Harold Dean Trulear Interview

Read more of Kim Lawton’s January 10, 2009 interview with Harold Dean Trulear, associate professor of applied theology at Howard University in Washington, DC and president of GLOBE Community Ministries  in Philadelphia:

Q: Give us a very brief description of what GLOBE does.

A: GLOBE Community Ministries works with congregations and other agencies helping them to strengthen their work with youth and families. We usually attach ourselves to one congregation and use that as a laboratory to develop youth programs for that church, and then we also do consulting work with other congregations and government agencies, school systems, helping them develop partnerships with congregations to deliver social services.

Q: How long have you been working with this church [Cookman United Methodist Church]?

A: With this church, almost a year. We came here last spring.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the context of this church and especially what the youth face and therefore what the church faces when it wants to do youth ministry.

A: This is a very unusual congregation in that the United Methodists have allowed it to engage in a lot of partnership building with secular agencies, with government, and so the programmatic life of this congregation far outweighs the actual membership. You may come here on a Sunday and see 40 or 50 people, but we’ll serve two or three times that many people in a day through various programs. It’s a very, very economically distressed neighborhood. We’re about one block from one of the major crack-cocaine centers in the city of Philadelphia, so children and youth in this neighborhood are all at risk. It’s just a matter of how much at risk you are when you’re living in a neighborhood that’s on this level of economic distress.

Q: What do you think of the talk we keep hearing, with some people saying that Barack Obama’s election did indeed fulfill Martin Luther King’s dream for America?

A: Well, it’s interesting that most people when they refer to King’s dream for America they go back to 1963, and they refer to the “I have a dream” speech, of course, is about racial justice and racial equality. But five years later when King is assassinated, his dream is more about economic injustice and working with poor people. He dies fighting for the rights of garbage men in Memphis, Tennessee, and so now he is working on economic issues that we tend to forget about in the contemporary setting. So maybe he [Obama] fulfils the 1963 dream, but whether or not he fulfils the 1968 dream with respect to economic justice remains to be seen. Now for reasons that were strategic he had to pitch his campaign towards the middle class. It was all about the self-interests of the middle class. He and McCain fought back and forth over the heart of Middle America and a lot of prosperity language. Well, down here where we’re sitting there’s a disconnect. I mean there may be some dreams about that, but it’s not the kind of sense of entitlement and the sense that that’s the norm. You know, keeping your tax money and those kinds of battles about the middle class are not the kinds of conversations that energize a neighborhood like this. And so whether or not [Obama] fulfils the 1968 Martin Luther King dream is something we still have to see.

Q: To what extent did the election bring a message of hope to the kids in this neighborhood?

A: I think it gave them an incredible amount of hope. They have the sense that they too can become president. I mean part of the thing with Obama is that it’s not just that he’s an African American, but he’s also common. I mean we live in a nation of royalty now. We have royal families on both sides of the aisle now. We’ve got the Bushes on one side, we’ve got the Kennedys on the other, a certain amount of entitlement to both sets of royalty, and Caroline’s going to become a senator, and my son Jeb can become president. Obama doesn’t come from that, and he cut his teeth, even as a Harvard-trained lawyer he cut his teeth working in neighborhoods like this in the South Side of Chicago. There’s a certain availability that he has to the young people in this area that the other candidates simply couldn’t bring.

Q:  What message did Obama’s election send to older people—and I want to get at some of these generational differences—to folks who were around in ’63 and ’68, or people who were younger and saw their parents working in ’63 and ’68? What message does Obama’s election send to them?

A: There was kind of a shock-and-awe to it, because a lot of us, and I’m in that generation, I’m a boomer, and I remember sitting around the house in the ’60s saying that—know what I said? I said there’ll be a black president in 2000, and the reason I said that was that if you remember back in the ’60s we were still in that period where every 20 years whoever the president was died in office. You know, 1840, 1860, so I figured, well, by the time we get a black president, probably 2000, they’ll kill him, and to be honest with you I wasn’t the only person looking at the acceptance speech waiting for the gunshot and taking even a sigh of relief when it was over, because this just seems so unlikely, and I think after you’ve moved beyond the sense of “it really happened,” then comes the euphoria, then comes the joy, then comes the sense that this is a real opportunity for change, and when we look not only at the excitement in our generation but then how our kids have been energized—my daughter sends me a text message next morning. It says, “Dad, I have a black president.” That won’t be an unusual thing for her. Those kinds of things, I think, give my generation a lot of hope, and the only nagging thing is we just don’t want to lose sight of where we’ve come from, and we don’t want to come to the conclusion that because Obama is now the president we’re going to have this sort of panacea existence both in the United States and with respect to our position in the world.

