In Pursuit of Cory Booker

In Pursuit of Cory Booker

NEW JERSEY STAR: Newark Mayor Cory Booker is often compared to President Barack Obama because of his youthful charisma, Ivy League pedigree, and post-racial persona. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Newscom)

Cory Booker, the Democratic mayor of Newark, New Jersey, talks (and tweets) about his Christian faith as readily and comfortably as any pastor. If there’s a major theme that I’ve discerned in his prolific faith tweets it’s “walk the talk.” He shows little patience for religious utterances in the absence of love-directed action.

I’ve been trying to schedule an interview with Booker for a year, ever since we engaged in a brief direct message conversation about coffee on Twitter last April. He replied to my initial interview request with a DM that said, “I hope we can talk soon. I’d enjoy the conversation.” In June, after I inquired again, he gave me a number to call and said he’d try to make it happen. Since then, I’ve exchanged encouraging emails with his press liaisons, but the interview never happened. Meanwhile, I’d see Booker tweeting about his latest appearance on one national television news broadcast after another and eventually realized if I wanted to talk to him, I’d have to make it happen myself. So, I decided to attend his 2012 “State of the City” address at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center March 1. When I requested a press pass from his staff via email, I asked for five minutes of his time after the event and was told I could have it.

A Day in the Life

My cameraman and I drove the hour and fifteen minutes to Newark on that promise, arriving a few minutes late to the 6:30 p.m. address because of traffic diversions related to the event. Although we didn’t see them, NJ.com reported that 100 people, mostly from the Newark Teacher’s Union, were outside protesting the mayor’s plan to close seven public schools.

As Booker spoke (with members of the Newark Municipal Council seated behind him on stage), a woman two rows in front of us argued with him so relentlessly from her seat that people turned around to tell her to be quiet, one even quoting from the book of Ecclesiastes in his rebuke. Another audience member countered her jeers with cheers throughout Booker’s speech. Two council members walked off stage after Booker called out council members for failing to reduce salaries and staff when the city had laid off 25 percent of its work force and then challenged the council to act on the deterioration of the city’s water supply infrastructure. Booker looked toward them and said, “If you can’t take the heat.” One of the council members told NJ.com “moments” after leaving the stage that Booker was lying. Through it all, the mayor stayed on message. When a pastor from New Hope Baptist Church offered a benediction, he bowed his head in prayer. Then, in a private room upstairs, he fielded questions from reporters.

For every one he was asked, Booker offered a long, passionate response. The press conference ended sometime around 9:00 pm and he was still going strong. His staff, however, was lagging. They looked tired. I was tired. The liaison who had promised me five minutes with the mayor was overruled in that moment by a senior aide. Eyeing me with apparent irritation, she said I could ask one question, not the five I had prepared. When I introduced myself and UrbanFaith to the mayor, there was no hint of recognition, but he smiled and said he could use some “urban faith.”

A day’s worth of research was whittled down to this: “Why do you think you don’t get punished the way other politicians do for talking about your faith and grounding your public service in faith?”

“I think the fundamental of the faith is humility, and you need to talk about it with that humble heart. I believe God is the infinite. How can I, as a finite person, ever have a conception of what God’s grace, God’s glory, is? That means recognizing that God’s truth might lie also in other faiths. And that means actually taking the time to study those faiths. I’ve studied Judaism. I’ve studied Hinduism. I’ve worked with an Islamic leader here to learn more about the Quran. I think you really can’t love someone as Christ called me to do unless you know them, unless you take the time to respect them and understand them. How can you do that without knowledge? So, I often worry that people use faith more as a bludgeon to hurt or to hit or to condemn rather than to use faith in a way to embrace, to love more deeply, to love more richly. That’s what I try to do in my public dialogue about faith, to use it as a door opener, not as one that slams or divides,” Booker said.

With the senior aide looming, there was no opportunity to follow up, to ask him how his statement about multiple sources of religious truth meshes with exclusivity claims not only in his own religion, but in others. The press liaison asked me if I was satisfied. I frowned. She said perhaps I could ask a couple more questions on the way out. It was the senior aide’s turn to frown, but she acquiesced. So, as we walked toward two flights of steps, I told the mayor I had read that the city’s first public school for boys was announced at Metropolitan Baptist Church that day as a public-private collaboration. He smiled again and nodded enthusiastically. I said the mayor of New York City had been in trouble with some church leaders recently for his unwillingness to repeal a Board of Education policy there that prohibits religious groups from meeting in public schools. In light of these differences in approach, I asked what his thoughts are on church/state separation.

Booker said he didn’t know enough about the New York City situation to comment on it specifically, but offered this: “As long as there’s free access for everybody, whether you’re a Christian group, a Muslim group, Bahá’í group, I think those are public spaces and we should allow people to use them as long as they’re not doing it in a way that undermines the freedom and the liberties of other groups. … In general, I think auditoriums and things like that should be used for the public. People should have open access to them. If a Muslim group wants access to that auditorium to hold something, as long as everybody else is on the same footing, I think that’s fine.”

As we moved down the stairs in lockstep with his staff, I asked about the role of faith groups in Newark, particularly their contributions to crime prevention and reduction, because he had told reporters that these groups are vital to those efforts.

“There’s tremendous, tremendous leadership from the faith community around crime, tremendous involvement. I just feel blessed by the religious communities here in Newark. They’re very, very involved in public safety, in the arts, in every aspect of our city really, education. It’s just great,” he said.

