By Ryan Currie, T'17
The crowd stared at the man behind the podium. They were pastors, teachers, nurses, housewives, and businessmen. They were frightened. They were angry. An astonishing number of their neighbors were sick, in prison, or dying, victims of opioid addiction. In the 50,000-person town of Huntington, West Virginia, their group came to a consensus: nothing was working. “Prevention, intervention, treatment, law enforcement—there’s no silver bullet!” One after another, they stood up at the microphone. “There’s no silver bullet,” they repeated, “There’s no silver bullet.”
Steve Williams, EfM’10, had no doubt repeated that same thought in his own mind. He had taken office in 2013 as mayor of the Overdose Capital of America, and now the people of Huntington looked to him—if not for hope, which seemed exhausted—for leadership. Williams wondered if he had exhausted the goodwill of his citizens in his first response to the crisis, in which his police force had arrested 200 people in 90 days. Williams learned the hard way that “You can’t arrest your way out of this. The dealers just kept coming.”
The mayor now found himself cornered between his own conscience and the desperation of the crowd. He had not prepared adequate remarks. But Williams discerned a small voice prompting a response. “I keep hearing there’s no silver bullet,” he said, “but I can’t accept that we can’t do anything. I feel like people are giving up before we even try to solve these problems.”
The crowd did not want to hear it.
“Look,” continued Williams, “the only reason I can stand up here today is because I’ve come to understand the power of prayer. There were times in my life when people didn’t give up on me. What if our community just paused one day at an agreed-upon time and committed to prayer?”
No doubt there were those who thought this was a ridiculous response to Huntington’s state of affairs. Huntington is a college town with a diverse religious make-up, including many who claim no religious belief or affiliation at all. But Williams didn’t think of them or on the crowd before him or on the hopelessness and failure they felt. Williams had his eye on moments of his own past.
Neither desperation nor failure were unfamiliar to Williams. As a young man, his 15-year early career in politics ended after burning bridges as a state legislator and losing a prior race for the mayor’s office. He went to work in finance, but he struggled. At the end of his first year he had the second-worst job performance in the company. Preparing to be fired, Williams got a different message from his boss: “I won’t let you fail.”
Williams then approached his work with a new vision and a new heart. He wouldn’t focus on the investment products he felt he had to sell, but on the clients that sought his advice on how to prepare for a secure retirement or pay for their children’s college tuition. First, he survived, and then, he thrived.
From success in business, Williams was restored to new political triumph. On the day of his mayoral inauguration, Williams quoted the Scottish mountaineer W. H. Murray, who wrote, “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.”
Like the mountaineer, Williams knew descents as well as ascents, valleys as well as summits, crisis as well as strength. And like the mountaineer, Williams had learned to know the still, small voice of Providence. That day, in the valley, it told him to pray.
A COUNTRY IN CRISIS
As I write in the first days of 2020, the whole country appears to be in crisis. The President has been impeached. The House and Senate are at loggerheads over a potential impeachment trial. The November elections loom nearer and nearer. Tensions are high in the Middle East. Confidence in our government and our democracy is low. The left and right compete for a center—that imagined portion of Americans who prefer moderation to any political extreme—and the center is barely there.
An important part of this crisis is how the American citizen gets news. More and more people get it from social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. But these brave new worlds have overtaken the electorate’s ability to discern between the real and the fake, between honest reporting and partisan, fear-mongering exaggeration.
Cable news is little better. Sometimes when a prominent news story breaks, I flip through the big networks to hear their takes. What they call “reportage” is almost constantly wrapped up in opinion and punditry. Not only do their commentators offer widely variant reactions, but their newscasters often do not even report the same news. An important special election result, for example, will be the top story on one network and buried in minute 53 on another.
Even the old guard of print media seems compromised. The Washington Post has taken up the motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” I wonder whether it’s to be taken as analysis of the current news, as prophecy, or as a warning. It certainly does appeal to our collective, low-grade panic.
And yet, in the darkness, among the violence, falsehoods, and confusion, the rank and file of government officials keep going to work. Elected or appointed, Democrat or Republican or non-partisan, those ambitious for power and those ambitious to serve continue to show up and make decisions on behalf of all of us. But whom do they serve? Themselves or the people? Do they work for personal gain or for the common good?
