Pastor, wait, what? What does that have to do with serving on the city council? And isn’t it inappropriate? What about separation of church and state?
A heart for service
Being a pastor has a lot to do with serving on the City Council, because my motivation and my role in both are very similar. At the heart of serving on the City Council–or serving as a teacher, or serving as a police officer, or serving as an imam, or serving as a community association leader–at the heart of all of those public leadership roles is a commitment to public service. That is, my motivation as a community pastor is to serve my neighbors to the very best of my ability, with all of my energy and intelligence and effort, so that I can be part of making our community and city a better place for all of us. In short–being a public servant is about loving your neighbors and loving your city, and doing everything possible to help them. That’s why I’m a pastor here in the same city where I grew up–and that’s why I’m running for City Council.
Experienced collaborative leadership
Being a public servant isn’t simply a matter of motivation, though–it’s also a matter of accountability, of trust, and of experience. On experience: I’ve worked alongside my neighbors, fifty+ hours a week for six and a half years, striving to be part of creating solutions to some of the most significant challenges we face: public safety, public education, public parks, transportation, sanitation, racism, and support for newcomers to our community. I didn’t learn about all of these issues, I didn’t become interested in them, because all of a sudden I decided to run for office and I needed some nice talking points. This has been our shared work since I joined you in it in 2009.
On trust: trust in public service is earned by actually doing the work, putting in the hours, and demonstrating the commitment. Trust is earned through collaboration and mutual respect when working together on issues of importance in the community. Real trust can’t be earned on the campaign trail through the vague assurances of impractical goals or the insincere flattery of the candidate du juor only interested in how quickly they can get to the next door or the next phone call–or how much money you might be willing to donate.
Accountability within a community
On accountability: to be an actual public servant is to be grounded in and accountable to a community of people. It’s all well and good to be a social entrepreneur or to flit from one opportunity to another as they arise. It is quite another to be called and elected by an entire community of people, entrusted with responsibilities, and held accountable for carrying out those responsibilities by that community. That is just my situation within our congregation, where I have been twice called (by vote of the community) to the office of pastor and where I am accountable to our members and our church council. And it is my situation within the Highlandtown neighborhood where I serve on the community association board. I know what it is to walk out the door in the morning and be “on”–or to answer a call at any hour of the day and even the night to respond to an emergency or respond to a problem. For more than six years I have handled my responsibilities, been tested, and have grown to be trusted. The only real way to prepare for public service in a community is to serve publicly in a community.
Public service within a diverse community
My service as a pastor immerses me in the full range of people and circumstances in our diverse community: helping relocate families after house fires, counseling teachers and police officers, welcoming new homeowners and renters, advocating for businesses at the zoning board, counseling pregnant teenagers, connecting those in poverty with needed resources, making sure that sex workers are connected with programs and opportunities to put their lives back together, helping couples prepare for marriage, mediating between business owners and individuals who happen to be homeless, supporting parents in the school selection process, intervening when families face eviction or energy turn-off notices, visiting immigration detainees, helping young people find jobs, testifying against poorly-run bars which generate crime, and making sure that seniors leadership and contributions are respected.
Respecting the dignity of each person
Unlike many of our current elected officials, I don’t give my time or attention on the basis of the relative wealth or social importance of the people who come to me for help. Rather, everyone and their needs deserve equal respect, concern, and effort–struggling or wealthy, Harbor East to Eastwood, Republican or Democrat, voter or non-voter, citizen or non-citizen, Spanish-speaking or English-speaking or Greek-speaking or Italian-speaking. I strive to see and value the inherent dignity of every human being, and to serve my neighbors to the best of my ability. That is a commitment I will keep–and my staff will keep–on the City Council.
Concerns: I’ve heard a variety of concerns expressed regarding the general concept of someone running for office who serves as a leader in a religious community. Often the concerns are vague, but most of them fall in three broad categories.
1) Politics is a dirty business, and to seek election to the City Council will necessarily compromise the integrity and effectiveness of the person who is running.
While we certainly have examples of ethical challenges and even outright corruption in our city government, it is not a foregone conclusion that to serve on the council automatically results in the moral or ethical degeneration of the individual who serves. Public service is a great responsibility and a high calling–if people of good standing, trustworthiness, and integrity do not run for office, then with what sort of leaders are left for us? While perhaps not as likely as the reverse, it is certainly possible that having people of demonstrated integrity run for office and serve may, in fact, have a positive impact on the transparency and ethical consistency of our government. Certainly I think it is worth giving it a try rather than being willing to accept the same results and questionable behavior in office.
2) A core value of our nation is the separation of Church and state. Having a religious leader serve in office is inappropriate, even un-Constitutional.
This is the most common line of questioning and yet the easiest for which to give a response. The Constitution of the United States (echoed by the constitution of the State of Maryland), in Article VI, Clause 3, states explicitly that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” That is to say, it is un-Constitutional to deny or disqualify any individual from serving in public office on the basis of their religious beliefs and practices.
We have been served at all levels of our government by people of many different faiths and of no faith, from the beginning of our country to the present time. Whatever our personal experiences and biases toward people of religious beliefs different from our own, the Constitution challenges us to set those aside and evaluate the candidate on the basis of their policies, experience, and fitness for office. Even clergy do and have served in elected office, including on the City Council here in Baltimore. There were six clergy serving in the first Congress–including a Lutheran pastor, Frederick Muhlenberg, who was the first Speaker of the House. There are seven in the current Congress. A Jesuit priest from Massachusetts (Robert Drinan) served with distinction throughout the 1970s after running on an anti-war and pro-choice platform. You can find more information here: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/01/05/history-of-clergy-in-congress/.
