Two Ozarks Friends Take The High Road Toward Common Ground
With support from the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, this is Making a Difference; Connecting through Conversation. Today, we introduce you to Ray Burmood and Don Underwood, who met and became friends as volunteers for the Red Cross. Their friendship and genuine appreciation of each other survives despite their political and religious differences.
Note Of Correction: Audio in this feature incorrectly identifies Don Underwood's place of residence.
Don Underwood lives in Republic Missouri
Ray Burmood: "I'm Ray Burmood. I'm a retired clinical social worker, been retired since 2013. Before retiring, I worked for the Veteran's Administration with combat veterans that have PTSD. So it was a wonderful experience working with World War Two veterans, Vietnam vets and the younger veterans as well."
Ray Burmood: "I grew up in a small rural community in southern Colorado, mostly farming and ranching. It was a pretty homogeneous kind of community. I would define it as pretty much a conservative environment. During the Summer of Love, I went out to San Francisco with some college friends to work in the summer and began getting involved more on the periphery, more as an observer, but kind of endorsed and went along with those more liberal kind of ideas. I went to various rallies and protests in Golden Gate Park. And once again, like I said, mostly just watching. But it was there that I began to kind of search for some kind of purpose and meaning to life. And so I had a religious conversion back in 1972 and became very conservative, fundamental Christian, and begin to use the Bible as my standards for how I viewed all of life and the way that I approached it."
Don Underwood: "My name is Don Underwood, I'm a retired journalist who grew up in Northwest St. Louis County. My foundation of skepticism really started in ninth grade where I had a teacher who went into the Greek skeptics. By the time I graduated from high school, I had applied that skepticism more broadly, including religion. The ethical standards of Christianity, yes I can see that. But the religious thing wasn't going to be part of my life. I got out of high school, went to journalism school at the University of Missouri. I came down to Springfield for my first job. Started at Springfield Leader and Press and stayed there for 40 years. I retired in 2013. The foundations of my belief system now: skepticism, humanism and the UU principles. My political perspective does tend to be toward the progressive, though on financial matters I tend to be pretty conservative."
Ray Burmood: "I take classes as does Don, here at MSU, and one of them was in the political science department. And the textbook and the lectures helped me to understand the nuances that go along with each individual. And so I learned that even though I identify myself as a fairly conservative, born again Christian, that in learning about these various labels, there are certain aspects, Don, where I would be a progressive. And there's probably areas, as you've already alluded to, where you would be considered a conservative. So anyway, as to how we met, Don and I both volunteer with the Red Cross. And Don, I can't really remember how many years ago it's been. Now I can remember us riding around in I think it was one of the Red Cross cars where we first began to just, you know, kind of get to know each other. I don't know what you remember about that."
Don Underwood: "If I remember correctly, it would have been 2012 or 2013, because that's when I started with Red Cross, and we got talking about various things. And you invited me to your discussion group that you had started."
Ray Burmood: "Yep. So it was an interfaith group, and we met at the public library here and I had the Imam from the mosque. I had the Rabbi from the synagogue. I had a Baha'i. I've talked to a Sikh. I had you as kind of the a more liberal, how do you identify yourself there"?
Don Underwood: "An intellectual agnostic and an emotional atheist."
Ray Burmood: "There you go. So anyway, we would meet once a month and everybody would kind of present their point of view so that we could kind of better understand each other and where we're coming from. And I enjoy having those kind of discussions, especially with people with other points of view, because I know what I believe. I just want to hear where other people are and so I can better understand them, you know what I mean?
Don Underwood: "Well, yes, I think that's the shared commonality we have there, that I found those discussions with your group to be stimulating. It was interesting to hear other views. Frankly, it was an opportunity for me to refine and sharpen my views. So I enjoyed the discussion group."
Ray Burmood: "As a part of the crux of this whole program that SMU has is how are we able to have differences of opinion, different worldviews and perspectives and still be able to be friends. It'd be interesting to hear from your point of view. How do you think we're able to carry that off?"
Don Underwood: "Well, I think to begin with, we both like the discussion, as we've mentioned earlier. I think we've always, from the get go, seem very honest and forthright with one another and while remaining civil. So I don't know that either one of us has ever really lost our temper during any of our discussions. That's important. We can you know, we can discuss the issue. I find it invigorating, and I think we both like sci fi." (Laughter)
Ray Burmood: "Actually, we haven't met for a while with this virus".
Don Underwood: "Let me back up a little bit. What are you getting from when we meet and discuss things?
