United States Senator
Senator Chris Coons was elected to represent Delaware in the U.S. Senate in a special election in 2010, winning the seat long held by Vice President Joe Biden. Like Biden, Coons came to the Senate directly from county government, serving as New Castle County Council President and County Executive from 2000-2010.
Before his start in local politics, Coons also worked for eight years in manufacturing for a Delaware-based technology company, as well as with several non-profits focused on education and homelessness, and in anti-apartheid efforts in the U.S. and South Africa.
The only sitting Senator to attend divinity school, Coons grew up in the Presbyterian Church in a family and community that expressed their faith through service and public engagement – a thread that carried throughout his varied career.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Matthew 25:34-40 (NIV)
Just weeks after Christmas in early 2016, during his fourth visit to Israel, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware made his first visit to Bethlehem. A man rooted in his Presbyterian upbringing and the product of Yale Divinity School, this visit to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, held special significance in the middle of a whirlwind of a congressional delegation trip covering 4 countries in 8 days.
As the delegation headed towards the town, Coons reminded himself that he shouldn't expect the quaint, dusty town of shepherds and animals in a stable that he learned about in Sunday school. Although just six miles from Jerusalem, Bethlehem today is a city of 25,000 people facing the kinds of tensions, security checkpoints, and economic challenges typical of a majority Muslim city in the middle of the West Bank.
American tourists and pilgrims who make their way to Bethlehem find a downtown named Manger Square, where Christmas is celebrated three times each year – once by the Western calendar, once for the Orthodox church, and a third time for the Armenian Eastern Rites church. Manger Square is book-ended by the Church of the Nativity on one side and the Mosque of Omar on the other, with the Bethlehem town hall located in between.
Coons and his Senate colleagues met with local elected leaders and learned about the challenges facing today’s Bethlehem. Later, they toured the Church of the Nativity, learning the history of the building made up of churches built on top of older churches built on top of ruins, tunnels, crypts, and caves.
Just as the tour and the long day of meetings, visits, and briefings became a little too long members found themselves in the cave recognized as the manger – the birthplace of Jesus – alone. And in the rare solitude of the moment, a voice emerged, singing softly at first, ‘O Holy Night.’ And for a few moments, led by Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a small group of Senators began singing carols in a small rock chapel in the middle of Bethlehem. They sang ‘Away in a Manger,’ then “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and finally, “Silent Night.”
In that moment, a small group of Senators from all corners of the country, diverse backgrounds and different faith traditions, shared a common moment of faith and humility. As Coons explained, “it wasn’t all about whether Christ was born in this exact cave, this barn, or this grotto. It was the faith in Him that had stirred millions to come to this spot from all over the world for centuries to sing praises to His name and seek His peace. To believe.”
As a young man, Chris Coons felt conflicting callings; would he be a scientist, a pastor, or a public servant? His father and mother were raised in church-going families – his mother, a Congregationalist, and his father, a Unitarian. After moving to Delaware when Chris was 6, his parents became active in Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church in a suburban area of Delaware. His mother, Sally, was a volunteer with the church youth program, and his father, Ken, taught Sunday school.
A few years later, the congregation experienced a deep divide over the direction of the nearly 200 year old church, and Ken and Sally joined several other families in leaving the church for a time. For Chris, watching his parents and their friends take on the task of planning worship services without formal training was inspiring. The way his parents and his friend’s parents picked up guitars, led songs, chose scripture readings, and shared sermons transformed his view of what it means to worship. It also served as an example of the importance of community to a church experience.
Throughout childhood, Coons’ parents taught him living a faith-based life was about living your faith through action. A few years after the Red Clay congregation reunited, a call went out for volunteers willing to make real the message of Matthew 25 through a prison ministry program. Ken, a suburban Republican with a growing manufacturing business in Baltimore, seemed almost surprised as he volunteered. Soon, he was in the state prison located an hour away for a Bible study group consisting of prisoners serving long sentences. The prison chaplain paired each program volunteer with an individual prisoner to build friendships and give the men connections to the outside world. Ken noticed a prisoner participant who attended, but kept to himself, so he asked the chaplain about him, and soon he was paired with Paul Byrne.
Paul was a convicted murderer serving a life sentence. In 1967, after years of watching his alcoholic father beat his mother, then-17-year-old Paul Byrne shot and killed him. Now in prison and estranged from his family, Paul was a quiet man who did not trust or engage with others. Ken, though, seemed to reach him; they developed a friendship, and eventually, Ken invited Paul to visit the Coons’ family home during furlough weekends.
Paul came into the Coons’ house at time of turmoil. Ken’s manufacturing business was struggling and his marriage was strained. Yet, Ken and Sally welcomed Paul to their home, located in an area where the suburbs, woods, and farmlands met, and Paul was treated like extended family, regularly going fishing or hiking with the boys and joining family meals.
About a year after the first visit, the Coons family situation changed dramatically. Ken’s business closed, and he and Sally filed for divorce, with Ken moving to Rhode Island for a new job and Sally and the boys moving into a home she could afford. Ken broke the news to Paul that Paul’s next weekend visit would be the last. Paul came to the house, and helped their family run a garage sale where they sold much of what they owned at the time, including furniture, clothing, toys, and household items. Paul had become such a trusted friend that he kept the till as it filled with cash over the course of the day.
On Sunday, Paul asked if it was ok if he went on a last hike in the woods to a pond behind the house, knowing that it was likely his last time outside in nature for a long time. A half hour later, Ken sent Chris to get Paul because it was time to drive back to the prison. Chris walked through the woods calling Paul’s name over and over again, when he realized that Paul was gone, and he ran back to the house to tell Ken. Ken was stunned and rushed to the room where Paul stayed. As he found the garage sale cigar box and opened it, he told Chris, “Look, all of the money is still here. His things are still here. He can’t have escaped. No one would plan to do that and leave hundreds of dollars in cash here.” He insisted on looking for him one more time. After another search, Ken realized that Paul had, in fact, walked away to escape, and he called the warden to report him missing.
Ken’s decision to join a prison ministry, and his decision with Sally to welcome a convicted murderer into their home, and trust him with the boys or cash was simply living their faith. It was neither a declaration or a public act, though it became public the moment Paul Byrne walked into the woods with no intention of returning. For Chris, who saw Paul primarily through his parents’ accepting gaze, it was a revelation that they were risking not only their safety, but the family’s standing in the community in the process. As the news of the escape became public, neighbors told reporters that they mistakenly thought the Coons family was a nice family.
Paul Byrne was captured and returned to prison, and years later Chris Coons visited him and asked why he left the house, but left the proceeds of the yard sale behind. Paul thought it over and said, “Well, your family were the only people who ever did right by me and who were ever kind to me and I couldn’t do anything more that would put you at risk.”
For Chris, the song “Jesus Loves Me” was more than a Sunday school tune, it was a truth learned by watching how his parents treated others and being part of a church community that prioritized caring for one another.