Joan Brown Campbell and Thomas Hoyt, Jr.
Living Reconciliation: Two Ecumenical Pioneers
Joan Brown Campbell is director of the department of religion for the Chautauqua Institution and former general secretary of the National Council of Churches.
Thomas Hoyt, Jr. is a bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and president of the National Council of Churches.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Living Reconciliation: Two Ecumenical Pioneers.” Joan Brown Campbell and Thomas Hoyt, Jr. Each of them discovered ecumenism, the movement to reconcile Christian churches during the civil rights era. They describe what they’ve learned about vexing clashes of difference and why reconciliation among different Christians still matters in a multi-religious, post-Katrina world.
BISHOP THOMAS HOYT, JR.: We need each other if for no other reason than to correct our blind spots, which we all have. That’s one reason I always stress reconciliation.
REVEREND JOAN BROWN CAMPBELL: The test of ecumenism is can we sit at the table with people whose views we abhor and still say they are sisters and brothers. And that’s a tough test, but I think we had to face that test more than once.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us for “Living Reconciliation.”
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Recent events have brought American religious and racial divides into view, especially among different kinds of Christians. This hour we’ll explore the intriguing history and present questions of Christian ecumenism. Reverend Joan Brown Campbell was the first ordained woman to become general secretary of the National Council of Churches. Bishop Thomas Hoyt Jr. is now serving as the first African-American president of the Council. They shed light on America’s multi-religious post-Katrina present.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about beliefs, meaning, ethics and ideas. Today, “Living Reconciliation: Two Ecumenical Pioneers.”
Ecumenism is not a household word, but my guests today suggest that the ecumenical movement has always embodied and grappled with the most vexing clashes of difference in our culture, clashes that seem to recur in every generation. The word ecumenism comes from the Greek word oikos or “house.” At its inception in Europe in the 19th century, Christian ecumenism set out to reconcile the whole house, the whole Christian world. Christianity had split first into Orthodox East and Catholic West in the 11th century. It splintered dramatically again after the Protestant reformation of the 16th century. The ecumenical movement waned during the wars and upheavals of the early 20th century, but it was reborn in the prisons and concentration camps of Nazi Europe. There, imprisoned Catholics and Protestants prayed together, consulted the same Bible, and decided that what they had in common far transcended the structures and doctrines that divided them.
The World Council of Churches was founded in Amsterdam in 1948. Among its leaders were many who had spent the war smuggling Jews to safety. In this country, the ecumenical vision underpinned and energized the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But the grand idea of one unified church has proven impossible, even undesirable. And with the passage of time, Catholic-Protestant tensions in American culture have waned. American religiosity has grown altogether more fluid. Ecumenical super structures like the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches have seemed less necessary to many.
Later, we’ll speak with Thomas Hoyt Jr. about his passion for ecumenism that grew out of the civil rights movement. It is strengthened, as he tells it, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi and Louisiana where he is bishop of the historic Black Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. But first, Joan Brown Campbell, who from 1990 to 1999 was the first ordained woman to be general secretary of the National Council of Churches. Across the years she’s been identified with a number of classic liberal causes, but her religious upbringing was conservative, a fact she says she’s found helpful in her life of reaching out to different religious others.
REV. CAMPBELL: I’ve sometimes said you find a liberal with staying power and they probably had a conservative upbringing because part of the strength of conservative religion is that it teaches you that religion is really a lifetime of commitment. And yet I never felt that I grew up in a pious family or a religiously rigid family in any way. I mean, religion was always taken with a light heart, but taken very seriously.
MS. TIPPETT: Joan Brown Campbell was ordained a minister at the age of 50. Before that, like many women of her generation, she was a wife, mother and civic activist in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a wealthy suburb of Cleveland. As the 1960s commenced, she joined a new church for the quality of its Sunday schools, but there she discovered a new faith and she discovered ecumenism under the tutelage of a famous Disciples of Christ minister, Albert M. Pennybacker.
REV. CAMPBELL: He really changed my life. He said once, “Your commitment is as strong as anything I’ve ever seen and the content just is screwed up.” And he said, “I intend to give content to that commitment.”
MS. TIPPETT: What was it that he objected to?
REV. CAMPBELL: He thought I was too fundamentalist, almost, too rigid in my beliefs and too stuck on the wrong things. And he especially wanted to give me Bible study. And he said, “You have to learn to see the great truths of the Bible, the great themes of the Bible.” Of course, that church at that point in time was also very involved in the civil rights movement. It was right when Shaker Heights was becoming an integrated community, and I became very involved in that, began to work with Martin Luther King.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Didn’t you bring Martin Luther King, was it to that church?