The concept of the “separation of Church & state” is an important one and yet also misunderstood. The language appears in a letter of Thomas Jefferson, not in the Constitution itself. The First Amendment begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The “Establishment Clause” prevents the government from instituting an official state religion or even from favoring religious people and institutions over non-religious ones. This is to protect the rights of individuals but also to protect religious organizations from government interference in spiritual affairs. The “Free Exercise” clause prevents the government from prohibiting or interfering with religious beliefs or practices. In the case of both clauses, the intent and function is to prevent people of all faiths and no faiths, and their organizations, from interference by an oppressive government.
All of this is very important and very healthy. I’m not running for City Council to be the “pastor” of Southeast Baltimore. I’m running because I’m a Baltimore native who loves my city and my neighbors and who has dedicated my personal and professional life to public service in our community.
3) What about the issues? The Christians in politics who get in the news all the time are often angry, judgmental, misogynistic, racist, anti-science, anti-birth control, anti-abortion, homophobic, and all kinds of other things. We don’t need people like that on the City Council.
I completely agree. There are a whole lot of people currently in office and running for office who profess to be Christians but seem to have forgotten most of what Jesus said and what Jesus actually did. If we look at other parts of the world, there are plenty of examples of people of other faiths in office who espouse similarly hateful beliefs and policies. None of these people truly reflect the religion they claim, but rather seek to wrap their own hatred, selfishness, and ignorance in the mantle of religious piety.
I won’t defend their attitudes or policies, and I certainly understand why people would be skeptical of any person of faith, much less a pastor, who sought their vote. At the same time, I am not those people–and my policies and experience and record ought to be judged on their own merits, not viewed through the prism of the Christian Right.
Marriage Equality and Gender Identity
I led the effort within our congregation to affirm full participation for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, including same-sex marriage, in 2012 (there was no explicit statement either way before that time). Within Southeast Baltimore, I was the only religious leader to my knowledge who publicly advocated in favor of the marriage equality referendum, and The Baltimore Guide published my commentary urging passage before the referendum (http://baltimoreguide.com/letter-civil-marriage-god%E2%80%99s-kingdom-is-inclusive/). While I am supportive of the state non-discrimination statues which include sexual orientation and gender identity, that statute alone does not provide the social services and support necessary for transgender young people who are more likely than their peers to be homeless or otherwise at risk. I’m committed first and foremost to a discipline of listening to the experiences of our transgender neighbors and learning from them how best we can improve conditions and services here in Baltimore.
I fully support comprehensive reproductive education in our public schools. The lack of good information is harmful to young people who are often choosing to engage in high-risk behavior without a deep awareness of the health threat and other consequences. In addition to information, though, full and equitable access to contraception and reproductive healthcare–including safe and legal abortions–is key for the health of women, mothers, and children. I don’t say that lightly. While the legal status of abortion is guaranteed under the Constitution and needs to be protected, the ethical, moral, personal, and psychological issues around abortion are very complicated. It is the role of family, friends, health care professionals, religious leaders, and others to support parents through the difficult decision-making around reproductive health and childbearing. I have done just that as a pastor and as a chaplain on the labor & delivery unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital. I have rarely felt more needed or more inadequate than when holding a stillborn child in my arms or praying with parents who had made the heart-wrenching decision to terminate a pregnancy. It is not the role of the government to interfere in those decisions.
On the contraception front, long-acting reversible contraceptives are an under-utilized resource for supporting the health of women and limiting unintended pregnancies among young people. Planned Parenthood and other community health clinics are key allies in making sure that female, maternal, and fetal health outcomes are improved in Baltimore. Our church has been particularly supportive of the B’more for Healthy Babies campaign, and is in the process of developing effective sex education and contraception distribution.
I see and experience no inherent conflict between religious faith and scientific knowledge and exploration. Both have distinct systems of knowledge & understanding which ought to be in creative and dynamic tension with one another, not set in opposition to one another. Those who would position the two systems of knowledge as being in an irrepressible conflict are likely failing to understand one or the other–or both. The Bible is fundamentally a messed up, tangled love story between God and the world. It’s not a science textbook. It’s not a history textbook. It’s not a legal document. And so I don’t treat it as such.
My faith, my humanity, my personal experience, and my scientific knowledge lead me to the conviction that human beings have an inherent responsibility to care for our world. Without getting into the details of environmental policy (see my campaign website), let me give one specific example. In the summer of 2013, the City Council engaged in a lengthy process of writing the rules for the implementation of the new stormwater fees. I advocated to reporters and directly with City Council members against any sort of exemption for religious or other tax-exempt properties. Rain that falls on a synagogue roof is just as damaging as that which falls on a house roof, and so it should be treated the same. Against my urging, decreased rates for purely religious buildings were included in the fee structure. In general, I hope that I am the kind of person and leader who is looking past narrow self-interest toward the well-being of the community and city as a whole, with an eye toward equity and justice.
Religious leaders have often been at the forefront of work with immigrants and refugees, and in advocacy for reform in our current immigration and refugee systems. I and our church have been engaged and supportive of individual immigrant & refugee families, as well as the many programs which aim to welcome and support them in their new life here in Baltimore. I’m grateful for Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s leadership in this area and will continue to push forward so that new residents in our city, from other parts of Maryland or other parts of the world, are able to succeed here over the long term.