MARGARET WARNER: William DeVeaux is a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black church in America. He's the son of an Army chaplain, and he became one, too, ministering to American soldiers in Vietnam. In the mid '80s, Deveaux became pastor of the prestigious Metropolitan AME Church, a few blocks from the White House in Washington, where he became known for speaking out on thorny issues in his church and the wider community. He was elected a bishop in 1996. Today from his home office in Laurel, Maryland, he manages a large AME District overseas while also continuing to preach and minister in this country.
MARGARET WARNER: Thanks for joining us.
BISHOP WILLIAM DEVEAUX: Thanks for having me.
MARGARET WARNER: Right after September 11 happened, we heard said "America will never be the same." What's the biggest change you see?
BISHOP WILLIAM DEVEAUX: Probably the largest change I have seen is a sense of vulnerability and anxiety, which is kind of pervasive across the country. It means that we have to watch things that we did not watch before. The sense of vulnerability is, of course, I think good in a way because it breaks through our kind of arrogance that we can take care of everything and in some sense that's a healthy way for us to look at the world.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it's made Americans fearful?
BISHOP WILLIAM DEVEAUX: I think there are American who are more fearful than they were before. For the first time in 50 years, American soil has been violated by a violent attack. It certainly would cause you to rethink the kind of carefree lifestyle that you had. I'm not certain it has changed how people conduct their activities. I think people still go on vacations, they worship, they have good times with their families. I don't think it's stolen the joy of America, I really don't.
MARGARET WARNER: Have you found it's made Americans more spiritual?
BISHOP WILLIAM DEVEAUX: I think in the first blush after 9/11, there was a large number... an increased number of persons attending churches, synagogues, mosques, but I think that for the serious-minded, spiritual person, they understand the continuity of their religious life, and for them, it was... to deal with 9/11 was just to realize that things don't always go as you'd like them to go. So I think that there was a spike in attendance, but I don't think that has maintained itself. I think that deeply spiritual persons know that living with evil is a part of living with the good in this world.
MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying that people you know who have a spiritual dimension in their lives, you think, have find it easier to bear and incorporate and make sense of?
BISHOP WILLIAM DEVEAUX: Oh, I think so, especially those who tasted suffering before. And I guess we all have. But as your perception, I think persons who have been through something, experienced loss, death, tragedy, they understand that even if you believe in God and whatever way you express yourself in that way, that does not make you immune from all kinds of tragedies. And so those of us who have been preaching and understanding about suffering as a part of the religious life, I think, need to even do a better job of that, because if we are only worshipping God because that is our kind of a rabbit's foot against anything bad happening, I think that's a terribly unhealthy way to be religious.
MARGARET WARNER: A former parishioner of yours, Vernon Jordan, said in an interview with us late last year that black people have experienced terror, and he meant black people as a community, obviously not every individual black person. But do you think that 9/11 and its aftermath had a different resonance in some way in the black community?
BISHOP WILLIAM DEVEAUX: I think Vernon was correct in that, especially if you are going to equate racism with terrorism. And I think in some ways, they are very similar. I think African Americans after 9/11 were able to share what it is to experience loss with persons who may not have felt it as deeply. So they may not have been as surprised, if you will, by how loss can come, how tragedy can come, how dramatic things can happen that can alter the course of your lives, because in the black community, sometimes we say we're used to getting what we have and making what we want. And so that is a way of dealing, of coping, if you will. You can do that from a spiritual level. You can also just do that from a kind of a living day to day, that... this is how life... you play the hand that is dealt you, as may be a secular way to put it. So in the African American community, there were some who said, "we have seen loss, and we've faced this before." The best thing for us to do is to counsel and be with those who haven't. But we don't understand it as I tragedy that's going to seriously alter our lives in a substantive way.
MARGARET WARNER: How have you personally been effected, either in your ministry or on a... just personally?
BISHOP WILLIAM DEVEAUX: Well, in my ministry, I've had to minister to persons who have been touched by it. They were persons who had relatives that I happened to know in the Twin Towers. One of my friends who's a pastor in New York lost three members. So wherever you, go you have to address those kinds of issues. For me personally, my concern has been the aftermath of 9/11 in terms of the anti-terrorism program, projects, trust and what impact that is going to have on me personally and the lives of people across the country. And what I'm trying to do is find a way to counsel persons in high places if I could about not allowing 9/11 to seriously alter the way we do the democratic form of government, which while imperfect is the best one I know about.
MARGARET WARNER: How did your experience in Vietnam as an Army chaplain affect you and your response to this?
BISHOP WILLIAM DEVEAUX: Well, my year in Vietnam is kind of the hinge around which most of my life swings now because it caused me to think seriously about life and death, question my own mortality, to wonder why I am still living and friends are not, and to have experienced death in large proportions and to be with young men who are dying. And so it has informed a lot of what I've done. It's raised questions about what God is doing and why do some live and some die. So the question of suffering and the question of God's divine will and how religion works. All of that kind of came to a focal point in Vietnam. So after Vietnam, everything is filtered through that. And when you see a 9/11 and its immediate aftermath, which was the Afghanistan incursion, one begins to wonder whether the loss of life is worth it, innocent life, especially Afghani life, also American lives. So I'm also concerned that war is not a pleasant thing and super efforts of patriotism can often lead to misguided things. And I think Vietnam, for me, was an instance of that.
MARGARET WARNER: I read in an article about you that you had a favorite saying from the philosopher Edmund Burke that you used to keep, I don't know, on your desk or on a box, that went something like, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Does that have resonance, does that offer guidance to you, or do you think to us in this sort of post 9/11 era?
BISHOP WILLIAM DEVEAUX: Oh, I think so. I think that that comment is probably one of the highest ethical statements outside of the Bible for me. What it means is that we cannot sit on the sidelines, we cannot be spectators in life when evil is going on all around us. There are no excuses. We can't say, "it was not my job, it was not my task, it was not my issue." In the aftermath of 9/11, people from all persuasions need to speak-- those who believe that we should be aggressive in anti- terrorism tactics, those who think we've been too aggressive, those who think we should go to war, those who think we should not. But for us to stand by and not do anything, and also to understand evil in this broader perspective -- when we kill someone who is not an American -- all human life is precious, so we cannot be cavalier about that, or we cannot do collateral damage as we bomb and that sort of thing. Eighteen Afghanis killed at a wedding is a serious business for me, as it would be in Palestine or in Israel. So think that if we're going to have wars and have anti- terrorism, we must be attentive to what Edmund Burke said. If it's evil, even if we're perpetrating it, we must guide against it.
MARGARET WARNER: Bishop DeVeaux, thank you.
BISHOP WILLIAM DEVEAUX: Thank you.