Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Re-envisioning Leadership for a Hope-filled Future

I’m writing this for you at 9:19 pm from 33,000 feet. I’m on my way back to Washington from the fall conference at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. I have to say that the moon has never looked so bright as it does from seat 27F right now. However, even here above the cloud cover, that brightness is unaccompanied by the billions of stars out there. In light of the theme of the conference, “Re-envisioning Leadership for a Hope-filled Future,” the current view out my window reminds me of the words of Dr. King: Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.

I don’t think anyone has any illusions about the state of the world. Those of us who read a newspaper or an internet wire service know fairly well that these are indeed the best of times and the worst of times. The best of times because never have so many people had so much food to eat, shelter under which to sleep, and education of which to avail themselves. Simultaneously, the ambitions and technologies that have made those miracles possible also allow more people to die of preventable disease, kill each other with the weapons of war and starve from lack of understanding of the environment. Perhaps we are in the stage of King’s analysis in which it is dark enough to see the moon, but not yet the stars. We can take ourselves in either direction, to light or to darkness.

The three keynotes at the conference were about children, the environment and interreligious dialogue.

Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman spoke on behalf of American children. Given the rather asymmetric quality of education in this country the issue of children should be no surprise. States spend more on incarcerating than educating and many kids still aren’t at grade level. The upside is that No Child Left Behind as flawed as it is, has helped close gaps in our education system; but based on current progress it won’t be enough to meet its own goals. To fill the rest of the gaps, religious institutions take an active role. As it is Catholic high schools educate a disproportionately large percentage of the college-matriculating African-American men in this country. Something about their model works when it is accessible. Increasing that access should be a goal.

Richard Cizik, lobbying point man for the National Association of Evangelicals in Washington, was a seemingly unlikely choice to speak on behalf of protecting the environment. He expressed a difficulty in bringing the environmental issue to evangelical congregations across the country but also a noted progress. Tongue in cheek as well as serious he noted that even if evangelicals couldn’t understand climate science, they could understand that “going green” can save them money. The real challenge though is convincing congregations that God’s creation is worth protecting. For those who believe in an apocalyptic end to the world, protecting it seems like a waste of time. But Cizik has done an admirable job of quelling evangelical apprehension about hippies and has given them a religious (and financial) framework within which to work in tackling environmental issues.

Given the strained relationship between America and the Middle East since pretty much the invasion of Tripoli, interreligious dialogue cannot be underestimated as a source of peace and understanding. Dr. Eboo Patel, a Rhodes Scholar from Chicagoland and founder of the Interfaith Youth Corps, spoke fervently and earnestly on his efforts to make interreligious dialogue an enriching reality for young people. Drawing on the fact that much of America is still insulated from and ignorant of religions other than Christianity, Dr. Patel stressed the importance to our future as a religiously diverse nation of understanding one another as neighbors. America is the most religiously diverse nation to ever exist, and that is a potentially dangerous moniker to bear if we are not also the most religiously pluralistic. Only a religiously pluralistic society can grow as one and support the religious diversity that has made America so strong and so desirable a place to live, the city on a hill.

All in all the conference was a deeply enriching experience—for a college student, free food is always good. But I don’t think “enriching” is descriptive enough.

I do have a special affinity for Emory, and would positively love to be a divinity student there one day. There is a certain kind of attention that you get when you are a Catholic from California among Protestants from the South. By chance, or by fate, I ended up at an alumni awards luncheon sitting next to the former Methodist bishop of Charlotte, who is a graduate and long time faculty member of Emory. I never really thought of having a Rolodex but with all the business cards I have after being at the Conference of Catholic Bishops and spending the last few days in Atlanta I think I might need one. I also think that I might goad the Office of the Architect at Notre Dame to plant some more trees on campus, we really are lacking in the arboreal category.

Yet, what I take away from this experience is that there is hope for the future. There are leaders willing to step up to the plate. There are youth who want to contribute to those of other faiths because it is their own faith that will be strengthened by that caritas. There are youth who desire to serve God’s creation because all creation is indeed His. There are youth that want these opportunities and the basic right if education but the agenda of adults are not giving them that chance. Because all it takes is a chance. Give a kid a chance to rise to a standard of expectations and he will. Ask her to articulate her beliefs clearly for students of other faiths and nations can understand that she is a human being worthy of love and respect and she will.

In the different concurrent session lectures that I attended there were a number of ideas and challenges thrown out. I’ll highlight just a few:
Pay for the college application for a student whose family might otherwise struggle to cover the cost.
Be a tutor for grade school kids. Really, they do think that college students are the coolest thing in the world.
Go to your parish and convince them to conduct an energy audit.
Go to your parish and convince them to start a dialogue with a faith community of a different tradition.

Lastly, and this is my own bit, I think the simplest task is to be Christ-like. Live the Gospels, teach the Gospels. Or as St. Francis put it—and you’d be surprised how much Protestants love St. Francis—Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words.


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Dan Amiri said...

Increasingly over the past few years, I have become convinced that there is a inverse correlation between the amount of years spent in school necessary to "stand out," most notably in Arts and Letters, and the effectiveness of our primary and secondary schools. On principle and empirically, schools do best when they can have more control over their teachers, how much they pay them, what they teach, and who gets in the school. In short, I would strongly advocate the privitization of the education system. More later.

Darragh said...

Sometimes it seems to me that we, as a society, expect advanced degrees and advanced technology to solve our problems for us, instead of taking the initiative ourselves. Living like Christ simply can't be replicated by the newest supercomputer or a joint JD/MD degree.

I wish I'd known you'd be in town - Emory is about 10 minutes from where I live.

Brandon said...

Dan I agree that a more autonomy is necessary at the individual school level. I think it's plainly obvious that a district system, that has to answer to state authority, which is in turn superceded by federal mandates is too rigid a framework. We have so many students with so many interests and skill levels that there need to be more options and more freedom. I haven't seen any models that indicate that full on privatization would be an effective system. However, choice and accountability are definitely key.

(Ain't it funny how liberals will do anything to defend a woman's right to "chose" to kill her child or not, but they will simultaneously fight to tell her that she can't "chose" which school he or she should attend?)