Remarks by Dr. Harold Trulear – Faith and the Power to Transform

Global Peace Foundation
October 12, 2011

National Faith Leaders Summit
October 12, 2011
Washington, D.C., United States
Theme: “One Family under God? Our Common Mission for American Renewal”

Dr. Harold Trulear, Associate Professor of Applied Theology; Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Howard University

I want to approach this task humbly and with gratitude to the Global Peace Festival Foundation, and all the work that you are doing, because we’re all committed to peace, and for me as a person who does his work primarily on the ground with inmates and their families, one of the things that we’re all concerned about is peace, not in the sense of the absence of conflict, but in the presence of harmony, and of the ability of people to become makers of peace in the midst of any and every situation.

Because you go to one country and there is concern about ethnic strife, and creating harmony, or you go to a neighborhood like the ones most of the men and women that I work with come from, and peace is simply how to you put a community back together that has been ravaged by crime, has been ravaged by poverty, that has been ravaged by mis-education.

And it’s fitting that we do it, that we talk about this as faith [because]. . . we as faith leaders have a real sense that this is a primary contribution that we have to this planet.

Because somewhere along the way we lost that. And the things that Dr. Robert Schuller reminded us of today earlier in his remarks are things that have somehow slipped our memory, so much so that in 1992, Steven Carter, not a preacher, not a faith leader, but a constitutional law professor at Yale University wrote a book that became aNew York Times bestseller, called the Culture of Disbelief. And the subtitle talked about how we have lost our sense of religion’s value in the public square.

Now on one hand we can be a nation who’s Founding Fathers said you cannot have democracy without people of faith, and then a Yale University law professor can says in 1992 that religion no longer impacts the public square. We lost something, and this constitutional law professor struck a nerve that got picked up—not in churches, not yet; not in masjids, not yet; not in temples, not yet; not in the faith community, but it struck a nerve in the universities.

And universities began doing research on the intersection between religion and the public square. One of these researchers is a former colleague of mine, John Dilulio, a sociologist just as I am. Sociologists get a bad name because we tend to go through elaborate means to prove stuff that most people already know. And John got a quarter of a million dollar grant to do one of those projects, to go to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to do a study on the correlation between liquor stores and crime. He had a theory that the more liquor stores you had, the higher the crime rate.

Rev. Murray, for about $200, you and I could have gone to east Baltimore and figured that one out. When he did the research, of course, it was very, very clear that the presence of liquor stores brought the crime rate up, but here’s what else they found. They found that having a house of worship on a block reduced crime. Notice I did not say an outreach ministry, notice I did not say this was a church or a mosque that was working in the prisons or working with families, it was the building friends. Just having the building on the block made a difference on crime.

And this correlation between having a house of worship and a lower crime rate fascinated Dr. Dilulio and he . . . demonstrates the actual monetary value of having a house of worship on a particular block and how much money it would cost: up to $40,000 to replace a house of worship if you want to put a social service agency there.

Then Harvard picks it up, then the University of Southern California picks it up and develops the Center for the Study of Religion and Civic Culture, because they found after the Rodney King incident, it was not the government that brought peace to Los Angeles, but small and mid-sized congregations of every faith, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, who got out on the streets and brought peace to a region, to a neighborhood, to a community that had been torn irrevocably by strife. Then it went to the University of Chicago, then to this school and that school, and all of a sudden, this entire industry on research on how the faith community contributes to the public good and can bring peace where programs can’t.

“It was very clear that the presence of liquor stores brought the crime rate up, but here’s what else they found. Having a house of worship on a block reduced crime. Not an outreach ministry, a church or a mosque that was working in the prisons. Just having the building on the block made a difference on crime.”

The politicians read what the academics write. And so in 1996, when we were going through the Welfare Reform Act, politicians put into the act a provision called “charitable choice,” which became the genesis of what we now have as the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Initiatives.  The politicians read what the scholars had written, and then not only politicians but the private sector began to take interest in it. Foundations that never put money into the faith-based community before began investing in faith.

