Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg sat on the edge of his seat and jotted notes in a small black book as he met with a dozen Catawba Indian Nation leaders.
Earlier Saturday, Buttigieg had held a town hall with nearly 1,700 people in the Old Town Amphitheater in Rock Hill. But Catawba Chief Bill Harris said Buttigieg came prepared and was knowledgeable about issues that affect federally recognized reservations.
“You would not know he was a presidential candidate sitting at this table because there was no pompous air,” Harris said. “He came to the table wanting to hear.”
Most of the discussion focused on increasing funding for reservations.
“Historically what has happened is indigenous people have never been fully funded,” Harris said. “The fact that we are now where we are is truly remarkable in the grand scheme of things, but we are (still) not fully funded. I think the last number I recall is we are probably 50 percent funded.”
Harris said Buttigieg was concerned.
“Today was historic because within our history, we have never known or can record a time when there was a presidential candidate or a president who came to this reservation,” Harris said.
Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, met with several groups during a two-day visit to Rock Hill. He had a theme at each event: Americans are questioning their sense of belonging, and he wants to fix that.
At A.M.E. Zion Church
Gwendolyn Brumfield sat in the second pew during Sunday morning worship service for the African Methodist Episcopal regional conference in Rock Hill. The organ blared as the choir, in red and gold gowns, belted songs of worship. The congregation clapped and sang along.
Brumfield, the missionary supervisor for Bishop Mildred Hines — who spoke at the service — clenched her eyes and sang loud. Her silver hair stuck out from the bottom of her black hat, decorated with sequins and a large bow. She tapped her foot and clapped her hands.
Buttigieg swayed from side to side behind her and mouthed along to the music. Then, he went up to speak.
“I tremble for my country, knowing how difficult it has become for us to stand together as a nation right now,” he said.
Brumfield nodded. Some in the crowd murmured “Amen” and “Yes.”
“And knowing we are living amid a crisis of belonging in the United States of America right now,” Buttigieg continued.
Buttigieg, who is gay and married, connected to members of a denomination that does not allow same-sex marriage with a discussion on the need to combat racial inequalities.
Though polling in the single digits, Buttigieg has raised more campaign money than former Vice President Joe Biden. But he lacks Biden’s support among black voters, which is critical in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in South Carolina.
Buttigieg said no one is free as long as racial discrimination exists.
“We cannot go on with a black maternal health disparity that claims three times as many lives in childbirth for black women than white women,” he said.
Brumfield nodded. Women in the crowd stood and clapped.
“Or the disparity in justice that has a criminal justice system delivering injustice like the fact that someone is four times as likely to be incarcerated for a drug offense if they are a person of color,” he said.
The crowd shouted “Yes!”
“We must do something about that crisis of belonging,” Buttigieg said. “All of us in different ways, have been led to question whether we belong. And I know what it is to look on the news and see your rights up for debate. All of us must extend a hand to one another.”
The Wall That Heals tour
Evan Hicks, 8, stood beside his two brothers Sunday afternoon. All three boys impatiently tugged on their mom’s arm.
“Why do we have to be here?” Evan asked.
“This will be really special,” said mom Stacey Ferguson, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.
They waited to start a walking tour with Buttigieg of The Wall That Heals, a three-quarter size traveling version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., that was in Rock Hill over the weekend. Ferguson and other service members walked with Buttigieg, a former Navy Reserve officer.
Evan saw Buttigieg approaching and grew quiet.
Buttigieg walked up to the brothers and introduced himself. Evan jumped in.
“I am worried about pollution,” he said.
“Me, too,” Buttigieg said. “I am worried about pollution.”
Evan, who said he was concerned about the environment after watching a video about climate change, smiled and followed Buttigieg to the wall.
Ferguson, who lives in Sumter, said it was sobering and important for her sons to see the names of more than 58,000 men and women on the wall who lost their lives in the Vietnam War.
“If we can try to help them understand what a sacrifice it is, and that we should never take it for granted, I think that’s important,” she said. “And that a life of service, whether you’re military or serving as a civilian, like our fine politician over here, it’s all very important.”
Ferguson spoke quietly with Buttigieg about his plans for veterans as he looked at the wall.
“Our veterans of the armed forces who go on to serve as elected officials, that number is getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” she said. “And I feel like it’s making that divide bigger between civilian and military. There are so many misconceptions about military for folks who haven’t served or aren’t close to somebody that has.”
Ferguson said veterans like Buttigieg who run for office can clear up misconceptions.
“I feel like we’re not the veterans that the World War II veterans are or even the Vietnam veterans,” she said. “We have a common bond. We’re not 100 percent the same, and I’m glad to feel like at least they are representing our concerns.”
Round table with faith leaders
Buttigieg ended the day talking about the role of religion in politics with five faith leaders from North and South Carolina, who represent multiple religions.
Buttigieg, who revisited a discussion on racial inequalities at the event, said the Democratic Party has shied away from talking about religion because of fear it could exclude voters.
“I believe because of that concern, we’ve also missed an opportunity,” he said. “Because the truth is we can honor that equality when it comes to religious expression and also speak to the values that so many of us do derive from our faith.”
The Rev. Rodney Sadler Jr., an associate professor at the Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, said racial inequality persists. He asked Buttigieg how he uses his faith to understand the notion of race and racial identity.
Buttigieg leaned forward in his chair.
“That’s a profound question,” Buttigieg said. “And first of all, I agree that if we were to choose one issue that was most endangering our future as a country, it would be race.”
He said faith is useful in teaching people how to look beyond race.
“It feels enlightened to say we don’t see color,” he said. “But it isn’t true.”
Buttigieg said the country needs discussions about race that can create a “kind of consciousness” of racial identity and inequalities.
“This is the territory where I think we can move toward something that enables people to stand up taller — even those who are on the morally more difficult or more problematic side of these racial questions,” he said. “And if we can’t get there, then I agree with you. That is the greatest threat to America.”