U.S. Sen. Chris Coons remembers vividly his “worst day in the Senate outside of the United States.”
Five years ago, he was traveling with a congressional delegation to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, deep in the desert about 8 miles from the Syrian border. The Syrian civil war and refugee crisis was entering its third year. Zaatari opened in July 2012, and, in less than six months, the population had swelled to more than 150,000, making it the fourth-largest city in Jordan and one of the largest refugee camps in the world. Every night, hundreds upon hundreds slipped across the border to escape violence and persecution.
“The war within Syria was exceptionally brutal,” says Coons. “(Syrian President Bashar al-) Assad is literally murdering civilians. He’s dropping barrel bombs on schools, hospitals and breadlines. Government snipers are taking out random civilians.”
The scale of violence was “unspeakably tragic,” Coons says. During a closed meeting with a half-dozen refugees—people who, until the war, had lived normal lives as teachers, carpenters and doctors—the delegation was brought to tears, which U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona would later apologize for shedding on the floor of the U.S. Senate: “I have seen my share of suffering and death, but the horror I saw in those camps and the stories I heard still haunt me today.”
At the time, there was still a moderate opposition in Syria seeking support from the international community. They wanted to fight Assad, and there was real hope that his regime could be toppled. But every day the crisis deepened. Though the refugees were grateful for nonlethal aid like food, tents and generators, it wasn’t enough to turn the tide of war. During the meeting, a kindergarten teacher cautioned the senators that failure to help the Syrian opposition then would result in blowback against the United States.
Says Coons, “My recollection is she said, ‘It is tragic that our children have had to flee their homes. It’s tragic that our homes have been destroyed. It’s tragic that most of us have lost family members protesting or now fighting against Assad. But the children I am teaching will grow up to hate America and to hate Americans if you don’t get involved in this fight and help us fight against Assad. We are begging you.’”
Before they could finish their conversation, the security detail evacuated the senators by armored vehicles. Word had spread that a U.S. congressional delegation was in the camp, a protest erupted and a “stone-throwing” crowd was on the move.
Coons returned deeply troubled by what he had learned at Zaatari. Even now, he prefers not to discuss the experience in detail. It visibly upsets him. He’d rather talk about appropriations and funding levels, about the agricultural bill that’s going to help chicken farmers in Sussex County, or how the Export-Import Bank is helping a small regional manufacturer that supports jobs here in Delaware export modular steel bridges to Africa. Indeed, his time spent traveling abroad is relatively minor compared with his time spent meeting with voters and small business owners, or in committee hearings, or commuting on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional rail.
Nevertheless, the lessons of his travels abroad resonate, especially over the past few years, as isolationist sentiments have spread among the American electorate and resulted in the election of an isolationist to the White House. The contrast could not be more stark. Coons was the only member of Congress to visit Liberia during the height of the Ebola outbreak—this when senators from both parties were calling for travel bans. When the Trump administration proposed dramatic cuts to foreign aid, Coons traveled to refugee camps in Uganda and South Sudan with his friend Bob Corker, a Republican senator from Tennessee, to call attention to the need to increase foreign aid. During this historic moment when U.S. foreign policy has turned inward, toward America-first nationalism, Coons has engaged the world and sought compromise with Republican colleagues to address problems that threaten regional security in Africa and the Middle East as well as national security here at home.
In a 2013 editorial published in Newsweek, President and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa Stephen Hayes remarked that Coons was deeply interested and involved in Africa, “perhaps as much as any U.S. senator has been in years, if not ever.”
With President Trump energizing the liberal base across Delaware and the nation, however, Coons isn’t likely to gain much political capital by traveling to refugee camps in faraway places—and with Republicans, of all people. In a Democratic Party consumed by resistance to Trump’s agenda, Coons might be better off staying stateside, railing against the president and filibustering his nominees.
But, as Coons likes to say, “Congress doesn’t work that way.” The thing is, Coons isn’t going to get caught up in political litmus tests, and he’s not traveling abroad because it’s politically expedient. Coons lives according to a missionary mindset, and has for as long as anyone can remember. His life journey is to search for ways to help those in their time of need, from the streets of Wilmington to the dusty desert roads of Zaatari.