When I started out in administration, theological administration, there were only two foundations that gave money to religious causes, the PEW Charitable Trust, and the Lily Foundation. The PEW Charitable Trust is Sonoco, and the Lilly Foundation was Ely Lilly Pharmaceuticals.  So the joke was, if you’re in religion and you want foundation money, you have to trust either drugs or oil.

And then Ford got a faith department, then the Annie E. Casey Foundation got a faith department, and then the Rockefeller Foundation got a faith department. Then all of a sudden the private sector was looking at us. Isn’t it interesting: the academics are looking at us, the politicians are looking at us, billionaires with foundations were looking at us, and we had lost the sense that we had something to say.

A summit like this is an opportunity where people of every faith [have] to say we have not lost our way, and we do believe that not only do we have a voice, but that we also, with our hands and our hearts and our minds, have something that we can contribute. This is picking up momentum.

In fact some of that momentum has not been that good because Steven Carter’s next book on religion was actually a criticism of faith involvement in the public square. That book which appeared some ten years later was calledGod’s Name in Vain. And Carter, borrowing from C.S. Lewis’s essay, “God on the Dock: Meditations on the Third Commandment,” said that when “I said religion needed to be involved in the public square, I wasn’t talking about what I’m seeing right now, which is to take one issue and use it as a litmus test for whether or not you are a true believer.” What you think about abortion, what you think about war, what you think about poverty, what you think about gay marriage, what you think about homosexuality–taking one issue, taking one part of your religion and throwing it out into the public square and saying if you don’t agree with me on this issue, then you’re not a—- fill in the blank.

I would listen to people in the 2004 election and I hear them say, “I don’t see how anyone can be a Christian and support Kerry.”  And then I would go into another room and hear say, “I don’t see how anybody can be a Christian and vote for Bush.”  Because what we had done was taken that faith and reduced it to very narrow partisan ways of trying to get our agenda on the table and not looking at the common good.

And the fact is that we are in a second grand experiment in this country, the first is what Dr. Schuller talked about, the whole experiment in democracy.  Here’s the new experiment: There has never been a nation in the West that has been able to successfully manage its democracy with a pluralism of religious traditions.  No western nation has been able to hold together various religious traditions without it ultimately breaking out in violence, and we have the nerve to come here and talk about peace.

The reality is that there are folks in the trenches—while scholars are still making academic arguments, and while the politicians are still trying to figure out how this fits into public policy— people in the trenches who are proving that the interfaith connection can work and still does work.  I work with inmates and their families. I go into prisons around the country and I go into houses of worship, most of them Christian, but we also work very closely in some places with some Islamic communities.  In Philadelphia we work directly with Sunni Islamic communities in assisting inmates and their families.

In Cleveland Ohio, we’ve worked with several masjids trying to bring about interfaith cooperation around issues of crime, mass incarceration, and bringing families and communities together.  And one of the conversations that convinced me that this can be done was in the Holmsburg Prison in Philadelphia–one of the oldest prisons in this country. We were sitting in a room of Christian and Muslim inmates and my students—seminary students from an evangelical Christian college and inmates who were getting college credits from both the Christian and Islamic communities—were reading the same work and having a discussion around religion and incarceration.

A man speaking at a podium in front of a sign that says one nation united.

Howard University Professor Dr. Howard Trulear emphasizes the importance of faith in social action.

And of course my evangelical Christian students were stuck, because they were still doing that partisan religion stuff that Dr. Carter said is not the way we ought to be going. So one of them put her hand up and said, “I have a question for the Christian and the Muslim inmates. And my question is this: I believe that Jesus Christ is the only way, and because of that it is very difficult for me to understand how you can work with someone from another religious tradition.  How do you do that? Why aren’t you two Christian inmates trying to convert the Muslim inmates?”

And the Muslim inmates answered the question.  One inmate looked at us and said, “With all due respect, when it comes to living inside of a prison, we’ve found that the best way to function to deal with the mess we have to handle in here, and some of the young boys that are in here are violent, is we have to rely on two things: both of our religions believe in God, and both believe that God wants us to be alive.

“And when you’re in a building filled with people who kill, if you can’t find a way to keep them alive, they’ll never find the God who wants them alive. And so we’ve decided to suspend the theological argument while in here and simply focus on those two things.  There is a God and he wants us to get out of here alive.  And everything that we do revolves around those premises. And we’ll argue theology after we keep these young folk alive long enough to have that argument themselves.”