Q: Is there a danger for all communities, for all different racial groups, that people do think something is over now? We’ve ended a chapter and so the work is all done?

A: I think that’s right, and what I tell people is not so much that when we get a black president things will be different, but when I don’t have to teach my sons as a part of their driving lesson how to be pulled over by the police, when I don’t have to warn them about the dangers of driving while black, then I think we’ll be somewhere. But the presidency is—it’s in a big place, it’s in a high place, it’s in a somewhat distant place. There are still places in this country where the nuts and bolts are still fundamentally racist, where the warp and roof of the lifestyle is still exclusivist and supremacist, and those parts of this country, quite frankly, in some cases seem totally untouched by this movement, or they see it as dangerous: oh, my gosh, what is this country coming to, and what’s going to happen to us now, we’re all going to hell in a hand basket. There’s enough of that in this country on the eve of this historic occasion for me to still give pause.

Q: Martin Luther King Jr. talked a lot about the beloved community, and there were a lot of parts to the vision that he created. How is America doing with regard to that vision, and where do you see the big work?

A: I think that King’s vision for the beloved community, and he talked about this himself in terms of three different areas. He talked about economic justice, he talked about militarism, war and peace, and he talked about racial justice. King was not at the forefront of gender bias and gender equity issues, but those were the three—military, poverty, and racism. And I think if King were looking at contemporary America he would give us points for making real progress on racial justice. I think that he would see some seeds of hope with respect to the way in which economic issues have hit us. There is more prosperity now, though there are certainly people who are being left out in contemporary America, and I think King would be aghast at the extent to which we’ve relied on military presence and military might to enforce our role as a leader in the world. I think King saw America’s role as a world leader as being a world leader in peace and in diplomacy and in what—he would say brotherhood, he would say brotherhood and sisterhood, in learning how to communicate with one another and understand one another and bringing people together, not in the type of militarism and type of displays of brute force and power that have come to symbolize what it means to be a leader on this planet.

Q: What is the role of the church—King worked out of the churches, clearly—but of the faith community more generally in helping to realize these parts of the vision that seem to be unfulfilled?

A: I think there’s a real problem in the contemporary church in that we’ve come through an era of prosperity that we have baptized, that we have adopted. A lot of our religion, whether it’s the television prosperity gospel or whether it’s what you hear in a regular mainline church, has more to do with affirming who we are than challenging us at our root. I think we’ve lost sight of the prophetic dimension of the faith tradition and part of what you see kind of crawling around the edges of this is some people who are still prepared to say we haven’t come far enough, we need to make some challenges, we need to make some changes. I think one of the tragedies of the Obama campaign, to be very honest with you, is the fact that he felt compelled to distance himself from Jeremiah Wright. I don’t agree with everything Jeremiah Wright says, but I think that Jeremiah Wright is right on point with trying to call the nation, trying to call the church to account, and if this was going to be a new style of politics with a much larger tent, it really saddens me that this candidate was not able to find a way to include him in the tent or to include the more disaffected votes and the disaffected voices that he represents. The campaign still had to be run strategically towards the center, and the faith community can never allow itself to be comfortable in the center.

Q: So what is the agenda for the faith community, then, in helping to achieve the vision that Martin Luther King set out?

A: I can get up and preach a sermon about working with the poor, and my congregation won’t move. But if I begin to get them to interact with people who are poor or if they begin to discover the poor in their own midst, what happens is they begin to become motivated, because they are fundamentally good people that want to help what’s right there in front of them, what in ethics we call the doctrine of proximity. There’s the problem right in front of me, I’ve got to do something about that, and churches like the one where we are now, Cookman [United Methodist Church], which has a good number of commuters who come in to worship or people like myself and others who come in here to work, we don’t live in this neighborhood but the proximity keeps driving us. There’s something else that’s got to be done in this neighborhood; there are more connections that need to be made in this neighborhood. There are more changes that need to be made in this neighborhood, and we want to be part of that process and bring to bear the resources that we have, and more congregations are going to have to continue to engage poor communities. They’re going to have to stay the course. Some of them are beginning to leave the inner cities, African American as well as white congregations. We need more congregations to stay the course, to identify in solidarity with those voices that are being left out, and help to develop a ministry of advocacy on their behalf.

