Jessi Bohon was more than a bit tired when I called her Friday. The 35-year-old high school French teacher who lives in Cookeville, Tennessee, didn’t expect her first real moment of political activism to go national. Now she was hearing from family and friends and fielding a large number of Facebook friend requests from strangers, all of which she was deleting.
On Thursday, Bohon challenged her representative in Congress, Republican Diane Black, on the Affordable Care Act at a public meeting—and framed her personal support for the health care reform in explicitly religious terms.
“As a Christian, my whole philosophy in life is to pull up the unfortunate. So the individual mandate, that’s what it does. The healthy people pull up the sick,” Bohon said at the event at Middle Tennessee State University. Her concern? If Republicans repeal the ACA and offer coverage to people with chronic illnesses and pre-existing conditions via so-called high-risk pools—as several GOP proposals would do—they’ll have less coverage. “We are effectively punishing our sickest people,” Bohon said, adding that Medicaid should be expanded so we can “make everybody have insurance.” These comments inspired much of the room to all but explode with applause.
Black initially answered Bohon by arguing there are millions of people who still chose to not buy health insurance even as others were able to obtain coverage thanks to the ACA. “You don’t want to hurt one group of people to help another,” the congresswoman said.
This didn’t come close to the heart and meaning of Bohon’s question, and the teacher spoke up again. “How many of those people were in states where they played a political game with people’s lives?” she asked, seemingly referring to the places, including Tennessee, that declined the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. Black refused to answer, saying she would “pass.”
Bohon’s comments amounted to the kind of forceful, moral argument for universal health care we need to hear more often. As a result, the clip went viral, as people alternately thrilled to or dismissed Bohon’s sentiment and its explicitly religious context:
Bohon tells me she is insured through her work and has never needed to access the Affordable Care Act insurance markets, nor has anyone she is close with. While she supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election, she wouldn’t have even considered herself politically active until recently, when the aftermath of the election “energized” her to join her local chapter of Indivisible, an umbrella for a growing number of groups opposed to the stated policies of the Trump administration.
So what motivated Bohon to drive an hour and a half and speak as personally and powerfully as she did?
Bohon told me about her childhood, growing up as one of three children of a single mom in rural Grundy, Virginia, a small Appalachian coal-mining town near the border with Kentucky. “We were the poorest of the poor,” she says. “We had no car, we were on welfare.” When children at school made fun of her because she wore clothes from Walmart and had chipped teeth, she says, “My mom made me feel special because she would tell me it didn’t matter, because Jesus loves me.”
Bohon’s mother “raised me with the belief that Jesus loves poor people, he loves the oppressed, he loves the most vulnerable and I will tell you that’s a lesson that stuck with me,” Bohon says. While she currently doesn’t attend church, she considers herself a Christian. “I don’t go to a fancy church, I don’t really have a good grasp on the literal interpretation of the bible. I believe in the central message of Jesus, which was pull up the people.”
In fact, Bohon says she framed the question the way she did because she is irked by politicians who say they are Christian but advocate for policies that don’t, in her view, reflect the faith’s principles—the looming repeal of the ACA, which could leave millions uninsured without a viable replacement, being an example. “To me the central message of Jesus Christ is pulling up the oppressed, the vulnerable, and the poor. You could apply that to a lot of things today. Black Lives Matter, people with disabilities, the LGBT community, the refugees, or health insurance. The central principle remains the same.”
Yet when I ask Bohon what she hopes people get out of her burst of viral celebrity, she doesn’t mention religion or health insurance. She returns to her childhood, to the stereotypes Americans have of Appalachia and the South. “There are people in Tennessee, there are people from these little rural areas, that are different than they are categorized to be.” And what might that be? “Hillbilly dumb.” That’s wrong, she says. “I learned everything about taking care of your community growing up there.”