Among these representatives are many people of the Christian faith and The Episcopal Church. I spoke to dozens of them, public officials navigating life in the Church and the state. I asked them about their jobs, how they came to have those jobs, and what it was like to run for office. I asked them about prayer and ministry and Christian community, how their life of faith affected their work in government.
To find public servants who took their Episcopal faith seriously, we surveyed thousands of participants of Education for Ministry (EfM), a longstanding program of formation for lay leadership housed at the School of Theology’s Beecken Center. We asked had any been elected or appointed to political office. Because of their participation in EfM, in which participants are trained to think theologically, we were confident that they would have special insight into our questions. We received responses from city council representatives, cabinet secretaries in state governments, state legislators, school board officials, and former White House officials. They were men and women, straight and LGBTQ+, and members of the Silent Generation, Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials. That none of them were people of color, however, is no doubt symptomatic of the crisis in question and an indictment of our Church and our politics.
The stories they told took place in a variety of municipal, state, and federal arenas, in which getting a job done depends on a narrower focus than the barrage of information inflicted on us by national-level media. Following their example, I have walked up close to the big picture of the country to see the little details of Huntington, West Virginia, of Pritchard, Alabama, of the Missouri State University system, and the capitol building of North Carolina. There are brush strokes of addiction, poverty, commerce, immigration, and potholes repeated throughout the image. Following the example of the Episcopalians I talked to, I have tried to apprehend and analyze these details with the eyes of faith, discerning the shapes of lives lived publicly and faithfully.
WORK AS MINISTRY
As a country, we’re having this conversation about how we stay in relationship with one another. For example, can we have Thanksgiving dinner with family members who vote differently?”
“It isn’t just our votes,” continued Kendall Seal, EfM’17, “but the differences in gender and sexual orientation, between races and socio-economic classes and levels of education.”
Seal is uniquely qualified to comment on this national conversation. He grew up on a farm in Piedmont, Missouri, where his family belonged to the Church of the Nazarene. A trip to England the summer before college ignited his interest in church history and an affection for the Anglican tradition. When he returned home to attend Missouri State University, he got involved with its Episcopal Campus Ministry. Eventually, Seal became a lawyer and civically engaged, working on behalf of marginalized communities including women, LGBTQ+ people, and the rural poor. He was appointed by the governor to a seat on the Missouri State University System Board of Governors at the age of 32, where he served students from backgrounds like his.
“I view education—specifically public education—as missional. Opportunities in southern Missouri are hard to come by, so increasing access to higher education without a debt load and cultivating conversations and helping students to see the larger world is really an extension of my baptismal covenant.”
That covenant includes a promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” It is fitting, then, that Seal’s activism has meant claiming his own voice in the conversation, and then using that position to bring others alongside him. “Anytime we’re bridging different worlds, there’s tension. One of the gifts of my particular branch of Christianity is about how we navigate the middle space and how we can all be around the table and hold different opinions, but still come together because we see this great need in the world.”
In his current role, getting new people to the table has led Seal to pay special attention to the university’s admissions process. “It’s totally appropriate in the college arena to have robust marketing, engagement, and listening to the next generation for what’s driving and motivating them.”
He sees an analogy in the Church, where “we might call ‘admissions’ evangelism or missionary work. There’s a lesson here for my faith. I don’t need to be the newest trendiest whatever, but am I really thinking and practically applying the solution to connect with others?”
In addition to his role with the university system, Seal is vice president and general counsel for the Women’s Foundation, which works to close the gender gap in civic engagement, especially in appointed public service positions. Women who have served in appointed positions are more likely to run for elected office, which furthers the Foundation’s goal to achieve economic and civic leadership for all women.
Seal’s public service and his life in church are symbiotic, one set of experiences informing the other. The experience of worship and formation in a diverse parish community shows him the value of diverse voices and perspectives gathering around one table. At the same time his insight into college admissions lends urgency to the honest, pragmatic connection with young people that eludes many Episcopal parishes. All of this service is grounded in Seal’s living out the promises of his baptism.
I asked him if he thought of his work as a ministry.
