Thank you, Bill. I never thought I’d be in the position of being introduced by YOU, someone who not only has become a kind of elder statesman in my life, and mentor, but a real friend. You’ve been someone whose convictions around the foundational importance of relationships in all their mess and all their glory have granted people like me permission to celebrate the softer mysteries of life in a town and frankly a broader philanthropic arena that tend to be afraid of the stuff you can’t measure in an input-output linear logic. Thank you, Bill, for paving the way so that romantics like me might sing with a little more confidence.
And speaking of singing, I confess it’s hard not to let my eyes water up here in following Nyack’s Gospel Ensemble. This evening is complete with their offering – you don’t need my words. The first piece they sang, “Amazing,” was actually the celebratory anthem that circled my husband and me almost three years ago as we held hands underneath the chuppah that served as a canopy over that holy altar of vows exchanged on our wedding day. David and I were surrounded by concentric circles of friends who had suffered long with us to discern our way to that marital consecration, and punctuating those circles were eight singers from Nyack’s Gospel Ensemble, proclaiming the amazing grace of a God who had not let the purity of our unexpected love story be defeated by those who would seek to twist it. It’s really humbling to find myself sharing a different kind of stage with you all tonight.
So I actually want to peel back the curtain on the very institution that these amazing singers come to us from, namely, Nyack College, because I think something about Nyack, which of course is a fallen and very imperfect institution like all institutions, still, something about it points the way toward a future and some ancient truths that can rejuvenate all of us in the work of “Thy Kingdom Come,” of turning battlegrounds into playgrounds, of serving as civic and spiritual nodes that connect and cohere local ecosystems for the patterned build of hope for the nation at large.
In the spring of 2015 I encountered two worlds within 24 hours—worlds yoked by creed but divided by demographic and disposition. On a crisp Wednesday evening, I was invited to attend a cocktail reception at the New York Yacht Club for a celebration amongst Catholics, evangelicals and orthodox Jewish individuals honoring the legacy of a man named Dietrich von Hildebrand, a philosopher and anti-Nazi hero during World War II. The room was filled with intellectuals, politicos, bankers and think tankers, and it was largely male and 100 percent Caucasian. These were true believers, and yet they felt isolated in their faith amidst a secular elite, beleaguered as well by a mainstream culture that seemed increasingly hostile to some fundamental principles.
“New York is so secular,” one panelist lamented, “we need the moral courage of von Hildebrand to stand against the corrosive culture of our day.”
It was just weeks before the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, and there was an air of embattled weariness in the room. The panelists sounded fearful, even defensive, though our surroundings were plush, and many of us, had you asked for a resume summary, held pedigrees sparkling with brands like Harvard and Yale, The New York Times and Google.
Not 24 hours later I was sitting in the front row of Bethel Gospel Assembly church in Harlem, waiting for graduates of Nyack College to walk down the aisle and receive their hoods. As you’ve no doubt figured out by now, Nyack is an unapologetically Christian university whose campus in Battery Park draws from the hundreds of storefront churches that line the boroughs beyond Manhattan. The pews were overflowing with immigrant families, Asians, Latinos and African Americans hailing from Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and beyond, with the bulk of the international students coming from the majority world. I watched a 79-year old grandmother ascend the stage and collect her diploma for the first time, followed by a Chinese woman in a wheelchair, followed a single mother, followed by an ex-offender.
Joy and expectation filled the air as one by one these graduates walked, danced and bowed their way to the stole that would confer the student’s official readiness for ministry and community-builders. According to the commencement bulletin, most graduates were planning to return to their home neighborhoods to serve in churches, social agencies, schools and counseling centers. Instead of expressing fear that a great Christian heritage was losing ground, there was compassion in their testimonies, the scent of hope anchored in humility and fervent faith. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room when one Nyack professor addressed the graduates: “You don’t have to wait in line behind other people who are more important than you to receive God’s love.” Said another, “If the world will not listen to your words, make them listen to your lives.”
I’m going to show you a brief video so you have a fuller sense of the spirit of the thing. And Nyack singers, I don’t think anything here will feel all that new, but, assuming you’ve not graduated yet, hopefully a preview of this scene helps you pull through the grind of your last few semesters to arrive at this culminating day.
So I was sitting here caught up in the gorgeous triumph of it all, and I couldn’t help but let my mind wander back to the reception the night before. The contrast was striking. One room had held a concentration of the elite faithful, largely homogenous in educational and racial make-up, nostalgic and worried. Yet not one subway stop away was this room full of Christians of every tribe and tongue, radiating hope and purpose. I found my own soul singing, moved by the sight of faith without fear nor guile. Where was this world in the Yacht Club’s more foreboding diagnosis? Why the demographic blind spot among the quote “influencers” anxious for the future of Christendom?