REV. CAMPBELL: To that church. Exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: Which was the first white church in Cleveland that invited him.
REV. CAMPBELL: Right. Exactly. And it was terrible.
MS. TIPPETT: It was.
REV. CAMPBELL: Oh, my goodness. It was life-changing in all bad ways and good ways. It was such a shock to me. It was really my first recognition of just how deep ran racism. This was a church that, after all, had a minister with a strong social ministry, social justice sermons, but the presence of someone like King in their church, most of the big supporters of the congregation who objected strenuously did everything they could to keep him from coming there. And then, of course, there was the counter group that wanted him there. And the compromise, which I always thought was so strange, was that he should speak outside, not in the church itself.
MS. TIPPETT: Was he just being invited to be there and preach a sermon?
REV. CAMPBELL: He wasn’t even being invited to preach a sermon. He was in Cleveland working on voter registration because Carl Stokes was running for mayor, and he ultimately became…
MS. TIPPETT: And was he the first black mayor?
REV. CAMPBELL: …the first black mayor in a major American city, and certainly the first black mayor in Cleveland. And King was really coming to give a speech. It wasn’t even a sermon. It was a weekday. And so finally the agreement was that he could speak outside on the steps of the church. Well, as it turned out, that was a blessing because thousands of people came as far as the eye could see, and that number couldn’t conceivably have been inside the church.
MS. TIPPETT: And were they black and white?
REV. CAMPBELL: Black and white. But there were also people who picketed with the American flag held upside-down and people with swastikas on their shoulders and their arms and terrible placards. And we had to have the police In the church all night, had to have the police in our home all night because there were death threats.
MS. TIPPETT: To you, personally?
REV. CAMPBELL: To me personally, to the family, to the church. And I always tell my grandchildren, if you don’t remember how controversial Martin Luther King was and how frightened people were of him and how angry he made people, then you never can really figure out the struggle that he went through and why he was ultimately assassinated. And I think now it’s become so many years since he’s been gone that we forget that, and he becomes a hero and we forget the struggle that he went through.
MS. TIPPETT: He becomes a hero, he becomes a pacifist, and we almost — the memory is a very peaceful memory, right?
REV. CAMPBELL: Right. It’s very peaceful and very cleansed. You know, we’ve had marvelous things happen in that church, though, as a result of this. The church is an integrated church today, has been. And one of the young kids who demonstrated came back to the church a couple of years ago and said, “I was one of those kids with the swastika on my arm, and I am so sorry. I am so sorry. I just have to come back here and say I’ve changed. That’s not who I am any more, and I don’t know why I did that when I was that young, but I remember it and it had an influence on me.” And he said, “Of course, I was then able to hear King’s speech.” And he said, “When I heard him, it was nothing like what I had been told he was like.” So it’s those kind of things that, as one of my friends, said, his appearance has become part of the sacred memory of that congregation and in many ways shaped its life for as many years as it’s been.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, tell me about being at the National Council of Churches. I think ecumenism, the word ecumenism is unsatisfying.
REV. CAMPBELL: Yes, exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: It doesn’t connote all of the richness and excitement that people who work in the field experience. So I’d love it, you know, to hear about your experiences to open that word up for people.
REV. CAMPBELL: Well, you’re so right.
MS. TIPPETT: And why is the word so troublesome?
REV. CAMPBELL: I don’t know. Although I remember when I had never heard the word, I could remember the word being new to me.
MS. TIPPETT: Ecumenism.
REV. CAMPBELL: Ecumenism. And I think when people first hear the word they’re not sure whether it’s ecumenism or…
MS. TIPPETT: They don’t know how to say it.
REV. CAMPBELL: I mean, they can’t quite pronounce it.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, yes.
REV. CAMPBELL: And then I think, maybe not so helpfully, all of us who are ecumenists try to explain it with its Greek roots, and that only mystifies it further to some degree.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Which is oikos.
REV. CAMPBELL: Oikos, which is the same root word as ecology, economy. I mean, it really means all of one household.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. The whole house.
REV. CAMPBELL: And when you think about it, it’s huge. I mean, if everyone is of one household, then everyone is a sister and brother. I mean, it really has profound meaning. But because I spent my life working in the ecumenical movement, it does have richness to me and meaning. And I think the most exciting thing about the National Council is the diversity of people and religions and ideologies and theologies and histories and cultures that they represent. And it’s a huge education just to come to understand them. I felt that my greatest privilege was I had to understand all these churches to be the general secretary.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, how did that change you?