You saw this spirit of cooperation, this ability to work together between the Christians and the Muslims, you saw the respect for each other’s religious traditions in this hell hole of a building, and yet we struggle with this in the comfort of our suburban homes. But they convinced me that if you can do it in Holmesburg prison, if you can do it in Cleveland, Ohio, where we had this absolutely marvelous group called Clergy United for Juvenile Justice working with these juvenile offenders. The Lutherans paid the chaplains of the juvenile centers; the Catholics did the drug and alcohol counseling and all of the family counseling; the Baptists did all of the mentoring; the Islamic community did the rights of passage, and there was a therapist who went to a small storefront church who did group therapy.  And when it came to saving the lives of the young people in front of them, they put the Lutheran and Catholic, and Baptist stuff off to the side and said, “right now our basic commitment is to keep these kids alive.”

“Grandma Thurman being a person of faith realized that she had to transcend the acts that had been done to her and put her faith into action. And so she decided to do something nice for this woman who had tormented her.”

The reality is that this is a world that has been on its own human genocide – whether it is in Third World nations or Third World neighborhoods, whether it’s in suburban areas or whether it’s in inner cities, the world is in trouble, and we’re in a room full of people who believe they’ve found the answer. And our commitment should be at least that of the inmates of Holmesburg Prison.

I have a lot of faith that people of faith can make this work, because at the end of the day one of the things that we hold in common is that there is something bigger than we are. And as people of faith, people who are religious, we believe that there is an order that transcends the human order, that intervenes in the affairs of humanity and makes a difference. We may have different names for it, we may approach it in different ways, but we do share a common reality that there is something more than what we see, and that something more, when in partnership with people of like minds, can make a difference.

Howard Thurman, the Christian mystic who sat at the feet of Gandhi, was the person that really brought the concept of non-violent social change and peace to America and taught it at Howard University. There one of his students, James Farmer, took up the mantle and founded the Congress of Racial Equality and then held lectures on peace based on the Gandhian method. And into one of those lectures stumbled a young seminarian from Crozier Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania by the name of Martin Luther King.

Howard Thurman, who introduced King to Gandhi, tells the story of growing up in a neighborhood that was torn by hate between races. And how the family next door to his, the white family next door to his, hated him and his grandmother so much that they would never speak to one another. In fact as a symbol of their hatred, Dr. Thurman says that family went out to the backyard one day where they kept the chicken coops down there in Daytona Beach, Florida, and took a spatula and scraped the chicken manure off the floor of the chicken coop and dumped it into the Thurman’s back yard.

Sometime later, the woman who had committed this act became ill. And Grandma Thurman being a person of faith realized that she had to transcend the acts that had been done to her and put her faith into action. And so she decided to do something nice for this woman who had tormented her, and she took her a bowl of chicken soup and also some lovely cut roses.

And this was too much for her tormenter.  The tormenter had to thank her. She said, “This soup is marvelous.” And she said, “I made it myself.” And she said, “The flowers are beautiful.” She said, “Well, I grew them myself.”  She said, “You grew these?” She said, “Yes.” She said, “How did you get the stems to grow so long as green? And how did you get the flowers to grow so red and full?”

She said, “You remember that chicken manure you dumped in my backyard? You saw that as something evil, but the God I serve saw that as fertilizer. And that God told me to take the evil that you had thrust in my direction, and to overcome it with something good to bring in your direction. And my job is to win you with the beauty that came out of the ashes that you dumped on me.”  Does that give you any ideas of what people of faith can do?

Even in the midst of situations that smell of the world’s manure, does that give you any idea?  It does, it tells me that in these same nations and neighborhoods of strife, in these same prisons, whether they are in Philadelphia or the Philippines, that these same communities that the world has dumped on, people of faith are the ones with the ability to grow great flowers, whose petals are the leaves of the healing of the nations, and whose stems are straight with the righteousness of the transcendent reality that enables us to say, it doesn’t always have to be this way.

Dump on the faith community what you will, we will be the ones to grow the roses and bless the world. And to that mission we have been called this week.

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