It’s a meaning of life instilled in him by his parents, by a father who volunteered with a prison ministry group and hosted “a convicted felon on furlough weekends at our home,” and a mother who volunteered at a shelter for homeless and battered women. It doesn’t matter who is sitting in the Oval Office. He finds meaning in service to others. And through the constant din of party politics, investigations and counter-investigations, Make America Great Again hats and fake news, Coons is reaching across the aisle, politics be damned, to save as many lives as possible. Because for someone, somewhere, time is running out.
Coons, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Michelle Nunn of CARE USA visit women and children in India.//Courtesy of the office of U.S. Sen. Chris Coons
Coons’s yearbook photo from Amherst College.//Courtesy
Before traveling to Nairobi, Kenya, as a junior at Amherst College, Christopher Andrew Coons was a self-described Republican fanatic. A founding member of the Amherst College Republicans, he campaigned for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and worked for Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Roth of Delaware.
Visiting Kenya changed everything. According to an account of his travels published in the student newspaper, The Amherst Student, family and friends uniformly advised against studying in Africa, but he went anyway. Upon returning, his friends poked fun at his transformation: “Something about Kenya, maybe the strange diet, or the tropical sun, changed my personality; Africa to them seems a catalytic converter that takes in clean-shaven, clear-thinking Americans and sends back bearded Marxists,” he wrote.
In other words, Coons left Amherst for Africa a Republican and returned a Democrat, a transformation that was as political as it was spiritual.
Even before the journey, Coons was drawn to ministry. He was involved in his church, recalls lifelong friend Charles Chesnut, and he possessed an understanding of Scripture that was beyond his years. “It was always something that really mattered to him, that he was serious about,” Chesnut says.
His experiences in Kenya reinforced the moral code of his Christian spirituality. According to the Gospel, from which Coons can quote Scripture as comfortably as any preacher, we are to follow lives of charity, humility and empathy. While in Kenya, however, Coons also found that his spiritual beliefs and the ministry that was to become his life’s calling were increasingly at odds with the guiding philosophical principles of the Republican Party.
“Experiences at Amherst my first two years made me skeptical and uncomfortable with Republicanism, enough so that I wanted to see the Third World for myself to get some perspective on my beliefs,” he wrote. “What I learned in Africa unsettled me. I saw the deprivation and oppression of the poor and the politically disfavored in a way not possible in the U.S.”
“That was a really transformative experience for him,” recalls Chesnut. “He was thinking about things very differently after that.”
Coons graduated with a degree in chemistry from Amherst, but whatever he originally thought he would do with that degree wasn’t what he wanted anymore. He got a job researching and writing about apartheid in South Africa. Then, after a year of learning about South Africa on paper, he took a leap of faith and traveled back to Africa with the Plowshares Institute, where he volunteered for three months with the South African Council of Churches. He then spent six weeks in Kenya with a World Vision-affiliated orphanage operated by Mama Zipporah Kamau, an extraordinary woman.
“She was making soup for kids who had no parents because their parents had died of AIDS,” Coons recalls. “She was a clerk in downtown Nairobi, her husband was a minister, and there was this group of kids living in unbelievable squalor in a dirt patch at the end of the bus line, and she started feeding them because she felt that she ought to.”
To serve others, Coons learned, was the highest calling. He returned from Africa in search of opportunities to serve, to live out the missionary mindset. Coons eventually found an opportunity in New York City working for the Coalition for the Homeless, traveling across the country to work in homeless shelters and with homeless advocates.
“What he did with the Coalition for the Homeless, I mean, that was not a stepping stone opportunity for him,” says former Gov. Jack Markell. “You don’t do that kind of job unless you have the passion and then the absolute determination to change people’s lives one by one.”
After New York, Coons took off to Yale Law School, where he experienced another personal and spiritual transformation. A friend suggested that he audit a course at the divinity school. After one semester, he was hooked. He left Yale with graduate degrees in both law and divinity.
“Divinity school taught me that, at its core, a life of faith is a life grounded in service and humility,” wrote Coons. “I’ve taken those values with me as my career has progressed from county government to the U.S. Senate. I hope they are evident in every decision I make as a member of Congress.”