REV. CAMPBELL: Oh my, it changed me enormously over and over. When I came to be general secretary, the Greek Orthodox were very angry with the Episcopal church for ordaining a lesbian. And so they walked out of the National Council of Churches, and then with them followed all kinds of the other orthodox, and it became my task to bring them back. Well, I thought, I can’t bring them back if I don’t know enough about them. And so I went for a while to St. Vladimir’s Seminary to try to learn.
MS. TIPPETT: It was an orthodox seminary.
REV. CAMPBELL: Yeah, it was an orthodox seminary, to try to learn about the orthodox. Well, I fell in love with them. I absolutely fell in love with them, with people who taught me, really, what is orthodoxy about and what the richness of having a faith that comes down through the ages. And I had to experience it to understand the power that that gives you. They’re a very spiritual church, and when you think about the fact that the orthodox believe that all five senses have to be touched in every single service.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, it’s a very sensual tradition…
REV. CAMPBELL: Very sensual. Very.
MS. TIPPETT: …which is so different, especially from Protestantism.
REV. CAMPBELL: Very. And I guess what I learned was in almost every denomination, whatever their unique qualities are, what may seem quirky to one, once it’s explained you understand why it’s precious to the people who hold it.
MS. TIPPETT: And you found that consistently.
REV. CAMPBELL: I did, constantly.
MS. TIPPETT: The Reverend Joan Brown Campbell. We’re exploring what she’s learned about religious reconciliation through her work in the ecumenical movement. The National Council of Churches, which she led for nearly a decade in the 1990s, is an alliance of 35 Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox and historic African-American member communions; over 100,000 congregations and 45 million congregants. Neither the Roman Catholic Church nor most evangelical denominations belong to the Council of Churches, though there are intersections and projects involving those groups. I asked Joan Campbell whether the absence of Roman Catholic membership alone did not doom the ecumenical mission.
REV. CAMPBELL: You know, they often said to us, “Well, but if we join, you have 55 million Christians in the Protestant churches that are members, and we’re 65 million and we would out number you.” Well, that never did seem to me to be a totally good reason for not joining in, but I realized very early that that was not going to happen. But we reached out to the Roman Catholics and to the evangelicals.
MS. TIPPETT: The other large group that doesn’t belong.
REV. CAMPBELL: And we were very successful in creating linkages, and now there are beginning to be some structural ways. I always believed that what we needed was to create a table where people of good will would talk to each other and the structure would come. But if you start with the structure, I think you’re never going to get there because then people are dealing with how many representatives and how much money should we give and all the technical things that aren’t really what ecumenism is about. It really is about that table of forgiveness, as it were, and the table of compassion and cooperation. And I remember Jan Love, who was at one point the youngest member of the central committee of the World Council of Churches, saying the test of ecumenism is can we sit at the table with people whose views we abhor and still say they are sisters and brothers. And that’s a tough test, but I think we’ve had to face that test more than once. My own theory is that ecumenism has worked.
MS. TIPPETT: And what do you mean when you say that?
REV. CAMPBELL: I think we should declare victory. When I was growing up, Catholics and Protestants didn’t talk to each other, just didn’t talk to each other.
MS. TIPPETT: We have forgotten that.
REV. CAMPBELL: We totally have. And I remember in my own family, my grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, and when one of his daughters wanted to marry, not a Catholic, but a Methodist, it was a huge thing.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
REV. CAMPBELL: I try to tell this to my children, and my children are now 50 years old. And they just go, “That can’t be.” And I said, “Well, trust me. It was.” And I think part of what’s happened is the ecumenical movement has made us less suspicious of one another, given us knowledge of one another, and given us life experiences. And my proof of it is if you go to a baptism and there are godparents and grandparents in any mainline church, any time you see a baptism, you in all probability will have six denominations represented, just in the family alone, including the Catholics.
MS. TIPPETT: Let me ask you, I mean, there are many people still working in Christian ecumenism and who see those as great and important challenges, but I think that, in our public imagination, the far more urgent challenges are among different faiths. We have a more pluralistic society, and we’re aware of that. Does this experience that you’ve had in your lifetime of seeing those hostilities diminish among Christians, does that give you a way of thinking about how our interfaith encounter might unfold?