Ray: "You know, one of the thoughts that comes to mind here, there's a prayer by Saint Francis of Assisi that says, 'I don't so much want to be understood as to understand.' And so, just trying to get a sense of how you deal with life and cope with life, and stay upbeat and positive, is helpful to me. You know, you said that you found the discussions that we had in the interfaith group as kind of challenging and provocative, and made you kind of sharpen your point of view and be able to define it. And so it's kind of the same thing. Robert Frost in one of his poems said, 'I have not seen from him they knew I'm only more sure of what I know is true.' And so as I age and grow and experience more and more of life's experiences, I become more convinced of the truth of the gospels in the scriptures. But a part of what helps me with that, you know, is hearing you and your more scientific. And I certainly understand and accept that it's not just a blind, superstitious faith that I have. I don't have to check my brain at the door when I go into church. So I enjoy your perspectives and hearing about them. And I just didn't enjoy you as a person. And as I said earlier, I respect who you are. I know you've had some tragedies in your life, and hearing how you worked that through was inspiring to me."
Don: "Hmm, do you want to get back to politics?" (Laughter)
Ray: "No, I want to get back to our personal relationship because I think that's what's so important. I mean, Don, in our contemporary society here, it is just so sad to see how polarized and how acrimonious people are with each other. I mean, I am on social media and on Facebook and a lot of my very conservative friends, I just sometimes have trouble relating to them more than I do to you because they are just so knee jerk. You know, all the conspiracy issues and all of the political upheaval and just the stuff that's going on in our society is so sad. And I just hope that by doing this interview, it will help people who might be listening, to kind of realize that, hey, it's OK to have different points of view and still get along. And so I'd really like to emphasize in our conversation how we're able to do that so that it can be helpful to other people."
Don: "Well, it helps me. I know that. I'm I'm put off by much of what I see on Facebook, the name calling and. Oh, gosh, the misinformation. That's really why I get on Facebook to try to put out more credible information."
Ray: "Mm hmm. How's that working for you, Don? (Laughter) Because, you know, I try not to respond to some of the comments, but, boy, it's hard sometimes. And I know, you know, it's probably not going to make a lot of difference because once people have their minds made up, you know, Thomas Jefferson said, and I'm throwing a lot of quotes here, but Thomas Jefferson said that 'People are ruled more by their emotions than they are by the reason.' And so when you try to be rational and reasonable with folks, it doesn't go very far."
Don: "You've got a lot of truth in that. But you do what you can, right?"
Ray: Oh, yeah. You do what you can."
Don: I mean, I spent 40 years trying to inform people and in a credible fashion. In an objective fashion. And you can take the boy out of the newsroom, but you can't take them out of the boy I'm afraid."
Ray: "Well, yeah. And that's the thing, you know, especially today. I mean, you're younger than I am. But, you know, at one point, a lot of the news commentators and et cetera seem to be objective and trustworthy. But anymore you don't know who to trust or what is true and what isn't true. I do try to surf around and I listen to most of the major networks. I'm really a fan of PBS and I listen to the News Hour. But even there, you know, I mean, what is truth? What is truth, and who's going to define what it is?"
Don: "Well, I think you should be able to agree on facts when you talk about truth, maybe you're getting subjective, I'm not sure. But, yeah, you should be able to agree on facts. And there are so many times anymore that facts are ignored"
Ray: "Or there are they're twisted or you know,".
Don: "Or spin and flat out lies. I know it happens."
Ray: "And Don, as as a secularist, I'm not sure where you put your hope. I hope it's not in politicians because my hope is definitely not in politicians. They're going to do whatever they have to do some more than others. But I don't I don't put a lot of trust or hope in any politician."
Don: "Well, to plagiarize and reword the popular bumper sticker and motto, In Us I Trust."
Ray: "Oh, In Us I Trust. I haven't seen that."
Don: "No, I get rather irritated with the in God we trust."
Ray: "Oh, uh-oh. Well here's where we have to agree to disagree because that's totally my trust. My hope is in the kingdom of God, not in the kingdom of this world. So there we are. That's where we have some major differences. But you're still my buddy and I hope we can go out and have lunch together here in the next few weeks. But as far as the future, I don't look at humans. I don't look at any of that. As I've said several times, I'm very optimistic. I'm optimistic as a person and hopeful. But it's only because of my faith and my belief."
Don: "We have some major issues facing us. I think there is hope because when people do sit down with one another and do get to know each other, they often can find common ground. Common beliefs, common purpose, common threads. There are policy issues to be resolved. Granted what we can do that."
Ray: "Yeah, I agree."
Don: "My feeling as to why we should have hope is because we have autonomy. We're human beings and we are responsible for our own actions. If we take that responsibility seriously, then it should motivate you to act and hopefully act in a reasonable fashion using your best judgment. And I would say based on the evidence, usually scientific evidence, but that's not all. I mean, as humanists, I'm looking at a life stance that science informs, but it can be inspired by art and it should be motivated by compassion."
Ray: "Very good. I like that."
Don: "We have to establish our own ethical standards and then move forward. You can't just say I'm ethical in whatever way you have to then act. That is absolutely necessary."
Ray: "Mm hmm. There you go."
Ray Burmood and Don Underwood, sharing common ground for the KSMU ongoing series, Making a Difference; Connecting Through Conversation, which is supported by the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. Information at cfozarks.org
For KSMU, Ozarks Public Radio, I'm Mike Smith.