I dropped my recorder at the base of the stairs. The mayor bent down to pick it up. I thanked him for that kindness and for answering my truncated list of questions. He replied politely and kept moving towards a waiting SUV. Another aide told him he did well as he got into the vehicle. He thanked her and was gone.

I didn’t get to ask Booker about his vocal support for same-sex marriage. I wanted to know if it is grounded in his understanding of civil rights or something more personal and how faith groups respond to this part of his platform. In January, after Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey and suggested the issue should instead be decided by referendum, Booker argued from civil rights history that “we should not be putting civil rights issues to a popular vote.” Still, there are those unanswered questions.

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Why ‘Kony 2012’ Misses the Mark

Why ‘Kony 2012’ Misses the Mark

VIRAL SENSATION: In less than a week, the Kony 2012 video campaign was viewed by more than 100 million people, including countless high school and college students.

Like most everyone today, I am wired, wireless, and connected. Like millions upon millions, I also was drawn to the Kony 2012 video. Produced by the San Diego-based human rights organization Invisible Children, the 30-minute documentary shines a light on the brutal crimes of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony (especialy his use of child soldiers) and presents a compelling call for his capture. A week after its release, the video already has been viewed more than 100 million times.

Working on a college campus like Seattle Pacific University requires a certain level of social media capacity and commitment. I guess this is how I justify my constant connection to the hit, trend, and tweeting world. Even for the stodgiest of universities, social media “skillz” have become a type of tool of the trade. So when Kony 2012 showed up on the Facebook pages of some of my students as “the greatest story ever told,” I slowed down from my busy schedule and watched the video.

Yes, I did my part to keep the Kony video “viral,” but my interest transcended the obvious curiosity. In fact, the Ugandan and Central African story was one I personally knew well. Many of my students over several years studied the Lord’s Resistance Army and Uganda. They led group presentations noting the complexity of a 26-year war of organized tribal and religiously affiliated groups. We knew Kony was no longer in Uganda, possibly since 2010, and his army was massively smaller than reported. Furthermore, we also regularly send teams of students around the world. We monitor everything from national security issues to communicating and partnering with indigenous leaders. Seattle Pacific University’s John Perkins Center has also hosted Central African leaders who lead reconciliation ministries throughout the region. Combined with my own multiple travels to Africa over the last 12 years, the Kony video was enlightening and troubling, frustrating and affirming, doubtful and hopeful.

It took a few days but eventually I began to share my thoughts. My bias is present and obvious. I favor a faithful, missional response rooted squarely and firmly in biblical justice. My experience and knowledge of these issues may account for something, but they may also lead to a sort of defensiveness. I own that as well. Holding both bias in one hand and defensiveness in the other, struggle with me to reflect on this global phenomenon.

The Limits of Awareness

Creating awareness in response to atrocities hidden in alleys and brothels, tenements and executive offices is very important. Awareness can lead to the pursuit of further education and activism. Awareness can inspire and create hope in the unseen places of our world. To that end awareness means we rejoice with them that rejoice and mourn with them that mourn.

Awareness can be viral in that it can lead to advocacy and activism. But what happens when those creating awareness simplify the message for easy consumption and unashamedly play to our often insular and over-inflated worldview that we can save the world? You get 100 million hits.

You also get passion-filled and loosely educated constituents attempting to become activists. To that end, we can thank the filmmakers for poorly educating millions on a very complex issue. Maybe “poorly” is too strong of a word. How about lightly educating millions?

But it is here I am reminded of John Perkins’s many sermons on “over-evangelizing the world too lightly.” The same can be said in regards to over-discipling the world too lightly.

Some describe the Kony video as a new form of the TV infomercial, light on facts but heavy on hype. The product being marketed can literally do everything for $19.99 plus shipping and handling. Honestly, I have no idea what $30, a bracelet, a T-shirt, and millions of hits on YouTube produces. I am not sure anyone knows. This is new territory in many ways.

Beyond Slacktivism

What I do know and fear is we run the risk of moving from true advocacy and activism, to what I heard on a recent news show labeled as “slacktivism.” I hope this word never makes it into Webster’s Dictionary, but we can easily assert a definition for this occasion.

KEEPING IT SIMPLE: Filmmaker Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children and the director "Kony 2012," agrees with critics who have called the film oversimplified. "It was deliberately made that way," he says. (Photo: Brendan McDermid/Newscom)

Slacktivism is feeling satisfied that one has contributed to ending injustice in the world because they have pressed the send button. This is in no way to diminish from the importance of giving of money to support a cause or to make light of informing people about a great injustice. And maybe for some people pressing the send button while sipping a latte is a good start. But can we all agree that it should not be the only missional proposition to millions of viewers? If you really have the platform and ability to tell a great story, please encourage us to do more than purchase a kit. If nothing else, we privileged people need that encouragement.

We need the type of encouragement Jesus provided both in word and in deed. The scripture that says “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” has made its way into my reflection time more than once this past week.

So maybe we should evaluate the integrity of the Kony 2012 video by its ability to inspire churches to build partnerships with ministry leaders in Uganda, send ministry teams to conferences to learn what God is doing in other parts of the world, and organize students across the nation to form prayer teams for Africa and American relationships. Or maybe the video should simply prompt us to connect with the Central African community in our neighborhood. At the very least, it should challenge us to do more than just send money.

Be aware, and be a giver. But also be educated. Be an advocate. Be an activist.

Be a servant. Then you will be like Jesus.