REV. CAMPBELL: Yeah, absolutely. I see it as a common tapestry, really. I can’t see it as so terribly different. I still believe that the union of denominations that are Christian in all the ways we’ve talked about are very important. And I don’t think we have to choose between Christian ecumenism and interfaith work. I think they really are part and parcel of the same thing. And I often say to Christians, it is our duty as Christians to make peace with the children of God, and that that includes Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, I mean, the vast array of people who do not call themselves by the name of Christian.
MS. TIPPETT: You’ve been involved in your lifetime in many important events, some of which we’ve talked about — your experience with Martin Luther King and also in helping get the first black mayor of Cleveland elected. I’m just going to list some of these things. You traveled with President Clinton to the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, you presented the Catholic edition of the new revised standard version to Pope John Paul II. And I want to just tease out of you, you know, what is the theology that underpins all these things you’ve done in your life. What are your moral values, if I put the question that way?
REV. CAMPBELL: That’s always a hard question to answer. You know, I do believe that we are called to be neighbors to people who we don’t know and whose names we’ll never say and whose faces we’ll never see. And I think that’s a very tough challenge. To be responsible to our own family is a huge job, and sometimes people will say big enough. But I think for Christians it’s bigger than that. We really are called to be neighbors to the whole world. And I don’t think that means you have to every day, all day, do some caring act. But you have to have a vision that includes those beyond just the people that you know best and that are like you.
I think sometimes the hardest thing, and yet for me the most rewarding, has been to constantly get to know people who are nothing like me. They don’t have a history like mine. They have a culture that’s different, a language that’s different. And I feel myself changing and broadened every time that happens. But I also think that is what makes me a Christian. I mean, that’s why I could be defined as a Christian. And I think openness is a huge Christian value. I mean, to be open to the possibility. I was always very, very grateful, when I was studying the orthodox, to Father Tom Hopko, who began his lectures by saying, “Perhaps I could be wrong.” And I thought it was hugely helpful because you can hear someone who says that. And I think that is really what we have to say is, “This is what I believe, but perhaps there’s another angle on it. Perhaps there’s something I don’t know, and maybe someone else will add to my understanding of faith.” I think being open to that is a huge part of my own theology.
MS. TIPPETT: Joan Brown Campbell is director of the Department of Religion at the Chautauqua Institution where I spoke with her. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Living Reconciliation: Two Ecumenical Pioneers.”
MS. TIPPETT: My next guest, Thomas Hoyt Jr., is currently serving a two-year term as the first African-American president of the National Council of Churches. Like Joan Brown Campbell, he discovered ecumenism — the movement to reconcile Christian churches — during the civil rights movement, but he came to that from a very different beginning. He grew up in Alabama in a segregated community and church. His father was a minister in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church of which he himself is now a bishop. The CME, as it’s known, is an historic black denomination founded by freed slaves who broke away from secessionist white Methodist Christians. After the Southern and Northern Methodists reunited in the late 20th century, they formally repented to the descendents of those black Methodists.
Thomas Hoyt first knew white contemporaries when he became involved in the student Christian movement of the civil rights era. He marched with black and white students in his native Alabama. He was also inspired by the message of black power. But of his enduring insights from those days, Thomas Hoyt does not speak in the first instance of rights, justice or power. He says he always sensed that liberation and reconciliation had to be twin goals, spiritually inseparable. One could not be sought at the expense of the other. Thomas Hoyt became a distinguished scholar of the New Testament and was part of a working group that revolutionized biblical studies for a new generation of Africa-American scholars. They published a classic book, still widely read, called Stony the Road We Trod. And he says this project was especially relevant to opening up his relationship with other Christians.
BISHOP THOMAS HOYT JR.: We had been listening to the story of others and not telling our own story.
MS. TIPPETT: We, you mean, African Americans?
BISHOP HOYT: African Americans.
MS. TIPPETT: Christians and biblical scholars?
BISHOP HOYT: And biblical scholars. All of us had been reading Bultmann and Bonhoeffer.
MS. TIPPETT: All these white, German theologians.
BISHOP HOYT: Yeah, that’s right. And we said, “Listen, there was another reality.” It’s just like the boy asked about the hunter and the tiger, “Why does the tiger always lose and the hunter always wins?” And this man said, “The reason that happens the tiger will always lose if the hunter always writes the story.” And we began to say, “Well, what can we say that will not skew the text, but yet tell the story of the biblical text in the light of our own experience?” And that’s what we did in Stony the Road We Trod. We got people together from theologians to biblical scholars, which we did not have very many of at one time because we could not go to white schools and we could not go to persons like the Dukes of the world where I went. And we could not go to Union Seminary in New York where I went.
