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WHERE DID ALL
THE COOL PREACHERS GO?

Sam Smith

The death of the activist minister, William Sloane Coffin, propels a troubling question to the front of my mind: where have all the cool preachers gone?

It may seem an odd query for a Seventh Day Agnostic but I have always tried to separate cause and character and have enjoyed a happy if inconsistent relationship with those of the cloth. Besides, we are all members of what Weber called the pariah intelligentsia, including teachers, ministers, writers, intellectuals and activists. In other words, moral outsiders of supposed integrity, passion, and faith providing guidance to a market, politics, and culture that would often just as soon do without it.

These days, however, religionists - as least as they appear in the media - seem dominated by people-slaying dogmatists, thought-slaying propagandists, morality-slaying hustlers and hypocrites, not to mention those whose supposed spiritual concerns are merely tools to strengthen their growing role as political insiders.

There are Islamic jihadists, a Judaism indentured to cynical and cruel Israeli governments, a Pope more concerned with punishing the views of American politicians than dealing with the personal habits of some of his own priests, and Christian evangelists delivering to rightwing politicians an economically endangered flock that has been sold the absurd apostasy that abortion and gay weddings are more important than pensions or healthcare.

Although I was raised in solemn and smug Episcopalism and educated in solemn and stolid Quakerism, I soon discovered the alternatives. For example, my father was involved in politics and so I quickly learned the three major branches of Judaism: your orthodox, reform and liberal Democratic, of which the latter was apparently far the strongest. I picked up a book by a preacher named Martin Luther King and learned that one could be both peaceful and political at the same time. And, when I went to my friend Larry's house, an occasional visitor for drinks or dinner would be Father Patrini, hardly distinguishable, except for collar, from all the garrulous seculars in the room.

In 1960s Washington, the preachers were everywhere. We had Father Drinin in Congress, Father Baroni at HUD, and Father Kemp on the DC school board; all three were as good company as you could hope to find. Episcopal Reverend Jesse Anderson helped to kick off the DC statehood movement. When I covered an anti-poverty meeting, there would often be the Baptist Rev. Frank Milner, part preacher and part cab driver, imploring the crowd with a white collar on his shirt and a change maker on his belt. And there was the Presbyterian, Rev. Tom Torosian, handcuffed at a protest and giving me a grin as I slipped a twenty for bail into his coat pocket.

My lawyer is an ex-priest who keeps telling me to go easier on the Pope. I once got an unrequested grant from the Lutheran church for my community newspaper. I even was invited to become Washington correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, although that journal - apparently remembering that it was then the 1990s and not the 1960s - withdrew the offer without a word of explanation. And when I was a member of the DC Humanities Council, we happily funded a film on liberation theology right under William Bennett's nose.

And I hardly thought about it all; I only enjoyed it. Regardless of one's own beliefs, if you were active in any cause you expected to find preachers, priests, and rabbis among your friends and allies. And they were fun to eat and drink with, in part because they only witnessed and never proselytized.

Part of it, perhaps, was the different role of the church in a majority black town. In our community paper's two and a half square mile circulation area, for example, we had over 100 churches including the Revolutionary Church of What's Happening Now. I was reminded of this while attending a performance of "Where Eagles Fly," a tribute to Washington's Shaw neighborhood, once host to the nation's black Broadway, U Street. The performers in the play by Carole Mumin were better than five years worth of 'American Idol,' but the other thing that caught me was how long it had been since I had seen that once bandied word 'ecumenism' being so enthusiastically practiced. There were, of course, the Baptists, but Abdul Majeed Muhammad sang a song in praise of Islam, and Catholics, Episcopalians, and Jews all got their props. A high point was the appearance of one of the great brass bands of the House of Prayer for All People.

Here was religion in the hood rather than on cable TV. It's harder to condemn someone to everlasting damnation when you see them a couple of times a week or when your daughters play together.

On the other hand, the dominant religions we find on cable TV are killing us, making us nastier, and erecting walls between alternative meanings as rigid as those real barriers in Gaza.

So where have all the cool preachers gone?

About a decade ago, Jesuit Peter Collins described one manifestation:

"IN 1944 the first worker-priest missions were set up in Paris, and then in Lyons and Marseille. Sharing the grime and toil of an often oppressed social class was a frustrating mission, but gradually the barriers between priests and workers broke down. This sometimes happened in surprising ways. One priest, sacked in front of the workers, had a fellow worker come up to him and say: 'You can stay with me. Now you are one of us'.

"In 1944, Father Henri Perrin and other volunteers met, and with the support of Cardinal Suhard of Paris, began working anonymously in factories. There they emulated their previous life in the wartime camps. By sharing in the labor and suffering of the workers, they hoped first to gain interest in the Gospel by lives of credible witness, and then (and only then) to draw people back to the Church. . .

"They began to see that the absence of the poor from the Church signaled not simply a gap to be filled by 'bringing them back', but a radical rethinking of the whole mission of the Church . . . Sharpest of all, they discovered first-hand the complicity of the Church in injustice. . .

"Catholic industrialists and factory owners, traditionally reliant on the Church for support, complained bitterly to the French Bishops, and then to Rome, accusing the priests of being partisan and divisive, of being 'political' and Marxist because they belonged to the pro-Communist unions. . .

"By 1953, the position of the worker-priests had become untenable. In November, the Papal Nuncio in Paris passed on the Vatican's demand that superiors of religious orders recall their priest-workers. Despite protests from some French bishops, the priest-workers were instructed to leave temporal responsibility to lay people. This meant leaving the unions and their work."

In 1980 another worker priest got the axe. Pope John Paul II told all priests to get out of electoral politics. The most visible example, Rep. & Rev. Robert Drinin, a progressive congressmember from Massachusetts. Liberation theology got an equally hostile reaction from the Vatican.

Clearly, churches of many stripes have pulled away from the spirit of such things as worker priests and liberation theology. The preacher has been put back in the pulpit where it is easier for words to replace witness and propagation to supplant practice. And the industrialists who make big contributions like it better that way.

This is not, however, unique to churches. For example, my own trade, journalism, has erected huge barriers between itself and its own parishioners both in who gets selected to write (post-grads being favored) and what they get to write (filtered through the myth that major corporations can truly practice objectivity). The worker priests of journalism have disappeared as well.

Even secular non-profits have lost street cred as they have become increasingly formal institutions based on a corporate model rather than activist associations driven by the energy of those involved. A primary characteristic of both the religious and secular groups is that their programs have been increasingly dumped in a red wagon waiting to be pulled by fundraising. Empathy, moral missions and integrity all come later.

Oh, I know you're out there, Reverend Dude. That's not my point. My point is that the system and its media only cares these days about religionists who are out to kill, control, or defeat someone. The worker priests, the cool preachers, the progressive rabbis are still there but struggling in a wilderness of silence and indifference.

It's not my beat to tell you how to change this. I've got enough problems of my own to worry about. But I just wanted to let you know that I miss you badly.[2006]