It’s now been four years since that encounter, and we in the U.S. have since had an election that has exposed the cultural fences between coast and heartland, the “creative class” and everyone else. National elites are wringing their hands at a country they thought they understood, but don’t. Racial tensions are up, accompanied by a renewed, hot reckoning with our mottled history as a nation founded on ideals of human dignity and equality, that time and again has failed to embody them. A crisis of solidarity has cracked open, running first along lines of social class, now layered if not eclipsed by race and ideological worldview. Some of the more prominent voices of the Church, instead of serving as repairers of the breach, as is always the call for the people of God, have capitulated to the pressures of a divided land, baptizing their belligerence in the name of the common good while manifesting few of the virtues this good requires.
A subtle yet important question embedded here is one of influence: How are Christians called to influence the larger culture? As long as I’ve been an adult swimming in and out of Christian waters, talk of “witness” and “Christ redeeming culture” has seemed to hinge more on strategies leveraging temporal power than it has about nurturing contexts for demonstrations of God’s power. From messianic hopes placed in the White House every four years, to theories of cultural change overly dependent upon our elites and the institutions they represent maintaining the public trust, there seems to be a glaring forgetfulness about who Jesus Christ said He was and the Beatitudinal Kingdom He came to bring.
Now, a personal caveat. I’m not anti-Western civ: I have been shaped by its ideals, I have worked for institutions that seek to protect the best of those ideals. I’m also growing – I hope – to appreciate the healthy role that top-down strategies of cultural and even political influence can play, to believe in the possibility that advocacy organizations and platforms of national reach can serve the common good if these large power stewards are humble, if they listen, and if they’re able to serve the public interest in deferential relationship to the local wisdom that today seems to be making the kind of impact we as a society actually need. It was just that at Nyack, in all its grittiness, local orientation, prismatic perspective and eyes made deep by more suffering than I could ever understand, the future felt closer, the Christian difference more palpable. Here were souls whose stories were rooted in exile, and yet they were living into it with hope and hospitality. And I wondered, sitting there, tears coming down my face, if the more visible ambassadors of American Christianity, concerned for Western civilization and the freedoms of the faithful, could learn something from their posture and build an alliance.
This is where Leadership Foundations comes in, in fact where I think you’ve already been existing. You all, as I’ve learned the last number of years, quietly understand how to bridge and even marry the roles of the context-shaping influencers at a macro level, to the trenches-serving doers at a local level. City by city, regional network by regional network, across race and ethnicity, ideological conviction and faith or non-faith. You understand that theories of cultural change are shifting, from top-down to bottom-up, from institutions to networks, from structured hierarchies to open ecosystems, from advice by outside expert to praxis by indigenous shepherd. And I’ve watched you live out the truth that love can never be abstracted – we’re touched by incarnational living and doing, less prescription from on high.
There’s a lot of despair and diagnosis of problems at the national level today, in our media, in all our Facebook feeds, but out in reality where I think most of you live and work, human beings are still human beings, and there really is a defiant civic unfurling going on, one that I see and hear as animated by a mischievously Christ-shaped truth that forgiveness is where all pride dies and all flourishing begins, that reconciliation is never impossible, that hospitality and respect for the other are the birthstool, and that it may be more important to care for the world than to rule it, to weave opposing factions together in shared projects than to win a bunch to a side.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting many of you and people like you the last few years, people I like to call community shepherds, those have mastered the skill of seeing others and knowing them deeply, of being vulnerable with their own wounds and hopes, and initiating relationships across difference and discomfort. There’s Pancho Argüelles in Houston, who has spent years accompanying a group of immigrant workers paralyzed by construction injuries to find wheelchairs, diapers, catheters, and other supplies they and others need to survive day-to-day-life. Men and women whose spines are literally broken beyond repair, but who, in a powerful twist that is the logic of the Kingdom, have become key players in the very spine of Houston’s recovery efforts post Hurricane Harvey. There’s Reverend Lew Powell, a black Episcopal deacon who goes up to Magalia in the mountains of northern California every day, to walk alongside people who’d much rather be cantakerous loners, rural white folks who have lost everything as a result of the awful Camp Fire that wiped their town and the neighboring Paradise, California off the face of the map last November 8, a year ago this Friday. There’s Dave Durocher in Salt Lake City, who, after 20+ years serving prison sentences is now leading the most effective regimen for moral change and habit formation in the country. There’s Michael Allen and David Dillon in Chicago, who with an unlikely band of pastors, business executives, philanthropists and social activists have gone all in a cross-racial, cross-neighborhood, urban-suburban collective impact strategy to reduce Chicago’s homicide rate and weave divided constituencies together. There’s Mack McCarter in Shreveport, who’s made initiating behaviors block by block transformative of the city’s neighborhoods. There’s Peyton and Andrew Hart in Indianapolis, whose school, The Oaks Academy, pairs transcendent ideals with the worthwhile friction of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse school in Indiana. There’s Jimmy Dorrell in Waco, whose Church Under the Bridge with the city’s homeless and mentally ill glows more with the fragrance of Christ than any cathedral I’ve ever visited. There’s Byron Sanders and Larry James in Dallas, whose friendship across the north-south, white-black divide in that city continues to transform them both even as it breaks itself open to close the opportunity gap for the city’s youth. And there’s Dave Hillis here, whose humble way of discerning the times is a model of 21st century leadership, certainly a model for me. And all of these folks, all of you realists who yet choose to act and serve, guide my steps more than the jeremiads of today’s pundits.