“I don’t always think of my work as a ministry, though sometimes other people remind me. Sometimes it’s easy—probably in every ministry—to get drawn into the feelings, emotions, and ideas right in front of you. Being reminded that my own work is a place for ministry, too, really helps to elevate what I’m doing and what I’m about. To me, those reminders mean good leadership. There’s so much noise in the public square right now that would have us increase friction rather than collaboration.”
GROUNDED IN QUIET, DETERMINED FAITH
Brett Hall’s formation in The Episcopal Church as an EfM student and mentor has encouraged him to seek collaboration and—when circumstances demand—to stand alone. Hall, EfM’11, began his career in politics 40 years ago as a staffer to a United States Congressman from Oklahoma.
“What I enjoyed doing the most was working with constituents who had problems, and we had a lot of them who came to us.” Many of those constituents were Native Americans from Oklahoma’s reservations. Part of Hall’s work was to help them self-govern their communities with the assistance of federal funding.
His experience with diverse communities continued with the Utilities Regulatory Commission of New Jersey in a position appointed by the governor. Hall’s responsibilities included outreach to minority religious and immigrant communities, especially Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists. “Those populations were growing quite rapidly, especially in the 1990s, as more and more people were moving into the New York metropolitan area. We were trying to assimilate them into the political process and connect their communities better to the government organizations that could help them. It was interesting—it was fun! You got to know not just their beliefs, but how they work within their own communities.”
Hall found that many of these communities took a more direct approach to political action. Religious leaders would instruct their congregations exactly how to vote, which gave these communities outsized political clout.
Eventually Hall was appointed to be Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture for the State of Alabama. His work with minority communities remained important, especially in the development of community gardens.
“We worked with utility companies who had fallow land as part of their right-of-way—in some cases many acres—to lease that land for a dollar a year. Like one in Mobile—a black community in Pritchard. They were very well organized. They took over about 30 acres of right-of-way from Alabama Power. We tried to serve as the nexus between the power company and their community group. We knew farm equipment dealers who had used equipment that we helped get contributed to the garden. We knew people in the seed business, with tree farms, whatever. We served as a clearinghouse to help these people build up their project. People growing their own food—it’s become a real movement!”
In spite of what Hall calls the “mind-numbing bureaucracy of government,” his faith has taught him “not to be so cynical. Government can help, and there are good people in government.” One such person was his boss in Alabama, Commissioner John McMillan. “He was sincerely a man of faith. He didn’t wear it on his sleeve, just practiced it in a very quiet, determined way and helped people.”
Such quiet, determined faith served their department well in a moment of crisis. In 2011 the Alabama legislature passed a controversial immigration law. Many Latinx farm laborers—documented as well as undocumented—felt so intimidated and frightened that they fled the state.
“We’d go to towns,” Hall told me, “where one week there’d been several hundred workers and the next week they were gone. They’d just disappeared. Produce wasn’t getting picked, cotton gins weren’t operating because they didn’t have any workers.”
The way Hall and others in the agriculture department saw it, the state’s economy was in grave danger. But they stood in opposition to the governor and the legislature, even though both branches were run by members of Hall’s own party. “We had to draw a line in the sand and say this was not right.”
Their opposition was validated when the United States Supreme Court overturned the law.
Hall repeated again and again that living out one’s faith as a public official did not mean proselytizing, but humbly serving all people. When I asked about the separation of church and state, Hall talked about freedom from state religion. For him the principle does not preclude prayer in the workplace or statehouse, nor does it mean that government organizations cannot benefit from working relationships with faith organizations.
“It’s not pushing religion on anyone, it’s just people expressing their faith and trying to ignite the power of prayer.” He believes that “if you had a little more church in the state, you’d have a much better state,” while acknowledging that “other people have a different attitude about that. We’re always going to have that tension.”
