Campus & Community

‘Public Theologians’: Summer Leadership Institute ‘keeps it real’

8 min read

“Keep it real!”

Sometimes declared as a warning and other times said in jest, this expression came up repeatedly during the 2000 Summer Leadership Institute (SLI), which brought 45 clergy, lay leaders, and community developers from across the country to Harvard.

SLI, a two-week training program designed to aid these participants in better serving their inner city communities, is in its third year and is sponsored by the Divinity School’s Center for the Study of Values in Public Life.

Its participants know what “real” means all too well. Working on their neighborhoods’ front lines, they possess hard-won experience in translating hopes and visions into real housing and economic development programs in cities such as Detroit, Richmond, Chicago, Denver, and Birmingham.

As Cornel West, the Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professor, put it when he addressed the group on the opening day of the program in June, these are the kind of people who make you “humbled to be in the presence of so many forces for good.”

Yet as their stories quickly reveal, living and working in the midst of poverty and violence with the hope of transforming it is not a calling to be romanticized. At least two of the participants’ children have been victims of violence. Professor and youth leader Velma Union’s son was killed three years ago in Los Angeles. That case has yet to be solved. And in a widely publicized case in Fort Wayne, Ind., the son of the Rev. Ternae Jordan, an anti-violence crusader, was struck in the head by a stray bullet. The boy miraculously survived, and Jordan persuaded a judge to let his church have custody of the young man who was responsible for the shooting, upon his release from juvenile detention.

“Keeping it real” also happens to be a fitting description for the aim of SLI itself. The program brings pastors and community leaders to Harvard so that they — and, by extension, their constituencies — can benefit from the latest economic-development planning and implementation methods taught at three graduate schools: the Divinity School, the Kennedy School of Government, and the Business School. The inaugural class was held in the summer of 1998.

“This hands-on summer training institute fits perfectly with the mission and long-term direction of the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life,” said David Little, professor at the Divinity School and director of the Center. “SLI serves as a successful model for all three schools in how to combine reflection and action for the public good.”

“As churches entered activities formerly done by government, such as housing, economic development, and financial and human services, there arose a need to teach clergy and other leaders how to do this kind of work effectively,” said Preston Williams, Houghton Professor of Theology and Contemporary Change and the director of the SLI.

From ‘reaction mode’ to long-term planning

The Summer Leadership Institute builds on two decades of collaboration between the Divinity School and its African-American alumni/ae and their communities of faith.

The SLI program has targeted the African-American community because “statistically, the need is greater,” Williams explained. Moreover, he continued, “faith-based development work in the African-American community has mostly been carried out by individual entrepreneurs” and there is a strong need to network and to institutionalize these individual efforts.

Organizers of the SLI said that the great demands made on these high-profile individuals keep them constantly in “reaction” mode, and they need help in seizing the time to do longer-term planning.

Indeed, participants noted the anxiety that came from being separated from their communities for two weeks. “People were saying, ‘What am I doing here? I should be home,’” said Marya Rutherford, community affairs coordinator for Provident Bank in Dayton, Ohio. Checking their telephone messages during breaks they’d often find that 10, or even 20, people had called.

But by the end of class, participants were recognizing the SLI’s value in providing training and networking. “This program forced us to take a step back from our day-to-day work to regain a viewpoint of what we are doing and why,” said the Rev. Carrie Acey, assistant pastor of Payne Chapel AME Church in Hamilton, Ohio. “Most of all, we need to see that the controversies and struggles that come with doing this kind of work are shared by others.”

Action plans

The program is intensive and vigorous, starting with breakfast at 7 each morning and ending late at night. The busy days include presentations by Harvard University faculty and visitors, large and small group discussions of case studies, a field trip to economic development sites in Boston, and daily worship run by participants.

This year’s presentations included lectures on wealth and race, entrepreneurship, and churches and community development. Harvard faculty from the FAS, Kennedy, and Business Schools included Lawrence Bobo, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Christine Letts, Edward Marchant, Howard Stevenson, and David Thomas. Visiting presenters covered a range of topics, as well.