Q: What, for you, are the spiritual lessons or messages of this moment, especially reflecting on where we are—remember King, celebrating Obama?  What are the spiritual insights that seem particularly relevant at this moment?

A: At the risk of stating the obvious, I think you have to start with the concept of hope, and the reason that I would do that is because in our popular usage of the term we’ve watered it down in a way that it’s not intended to be in a religious or spiritual context. We say I hope it doesn’t rain. I hope the Eagles win the football game. I hope I win the lottery. It’s more like a wish that’s not grounded in any kind of reality—it may happen, it may not, I have no control over it. In the biblical sense of the term hope is a very, very fixed reality. It means that I have an expectation that something is going to be different than the way it is now, and so when you talk about hope in a spiritual sense and you talk about hope that’s been engendered, there really is an expectation in this country that things are going to be different. There really is an expectation around the planet that things are going to be different. Whether those hopes are materialized or not is a different issue, and nobody really wants to even think about that right now. But there’s a real sense that there is going to be a change and a real sense that people are going to be disappointed if there’s not a real, concrete change. I think the other spiritual lesson for me is the power of the little person, and the reason that’s a spiritual lesson is that my voice as, you know, part of the faceless masses counts. I matter. And you know we sing a song in church, “Jesus love the little children,” and trying to talk about how important even the smallest child is to God, and this was an election where small people mattered. Obama was not anointed by big business; he was not anointed by a political machine. He was anointed by people from small towns like Jacksonville, North Carolina and East St. Louis, Illinois and Camden, New Jersey. He was swept up in rural areas and in inner cities. There was a real sense on the part of people who for years had felt like they didn’t matter, that I do matter. And that’s spiritually empowering, to know that my voice counts. In the Christian tradition we talk about the imago dei, that humanity is created in image of God, and part of being created in the image of God is having some of the creative energy and attributes of God—that we can create, that we can make things. And making things is not just about making material things, it’s also about making worldviews and making ideas and making change. We don’t just sit back and let the world go and allow fate to happen. We can make a difference. That’s a spiritual reality.

Q: Do you hear echoes of King in Obama, or is that comparison over-inflated?

A: Well, for me, in my naturally cynical manner, all comparisons like that are over-inflated. But you can’t ignore the similarities. You can’t ignore this trio of days we’re getting ready to go through, that we’re going through now, with today being Martin Luther King Sunday, tomorrow being the MLK holiday, and then the following day being the inauguration. You can’t ignore the well educated African American male who reconnects with the dispossessed and learns the lessons of what it means to walk with those who don’t have what he’s had access to, and then tries to bring those lessons to bear when he ascends to a position of power. I think it’s difficult to overestimate the power of oratory and the way both of these men have been able to use words, to use phrases, use images to create a sense of hope and a sense that things can be different, and to do that with the spoken word and to do that with the spoken word not just in term of a matter of fact “this is my platform,” and people criticized Obama incessantly early on because where are his specifics? Where are his specifics? And I think that his strategy was let’s work with the big picture, let’s give people a sense that the specifics actually matter, and then once we have the sense that, you know, there can be something different, then he can lay some things out that maybe would have been more difficult to hear had we not been prepared with this gifted oratory and with our sights being set higher than we were accustomed to setting them. And both King and Obama had that gift of being able to lift our sights above the ordinary, a vision that they can believe in and a vision that uses language with which they’re familiar, and that’s a gift that these two educated men had. They don’t talk over our heads. They don’t put their polysyllabic vocabularies on display to impress. The ideas are lofty, the concepts are noble, but the language is plain yet inspirational.

Q: I know you are a man of prayer.  How are you praying for Obama?