HOW RELIGIOUS BELIEF INFLUENCES LEGISLATORS
|Martha Alexander, EfM’82, of Charlotte, North Carolina, cannot quite retire from her work in the state’s General Assembly because of that tension. Since 2013 she has not held elected office as a member in the North Carolina House of Representatives, but she has devoted new attention—including recent doctoral studies—to the intersection of faith and public service. Her dissertation is titled The Influence of Religious Beliefs on State Legislator’s Voting Behavior, Focus: Education Lottery.|
Alexander’s academic pursuit drew on her own experiences. A lifelong Episcopalian, she has completed EfM, served on her diocesan standing committee and commission on ministry, been a deputy to the General Convention, a trustee for the Church Pension Group, and a reader for the General Ordination Exams, and has been involved in international work, among her other endeavors. Her church resume is so extensive, I felt the need to ask her if there were any jobs she hadn’t had. Without a moment’s hesitation, she responded, “Altar guild. I was never on the altar guild.”
Besides her activity in the Church, Alexander has been a housewife, volunteer, teacher, librarian, chaplain’s assistant at a local hospital, and director of a nonprofit agency dealing with problems of addiction before her election to the House of Representatives, where she served for 20 years beginning in 1993. Her purpose was to work for everyone. “Even though I served an urban area, I wanted to understand the rural areas and the people of the whole state.”
Although Alexander was not opposed to the legislature’s practice of opening sessions with prayer, she was careful to be non-sectarian in her religious language. “We represented a myriad of belief systems, so I was always very conscious when I was praying in that arena that I should not—for example—end a prayer ‘in the name of Jesus Christ.’ I didn’t wear my faith and talk about it all the time unless that was already the conversation we were having.” She described herself as a good listener and a collaborator, someone willing to work on either side of the partisan aisle and always receptive to hearing both sides of an argument.
Alexander often got advice from faith leaders, though not always because she asked for it. In 2005 a bill for a state lottery was before the legislature. There were two particular phone calls.
“One told my legislative aid, ‘You tell Representative Alexander that she knows she should vote no on this bill. This is no good for people who are poor.’ There was another person in authority that I called myself, who said, ‘I might disagree with the way that you vote, but you need to do what you think is best at this time.’ That gave me a whole lot of freedom, and I think that’s how I’ve tried to look at things—to take what I’ve learned and my own faith and religious beliefs—and try to ascertain what would be the best decision in this particular situation.”
Alexander weighed her decision until the final point, refusing to be prematurely whipped into the “yea” column by her party leaders. “I didn’t take my vote lightly, but I ended up voting for the lottery. It only passed by two votes in the end. I take these things seriously. I try to look at how people would be affected directly, at what’s best for us as human beings sharing this earth.”
Now Alexander has returned to that decision in her graduate work.
“In 2005, out of the 120 representatives, all put down some religion or denomination or institution. I found it amazing that no one said ‘none.’ Maybe it’s different today, or maybe it’s the same, since we’re in the Bible Belt.”
Alexander found that religious teachings made a significant impact, that legislators “had internalized the beliefs of their religious institutions,” and the impact of that is little understood. Legislators themselves often do not recognize their reliance on the teachings of their religion.
GOVERNING WITH AN OPEN HEART
From my conversations with these Christians in public office, I have come to believe our political crisis is one of vocation. That word simply means “calling.” Christian theology talks of God’s call to human beings, or a call to a certain ministry. In the political arena we vote to call the best candidate to a certain job. Elected representatives now hear manifold, competing voices calling, demanding, crying out, lying, dissembling, and distracting.
Like all of us, the officials I interviewed pay attention to the day’s new catastrophes. But also, like all of us, their bandwidth for political information is not infinite. Their capacity to grasp and understand the constant flow of news is limited. But through formation in Christian communities, they have increased their capacity for discerning vocations to ministry to all people.
“There isn’t anything in life that doesn’t have a theological response to it. Discerning that response helps me to govern with an open heart, a loving heart, to do it ethically, legally, efficiently.”
It was Williams who said it, but none of the Episcopalians I spoke to would disagree. They can all approach matters of policy and governance with the aid of theological reflection and with the counsel of other ministers, lay and ordained. They themselves view their service as a ministry to all people in their town or district or state. At their best, they are better attuned to what Williams described as God’s “little voice” when they must lead the crowd through confusion.
In this way they are not different from Christians in all sorts of occupations. They, like us, have work to do, and prayers to say, and loved ones to sit down with at the end of the day. Like us, they belong to two countries, discerning minute by minute what dual citizenship means between heaven and the United States of America.