Some of the most well-known leaders and development projects in urban America were analyzed in passionate discussions. Among this year’s cases were the Rev. Michael Wayne Walker and the Ronald McNair Development Corporation (Brockton, Mass.); Joseph Roberts (Atlanta); the Rev. Calvin Butts and the Abyssinian Baptist Church (New York City); and the Rev. Dr. Charles Adams and the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church (Detroit).

Participants were encouraged to think critically about these and other cases so that they could apply the same sort of thinking to their own situations. By the end of the two weeks, each participant developed an “action plan” for his or her church or organization. In these plans — designed to be working documents for investors and boards — participants laid out specific programs to implement, including immediate, one-year, three-year, and five-year objectives.

Toward the end of the session, alumni from the previous two SLI classes paid a visit to attest to the program’s success. The Rev. Mark Whitlock, a member of First AME Church in Los Angeles and a “graduate” of the 1998 SLI class, is creating a “business incubator” in a beleaguered neighborhood to provide small businesses with expertise, technical assistance, five different loan funds, entrepreneurial training, and, most important, “an environment that says ‘I can.’” Using the action plan he wrote at SLI, Whitlock has raised nearly $7 million from private, state, and federal sources.

The action plans created by this year’s SLI class exemplify the “jazz-like” black church that Cornel West has called for — “improvisational and experimental.” Among the diverse ideas in the plans: a faith-based health clinic; a church with two new subway lines crossing in front of it that plans to sell land rights and parking permissions; a pilot literacy-plus project providing behind-the-scenes training to youth on movie and TV production; and many churches’ beginning 501(c)(3) non-profits and planning to build low- and moderate-income housing.

Pragmatic realities, prophetic stands

On their own initiative, the group of 45 wrote a two-page “make it real” letter/petition to the SLI Advisory Board calling for the “expansion and enhancement” of “this empowering Harvard Divinity School program.”

SLI Director Preston Williams agreed that after its third year, with independent assessments verifying its success, the program must look to the future. He noted that there were two international participants this year, from Indonesia and Canada, but if additional funds were available, more international participants could be included.

The SLI class of 2000 also called for Harvard Divinity School to play a more visible role in the context of a full partnership with the Business School and Kennedy School of Government, a “faith-based” emphasis that would come as no surprise to anyone who watched this class in action. Most of the participants are what the Rev. Dr. Robert Franklin, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, calls “public theologians” engaged in a “ministry of community development.”

Jay Gibson, the business manager at the Holy Trinity Church of God in Reading, Pa., teaches debt management and investment courses because he believes in being “good stewards and trustees” of what “God owns.” His church acts as a “watchdog” to monitor predatory lending and other business activities that are damaging to lives and spirits. “People can get so bound up with debt, they can’t fulfill their call,” he said. “These issues also impact on families. Three out of four divorces are due to financial problems.”

Striking a balance between community development and pastoral care is not always easy. Participant questions often exposed potential tensions between pragmatic realities that call for compromise and deal-making, and their spiritual callings, which require prophetic stands and compassionate responses.

“The gospels of health and wealth are not the blood of the Cross,” Cornel West warned the group. “You need to use the best of the market against its worst form and not fall into the trap of market Christianity.”

If there was any fear that this group had “reached the conclusion that love is impotent,” as West lamented the market culture has done, it was put to rest early in the second week when word circulated that the father of one of the staff members was in critical condition after being shot in a random act of violence. The pastors rallied immediately and, after checking with the staff member to make sure she was comfortable with it, called her into the classroom and prayed for her strength and for her father’s healing. Everyone joined hands, and a Kennedy School classroom that is usually home to academic lectures echoed with spontaneous prayers and verses from familiar hymns.

Perhaps this was the best expression of the SLI class of 2000 “keeping it real.”