A: Well, I’m still that kid in the 1960s who wondered are they going to shoot him. So I’ll be honest with you: I pray for his safety. And I also pray for his family, because I don’t think that the family being together was an act, and one of the things that I know in the African American community has been really important has been looking at the family pictures and really having a sense not just that we have the first black president, but that there is a black family occupying the White House. I think, secondly, I pray that he will have a sense of the transcendence and the power and the providence of God … and that he will, in the best sense of the term, attempt to have a moral presidency and not have a presidency that’s based on expediency or that is so constrained by unilateral American self-interest that we forget that the rest of the world matters.

Q: Is there a special challenge for him, given these huge expectations and hopes that have been sparked by his election?

A: I think so, and I think that he’s taking advantage of that by trying to move, even in his status as president-elect, trying to get some things done, because the honeymoon will be over. I like the thing that Jeremiah Wright said when people talked about his role as a prophet. He said people need to realize that if [Obama] is elected on November 4, I’m coming after him, too, because prophets come after whoever is in power. So the honeymoon will be over. He will not be beloved all four years as he is right now, and so he’s got to move swiftly and he’s got to move decisively. He also has to move as quickly as possible because the modern American presidency is not set up for presidents to make decisions. Checks and balances are such now that, to be honest, it’s very difficult for any president no matter how popular to get his or her agenda through a Congress, to get them through the Senate, to move through all of the different hurdles of the checks and balances of the American system. They’re weighted very heavily against the presidential authority and decision-making, and so our very system constrains him in a manner that even with the best of intentions will be problematic.

Q: What role do you want to see the faith community play in his administration? How should that relationship play out?

A: There’s a very good transition team in place that represents a variety of the faith community. It’s not so heavily weighted with one brand of Christianity that this transition team will lean in a particular direction that tends to favor its own position. It’s a much more pluralistic, much more socially progressive and socially sensitive than the transition team that I worked with eight years ago, and what the faith community is going to have to do, I think, is two things, and this goes for all the traditions that are at the table. The first thing is to remember that their primary allegiance is to their faith tradition and not to the presidency and not to the nation and not to any one particular ideology. It’s very easy when the faith community gets a seat at the table to forget that none of us planted churches or mosques or synagogues in order to get a seat at the White House. We did it because we believe that God had called us to have a particular spiritual witness to a particular group of people in a particular place, and that’s what every faith community has to major in. The second thing is to not let the government—not just the presidency— off the hook and to continue to have a prophetic witness, to say there is more change needed. We can never afford to be co-opted by any political agenda left, right, or center. And then the final thing is to have a healthy sense of what can be done in partnership with other institutions—that we cannot be the final or we cannot be the sole institution that brings about change. There’s a role for a variety of institutions in a pluralistic society, and we need to, as the saying goes now, we need to stay in our lane. We need to know what we do well and then find other people who can do other things well and develop some partnerships. We’re seeing some excellent examples of that across the country. The transition team is building on that tradition. If you look at the faith-based vision for Obama in his campaign, you can see that it was very carefully thought through on how faith functions in a pluralistic context, and that’s why this Republican voted for him, because I have a real sense of hope, and I think it’s one that is shared by a lot of people who might not normally vote for someone who has all of the different ideas that he has, but a real sense that change is possible through this presidency, through this administration and the people he’s able to bring together around making America a better place.

Q: Anything else you want to add?

A: One strategic difference between Martin Luther King and Barack Obama was that one was a clergyman and one was not, and what we’re seeing is a diversification of leadership within the African American community. There was a time when there was a fairly singular view of the pastor as the community leader, as the national leader, as the regional leader, and now we’re seeing a proliferation of leadership in business, in industry, in politics, in education, and that’s a good thing, because what it does is it spreads the leadership out in ways that we can have our specialists that befit a nation that has a lot of things that require specialized knowledge. So I’m not saying that the black preacher is less important. What I am saying is I think we’ve done a good job in raising up another generation of people like a Barack or like some of the people we see in industry or some of the people we see in the educational world who can do the things that we could not do as pastors because of the specialized knowledge they require. And that makes for a whole new stratum of leadership in the African American community, and a stratum of leadership that now is carrying over from just being a black leader to an African American who is a leader of the entire nation, or in the case of business or industry, of an entire corporation.