Campus & Community

Leadership takes faith-based route

4 min read

HDS conference focuses on inner city

Forty-nine concerned citizens from all over the United States came to the Summer Leadership Institute (SLI), sponsored by the Divinity School’s (HDS) Center for the Study of Values in Public Life to train clergy, lay leaders, and community developers in inner-city economic improvement.

This year’s SLI (June 18-29) was particularly timely, given President Bush’s recent establishment of the White House Office on Community and Faith-Based Initiatives. This subject was on the minds of presenters and participants alike, spurring spirited debate.

“Often when you see the public debate around faith-based initiatives explained in the press, you only get one level of argument,” said J. Bryan Hehir, head of Harvard Divinity School and a Roman Catholic priest, who spoke on the topic. “In fact, it is a three-dimensional debate involving constitutional, theological, and social policy issues. … [T]he Summer Leadership Institute is a place where many dimensions of the debate were explored and addressed in the light of hands-on experiences from cities around the country. It is a jewel among HDS’s programs.”

Presenters and participants offered diverse opinions about the Bush faith-based initiative, from calling it dangerous because of the way churches can be compromised by accepting government money – and direction, to heralding it as a much-needed vehicle for churches to expand service programs to people in need.

The two-week intensive SLI course brings church and community leaders to the Harvard campus from cities such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Chicago. It marshals faculty from four of Harvard’s professional and graduate schools – the Divinity School, the Kennedy School of Government, the Business School, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences – so participants, and, by extension, their constituencies, can benefit from the latest economic-development planning and implementation methods as well as theological and historical discourse.

From dawn till dusk, this year’s participants attended presentations by distinguished Harvard professors. Visiting lecturers included the Rev. Dr. Charles Adams, pastor of the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit, and Kevin Johnson, the former professional basketball star with the Phoenix Suns who started a community development corporation and school in Sacramento, Calif., his hometown.

“I was here last year, and this program changed me,” Johnson told the 2001 participants. “I’ve played on the basketball court; I’ve been in the White House, but when I walk into this room I find so many like-minded people. It’s an inspiration to have so many geniuses in one room.”

SLI participants engaged in large and small group discussions of case studies based on the work of some of the most well-known inner-city leaders and development projects, including the Rev. Dr. Floyd Flake and Gardner Taylor. Other presenters gave practical advice about starting credit unions, reorganizing nonprofit corporations, and accessing federal resources. The group also took a one-day field trip to economic-development sites in Boston. Perhaps most important, by the end of the program, each participant drafted an “action plan” for his or her home church or organization, including an extensive analysis of the realities and needs that the specific project will meet, including one-, three-, and five-year objectives.

“As churches increasingly have been providing services formerly done by government, such as housing and economic development, and financial and human services, there arose a need to train clergy and other leaders in how to do this kind of work effectively,” said Preston Williams, Houghton Professor of Theology and Contemporary Change at HDS and the director of the SLI. “This program fulfills that need while at the same time enabling individual pastors and community developers to network and share ideas. What’s more, SLI has a multiplying effect because numerous lives are touched by the projects incubated here.”

The program is in its fourth year, but builds on two decades of collaboration between the Divinity School and its African-American alumni/ae and their communities of faith. “Independent assessments have verified the success of this program,” Williams said. “It is vigorous; we work them hard, but they are willing and anxious to learn new skills to bring back to their home cities and communities. Many times they would forgo their breaks so they could have more time in the sessions.”