“It’s is one of the great things about him,” Markell says. “He has the experience of changing lives one at a time, and now he’s got the platform where he can change lives millions at a time.”
Coons and U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester check in with USAID.//Courtesy of the office of U.S. Sen. Chris Coons
The first year of the Trump administration was difficult for Coons, in part because so much of the policy and philosophy coming from the president and the Republican majorities in Congress did not align with his missionary mindset. Banning refugees, tearing apart immigrant families, slashing foreign aid—none of this makes sense to Coons, neither logically nor morally. When asked about the logic of Trump’s foreign policy, Coons looks baffled. “You’re not making any sense,” he says. “You just used the words Trump and logic in the same sentence.”
For Coons, the moral choice is the logical choice. The two are aligned. Saving wild elephants from poachers not only “protects creation,” as he said at a recent U.S. Global Leadership Conference, but doing so also restricts a source of funding for terrorist groups like Boko Haram. The same confluence of logic and morality applies to his positions on countless other issues. “One of the main reasons we continue to feed the world is because it’s the right thing to do,” Coons said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “But the more important thing is it actually helps keep us safer by preventing fragile states from becoming failed states and by teaching the world about our values.”
So when Trump proposed roughly $50 billion in cuts to foreign aid, mainly to the State Department and USAID, Coons traveled to South Sudan and Uganda with Corker to learn more about who we are helping and how foreign aid dollars are being spent. The civil war and refugee crisis in South Sudan is just one of four great famines sweeping across Africa and the Middle East, where approximately 20 million are at risk of starvation. Their destination was Bidi Bidi, the largest refugee camp in the world—a small city, really—home to some 280,000 people.
“Many mothers and grandmothers had walked for more than two weeks hoping only to find a better life for their children and grandchildren,” Coons and Corker wrote in a New York Times editorial. “They clung to cups of cornmeal porridge, not sure if the next ration might be smaller, or if it would exist at all.”
After Bidi Bidi, Corker returned to the United States, but Coons continued to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and from Juba to a small island in the middle of a massive, impenetrable swamp in a rebel-controlled area in the north of South Sudan known as Unity State. Hundreds of thousands sought refuge in the swamps and were surrounded on three sides by the military forces of President Salva Kiir, who was waiting for starvation and cholera to kill them off. The World Food Programme was airdropping pallets of food to keep the refugees alive.
When Coons and Corker returned, their experiences among the refugees were a blunt reminder of the critical role food aid plays in global security. Together, they reintroduced the Food for Peace Reform Act, which would modernize aid delivery by allowing the United States to purchase food closer to those experiencing famine.
“We’re the only major country left that, when we want to send food to starving people, we literally buy a shipload of rice from Louisiana or corn from Nebraska, put it on a ship out of New Orleans, ship it to Mombasa, put it on a train from Mombasa to Nairobi, put it on a truck from Nairobi to Juba, and then drive it in,” says Coons. “And the problem with that is about a third of it spoils, it costs a lot to ship, and it often gets there months too late.”
But wheels turn slowly in Congress, and more slowly now than in recent years. Coons and Corker hope to have the bill in committee by next year. On a busy Wednesday back in Washington, where every minute of the senator’s day is accounted for, there’s a sense of optimism in his voice. He’s animated about this bill. He really thinks it is going to work. But his day is hectic, and there’s always more work to do. Coons is off to the Judiciary Committee to question the president’s nominees, and then deliver a speech on how to reform public education by improving teacher training and retention. He’s drafting bills on everything from manufacturing to patent licensing to research and development. And on top of all that, the budget is up for a vote the following week.
There’s a strong impression among voters that nothing is getting done in Washington these days, concerns that are justified. But the partisan bickering that you hear about on cable news doesn’t tell the whole story. And one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement this past year has been on global health initiatives, which was a rare rebuke by the Republican Party against their own president. And as long as Republicans are willing to work with Coons, he’s ready to work with them.
During times like these, Coons recalls the advice he received from one of his mentors in the Senate, Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia. “We don’t have to agree on everything. We just have to agree on something.”
“I’m conscious of the range of Delawareans from a lot of different backgrounds who just want to know that we’re listening to each other and respecting each other, and trying to make things work in Washington in a very unsettled, very difficult time.”