MS. TIPPETT: So when did that change? In the 1960s or…
BISHOP HOYT: It started in the 1960s when they were opening up, but New Testament and Old Testament were fields that people said that blacks couldn’t deal with because they had to deal with languages, you know, Hebrew and Greek and Aramaic.
MS. TIPPETT: And they said black scholars wouldn’t be able to handle that?
BISHOP HOYT: They said black people period could not handle the languages. But we knew that that could happen, and so we started propagating some things in our own context, in our own milieu. And Stony the Road We Trod, I wrote one article in there, and we had Cain Felder and Vincent Wimbush, a lot of other.
MS. TIPPETT: A lot of great minds in New Testament scholarship who’ve gone on, like you, to do other things. But for somebody who has no idea what you’re talking about, you know, because we’re perhaps still used to the way that story has been written, give me one example of what was meaningful for you as you dug into that and looked at the story in light of your experience.
BISHOP HOYT: Well, one thing, the biblical text is a library, and it’s not just one point of view going on in the Bible. And so you’ve got the creation story, you’ve got the priest lit writings, you have the prophetic writings, you have the people living out of the context of wisdom sayings. You have people living out of apocalyptic literature, that is talking about the end of time. And some people had found themselves looking at the Bible in obscure relationships to the other parts of the Bible, and therefore had made one thing normative. For example, there are those who will say that apocalyptic literature is the key. So they begin to talk about things are getting worse and worse, praise God because the worse it gets, the sooner the end will come.
MS. TIPPETT: And they kind of interpret all the rest of it back out of that center.
BISHOP HOYT: From that point of view. Yes. So they’ve got blind spots. And that’s really why we need each other. That’s one reason why I always stress reconciliation. We need each other, if for no other reason than to correct our blind spots, which we all have. And so the ecumenical movement for me helped reconciliation take place because I saw that the Bible also led to, not uniformity, but diversity. That’s the key. And so that helps us with the reconciling process.
MS. TIPPETT: Now, I think that when you began to be involved in ecumenism formally, in the official ecumenical movement, there was not a large African-American participation.
BISHOP HOYT: Well, we have always been a Black church has always been involved with the ecumenical movement, even though in a small way sometimes. We were there in Amsterdam and the World Council of Churches’ beginning. We were there in the National Council of Churches that I now serve as president of. We were there at the National Council of Churches of Christ in USA. We were there when it was dealt with the civil rights movement and the ecumenical world. We’ve always been involved with the ecumenical work, but a very small continuum of people, which, of course, means it makes it very hard because every time you go to an ecumenical setting, you’ve got to represent one point of view, which is the black experience and then the people start saying, “Well, here we go again, talking about race and religion and class and all of that.”
Just like women nowadays have to talk about sexism in the church, we had to talk about racism in the church. And that meant that sometimes we were heard and sometimes we were not. But we kept talking and still have to keep talking because it’s not dead. And so I can talk about more than just race, but I also know that it’s got to be brought up, even though people get tired of hearing about it. And some churches, like the United Methodist Church, have reached out and said, “We want to offer repentance” and then, of course, for us to offer forgiveness. We all need to accept those who offer repentance. But one of the AME Zion’s bishops recently said, “I’m a fruit inspector, and I’m going to watch your fruits if you repent.” You know, sow some fruits of repentance. So I find myself being a fruit inspector many times. And even though I do that, I don’t do it in animosity, I do it out of a sense of making people accountable, as we have to be accountable.
MS. TIPPETT: I remember when I first spoke with you years ago, and it was in an ecumenical context, you said something that I’ve never forgotten. You talked about how when you were first involved in the ecumenical movement, the issues you would bring up of race and sex and class would be kind of dismissed or at least put to one side or put in the appendix as ethical issues, while they went on with the large discussions of theology which had to do with doctrine and the Trinity and communion, right? And you said to me, “You know, one person’s ethics is another person’s theology.”
BISHOP HOYT: Sure. That’s right. And to say that taking care of the needs of the poor is not a theological issue so much as an ethical issue, well, it’s at the core for me. I went to Brazil for one of the World Council of Churches meetings, and we started talking about the…
MS. TIPPETT: That was in 1987, right? That World Council of Churches meeting in Brazil?