A couple of weeks ago I had the joy of learning from the painter Makoto Fujimura who some of you may know, whose visceral experience of trauma at Ground Zero on 9/11 has transformed his vocation as an artist. He brought a few of us together to consider what the ancient Japanese craft of Kintsugi might have to teach an age of fracture, most of us burned and weary from trying to build bridges in our respective fields at a time when no one wants to hear, “Love your enemies.” Kintsugi is a traditional way of mending broken pottery – it uses a shimmering gold lacquer to glue together fragments of plates and bowls that would otherwise be rendered useless. We sat at the feet of a kintsugi master who’s spent decades perfecting his craft, and I felt like I was watching the book of Isaiah come to life through clay and tender hands.
This kintsugi master advised us, “You have to look at the fractures for a long time before you understand what’s going on. Before any hope of healing can occur. Generations of tea master families have literally hung on to the fragments of the broken bowls, BEHELD these fragments, not despairing at their impossible future, but waiting in a patient, long-flickering hope. Not unlike fragile kinds of pottery, the traumas of a given land may be so deep you can’t fix them quickly. And indeed, Kintsugi is not just fixing something and re-using it. It’s a repair that creates something new – something unprecedented that is actually far more valuable than it was before. Kintsugi goes beyond restoration, to a new creation. It proves that something can be more beautifully broken and mended than it was before it even broke.”
A few weeks ago I gave the same beginnings of this talk to a different audience of intellectuals and institutional leaders who I hoped to galvanize toward a fresh vision of Christian witness, in this case, embodied in a magazine called Comment. I talked about Nyack and the hope it gives me for faith in the West, I gave a bit of my personal story to explain why a place like Nyack cuts to the quick of every longing in my soul, and I tried to paint a fresh picture of the long table of elite next to commoner, black next to white, immigrant next to indigenous, handicapped next to able-bodied, and what the conditions for such a table might be. It went well the night of, frankly the folks who looked like me cried and stood up. It did feel like a graced moment from some transcendent future, a moment of new beginnings for our little magazine engine that could.
But in the intervening weeks I’ve realized that the path ahead is tricky. I believe in my bones that the people of God are not only called to be repairers of the breach, restorers of homes to dwell in, but we actually uniquely equipped to do so by the powers of grace that have been granted to us and now reside in us to extend to others. But we’re in an era that seems to have lost all hope, to say nothing of muscles, to give those across perceived lines of difference the benefit of the doubt, to consider one’s own rights a loss. Power and perceived power and privilege are the bogeymen of this moment, and they’re not imaginary foils. I’ve certainly been wrestling with my own inheritance of power that I am uncomfortable holding, to say nothing of owning and relinquishing. What unknown waters of confession and repentance lie ahead of ME, someone who really only desires to be a host for a different kind of conversation amongst a larger group of souls, but may be required to lead in the way of a humility I don’t now understand and suffer in ways I can’t predict? What might I have to give up, even as I try to build?
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. …Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
There’s a beautiful line in a new movie directed by Terrence Mallick you all should see when it comes out in December, called A Hidden Life. It features the life and choices of a man who lived in the Austrian countryside and resisted joining Hitlers’s army. Toward the end, as the protagonist gazes up at the bars of his prison, he writes to his wife these words, “When you’re no longer willing to survive at any price, a new light floods in.”
I think this is the wisdom that disarms the tribal temptations of our era. A letting go, a willful self-abnegation, a breaking up of self-preservation and a breaking open of self-surrender. I want to thank all of you who are part of the global network that is Leadership Foundations. In your way, you are embodying the foolish things – you labor at the cracks of the riven landscape in city after city, waiting and watching for opportunities to mend. Your method of sewing the sacred sector together in city after city is creating gold lines in a kintsugi model, a landscape which, viewed from the sky, become a portal to a New creation. A scarred creation, maybe, but more beautiful than any clean incompleteness of yesteryear.
And this is our road as people who have been marked by the scars of a man who lived 2,000 years ago, the healing scars of Jesus himself. We have no choice but to walk in His way, His healing, hard, long and redemptive way.
Anne Snyder Brooks
Editor in Chief, Comment Magazine