and we talked. Simple as that. It’s not our job, as humans, to live our lives for other humans. It’s our job to love other humans.
“I want to get to the point that if I say something that offends someone, they can tell me. I can apologize and they will believe me. Then we can move on.”
“God would never advocate for one person to murder another one – not a gay person, not a black, not an embezzler. Ultimately, I think we have to answer to God. It’s between you and God.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“It makes no sense that in America people are in jail whom the Innocence project will exonerate, that people don’t have running water, that people are ill-housed, that people are… you wouldn’t know I have any hope for the future.”