BISHOP HOYT: Yeah. That’s right. And one guy got up and said, “You’ve been talking about needs for the poor and how God is on the side of the poor and trying to deal with what it means to deal with the holistic view of life and not just compartmentalize life.” And he said, “You haven’t said anything about soteriology, salvation. You haven’t said anything about eschatology — which is the categories we usually use. You haven’t said anything about anthropology and how that relates to theology. You’re just talking about taking care of these ethical issues.” And that’s when I said that one person’s theology is another person’s ethics, one person’s ethics is another person’s theology. And all of it should be put together, not compartmentalized.
MS. TIPPETT: And I suppose the focus of the ecumenical movement kind of on the surface has been that Christians should worship together, should perhaps take communion or recognize each other’s baptisms and ordinations, right?
BISHOP HOYT: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: Those kinds of structural theological issues.
BISHOP HOYT: That kind of structure. Yes. But at the same time, I would always go in and say, “Yes, but we’ve also got to talk about life and work because faith that does not deal with work and how you implement love for your fellow human beings is dead.” And people can sit up and theologize, but how does that relate to the people in the pew? And how do they become receptive to their needs in terms of life and history and how they’re going to survive? Many people today are talking more about life after death and life before birth and forgetting about life in between.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Living Reconciliation.” We’re exploring the experiences and perspectives of two ecumenical pioneers. Why does reconciliation among Christians matter in a multi-religious world?
I’m speaking now with Bishop Thomas Hoyt Jr. He’s a biblical scholar and a bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church or CME, an historic black tradition. When he became the first African-American president of the National Council of Churches in 2004, Thomas Hoyt declared his intention, as he said, to put feet under the council’s efforts to ease poverty in America. And then Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit his home districts of Mississippi and Louisiana. Here’s a reading from a public letter he published in the aftermath of Katrina.
READER: Now, as a nation, we must acknowledge that this crisis has only exposed what lies just beneath the surface of prosperity and progress in this country. In America, we have a past that haunts us on every level of our existence. We now see all too clearly that a person’s race and class can often determine whether or not you are left behind in the Superdome or escorted to safety. Today we stand on the threshold of what is a great opportunity. It is an opportunity to become the America that we have always dreamed of being. It is an opportunity to become the America that Martin Luther King Jr. so vividly portrayed in his “I Have a Dream” speech more than 40 years ago. It is an opportunity to stop making empty promises, to practice what we preach, to walk what we talk. The book of Nehemiah, chapter 2 verse 18 records that the people of Israel, seeing that Jerusalem was destroyed said, “Let us rise up and build.” Then they set their hands to this good work. As the bishop of the Fourth Episcopal District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church presiding over Mississippi and Louisiana, and as the president of the National Council of Churches, I say to you, “Let us rise up and build.”
MS. TIPPETT: A public letter by my guest Bishop Thomas Hoyt Jr. Now back to our conversation.
MS. TIPPETT: I suppose we’re talking about maybe 30 years that you’ve been involved in some form in ecumenism, and you’ve written that all along, you’ve had black colleagues who’ve felt that you’re wasting your time with this kind of hierarchical involvement. And I think that — and this is also something that maybe has changed in these 30 years — there’s a real suspicion of organized religion and of hierarchies and structures and maybe a sense that the ecumenical movement is, you know, just one more hierarchy on top of others. I mean, how do you respond to that idea?
BISHOP HOYT: Well, that’s a real issue for some of our leadership, not only in the CME church, but in the Baptist and Methodist. And some people feel like you’re wasting your time to talk to people over a period of time. But I always say that anything worth doing is worth staying with it because we can’t have instantaneous unity. We have too many traditions have been tainted along the way. And ecumenical work is for the long haul where people have changes of attitude and mind and began to eat together, talk together, disagree together, dialogue together. And all of a sudden, you start seeing some light that comes at the end of the tunnel. And so it’s not for a sprinter. This is not a sprinter kind of mindset. It is a long distance runner that has to be there. And so when they tell me I’m wasting my time, I say, “Well, I’m not wasting my time. I think I’m on God’s time and the kairotic time.”
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Kairos time.
BISHOP HOYT: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: Not chronological.
BISHOP HOYT: That’s right. And so the kronos won’t work. Just talking about clock time, won’t work. You talk about what it means in God’s time. Right now I think God’s time is the time for people to change and repent.
MS. TIPPETT: I suppose that, if we just make the analogy, you’re talking about institutional change and whole traditions and histories converging. And if we just think about in the lives of individuals, words like change and repentance and reconciliation, we know that that’s the work of years.
BISHOP HOYT: Oh yeah. And you’re right to say that. It is an institution, and movements help us to be freed up to do some things. Institutions help us to be bogged down because we want to propagate our institution, and the institution takes precedence over movement of the spirit in many respects.
MS. TIPPETT: I did hear Jim Wallis say in Washington, DC, a couple of weeks ago that Hurricane Katrina had proven that the words organized religion was not an oxymoron.
BISHOP HOYT: I think that’s a good statement. Jim Wallis is a jewel of a guy. I really like his sojourners, his mindset, that is a pilgrim mindset and that we are moving through the land. And he is stressing now putting emphasis on poverty, as the National Council of Churches is. I think Katrina sees that a million people displaced now and that didn’t have to do just with poor folks. You’ve got some rich people who had to be evacuated. And you’ve got people who then see that we’re all in this thing together. We are humanity in a struggle, and nature had to come and tell us that, “You’ve got to get together.” You better get together because nature, that has no respect of persons, OK, whether you’re rich or poor, whether you’re black or white, “I’m coming in,” and some people drowned. It doesn’t mean that God does it. God wasn’t punishing people. God rains rain upon the just and the unjust, you know? Unh-unh. I won’t get into another theological…
MS. TIPPETT: I want to keep talking about this. I also want to just interject a reminder of your perspective on this. I mean, you are the bishop of the Fourth District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, which includes all of Louisiana and Mississippi, 240 pastors, 320 congregations, and you were working on issues of poverty specifically before Hurricane Katrina. I mean, has anything changed because of that?
BISHOP HOYT: What has changed for me is the way, first of all, people respond to tragedy. I’ve been amazed at how people have rallied around this issue of helping someone. To me, that’s heartening, and it’s also helpful to see that. However, I wait to see what will happen down the road. We’ve got a bipartisan commission from the Congress, but I’d love to see an independent commission where you’d have some grassroots people, those who’ve been tremendously affected by this whole Hurricane Rita and Katrina. I have a lot of people in my district who don’t have parishioners now. They’re gone from the…
MS. TIPPETT: You have pastors without parishioners?
BISHOP HOYT: Yes. That’s right. And that means I’ve got to pay for them to still exist, but I’m willing to do it because people are rallying to help us. My church, CME church, raised about $250,000 recently. Even though we need it in our own district, they gave to World Vision, they gave to Church World Services, they gave to the Red Cross, Salvation Army, who has a lot of money already. But we thought we would give some of the money that we raised to them. I didn’t like it too much at first, but then I said, “Now, I’ve been talking about reconciliation.” I dealt that same group, World Vision, they didn’t want me to give anything. They wanted to help us, but we gave to them, which is a pattern of living that I think is helpful to everybody. So I’ve been going through some things that haven’t changed my mind about reconciliation. I have been enhanced to see that that’s the right way to go in our present day.
MS. TIPPETT: CME Bishop and National Council of Churches President Thomas Hoyt Jr. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Living Reconciliation.” We’re exploring the history and present questions of Christian ecumenism in America.
MS. TIPPETT: I have been hearing, as I am in other places in the country and as I talk to religious activists and leaders and people, that there’s a real groundswell that was actually starting before Katrina but that was mobilized by that, and that a lot of different groups that haven’t always come together on moral and ethical issues have been rallying around poverty as a moral and theological issue, and — you know, conservative evangelicals and liberals and talking to each other, but it’s below the radar screen now. And do you see something happening that we’re just not hearing about? Or is the steam running out of that?
BISHOP HOYT: No, I think that it’s been happening all along. The conservative evangelical churches have never left the city.
MS. TIPPETT: Of New Orleans?
BISHOP HOYT: Of any of our cities. When the liberals sometimes got up and moved, they went to the suburbs, but that the evangelical churches stayed in the city.
MS. TIPPETT: I see what you’re saying, OK.
BISHOP HOYT: And in spite of the fact that I’ve always said that there are some blind spots with evangelicals and conservatives, but they have always talked about these poverty issues, and they have helped people in the cities in a way that the liberals sometimes have not. And I still think that some liberals will send the money into the city, but they don’t always stay. And what we need to do now is to inculcate policies that will not allow what’s happening in New Orleans to take place inevitably all the time. That is, you give $50 billion to New Orleans, but yet you take it back with the same hand, getting rid of Medicaid, getting rid of Pell Grants that we need to have. Money that you just gave with one hand you’ve taken it back with the other in a political move. We’ve got to have more creative ways of thinking about the poor people and let them have a say so in what they really need.
MS. TIPPETT: Do you see churches and religious organizations stepping up to the plate on this? Not just helping, but taking on these structural concerns?
BISHOP HOYT: Yes. Well, I see what we have done up to this point is to be involved with having an ecumenical — I’m not going to put ecumenical — we’re having a group of people who decided, even in our last board meeting of the National Council, to get a working group together from all of our 35, 36 denominations that are members of the National Council and see if we could not continue a long-term relationship to work toward eradicating poverty, to work toward dealing with class issues, to work toward eradicating sexism, to work toward the understanding of breaking down denominationalism, to deal with working with Islam-Christian dialogue.
MS. TIPPETT: And those are such huge goals. I mean, you’ve lived a long time, and you know how long progress takes. I mean, are they realistic? Do you have hope that some of that will be achieved?
BISHOP HOYT: Well, you’ve got to have some faith, otherwise you live in fear. And I think I would like to say what Martin Luther King said that if fear knocks on your door and faith does not answer and says there’s nobody home, then I think that we are in trouble. We’ve got to operate in faith, we’ve got to move in hope, and we’ve got to fight against those who do not have the hope and who are killers of the dream. There are people who are killers of the dream, and we must dream or else we do not deal with anything. Some would call it unrealistic, but if you can see down the road as Tutu did when he was talking about South Africa, he said, “Apartheid is already dead. It’s just waiting to be buried.” And we have to say the same thing about those who fight against the dreams of others. I would stop right now if I didn’t believe in the resurrection. And if I did not believe that through crucifixion, there can come also a new life and resurrection. I think that’s at the heart of our gospel and that’s the heart of our belief is that we will have crucifixions, but we also have a third day. And that’s the belief that we have that keeps us going in the midst of all of the pain and suffering that we must inevitably at some times go through.
MS. TIPPETT: In my notes from our conversation years ago, I have this cryptic sentence, “Joan Campbell/Philip Potter story. Screw loose, death wish, sense of humor.” What’s that about?
BISHOP HOYT: Well, Joan Campbell, which is a dear person, she asked Philip Potter, the head of the World Council of Churches at that time, what does it mean to be a leader in this culture, in this time? And he said, “You’ve got to have a screw loose and a death wish and a sense of humor.” And everybody laughed, and I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You’re going to have to have a screw loose. It means that you’ve got to realize that you can’t screw things down too tightly, that you’ve got to leave room for the Holy Spirit, and you’ve got to leave room for change. And secondly, to have a death wish means that if you’re going to be a leader, you’re going to have to make some choices that will not altogether go across with everybody. And so, to bear a cross is a part of being a leader today. And then lastly, he said, you’ve got to have a sense of humor, meaning that you’ve got to know that the devil never smiles, you’ve got to keep him frowning. And so that means that you have a sense of humor and you laugh at yourself and you laugh sometimes at others and you begin to move in an arena of humor that keeps you going. You’ve got to laugh sometime.” And to me, that’s what kept me going. That’s kept a lot of my people going in terms of suffering. They had to make sense of where they were going, but sometimes they had to laugh about it. They pass by the slavemaster’s door and see him sitting up there and he said, “Everybody talking about heaven ain’t going.” That’s a song, that’s a song that we sing, but it’s one to ridicule those who kept them in slavery. Everybody’s talking about heaven ain’t going. And that to me is something that keeps you moving and with some sense of sanity in one’s being.
MS. TIPPETT: Thomas Hoyt Jr. is president of the National Council of Churches and bishop of the Fourth District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. He’s based in Shreveport, Louisiana. Earlier you heard the Reverend Joan Brown Campbell, director of the Department of Religion at the Chautauqua Institution in New York.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this program. Contact us through our Web site at speakingoffaith.org. This week you can hear more of my interviews with Joan Brown Campbell and Thomas Hoyt Jr. Speakingoffaith.org contains an archive of all of our past programs. You can listen online anytime at no charge and learn how to purchase downloadable copies. Also, sign up for our free e-mail newsletter, which includes my journal on each interview as well as previews and exclusive extras. That’s speakingoffaith.org.
This program was produced by Kate Moos, Mitch Hanley, Colleen Scheck, and Jody Abramson. Our Web producer is Trent Gilliss with assistance from Ilona Piotrowska. Special thanks this week to Maureen Rovegno and the Religion Department at the Chautauqua Institution. The executive producer of Speaking of Faith is Bill Buzenberg, and I’m Krista Tippett.