Public Service Grounded in ‘Black Church’ Theology

Reading about Booker earlier in the day, I was impressed by all he has accomplished in his 43 years. He grew up in mostly white, affluent Harrington Park, New Jersey, the son of IBM executives who were also civil rights activists. He was an All-American football player at the local high school, holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Stanford University and is both a Rhodes Scholar and a Yale Law School graduate. He reportedly turned down an offer to run the Obama administration’s Office of Urban Affairs in 2009, and, in 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg expressed so much confidence in Booker that he donated $100 million to improve Newark’s state-run public schools.

A RAUCOUS STATE OF THE CITY: During the recent Newark "State of the City" address, Mayor Booker was confronted by emotional protesters as well as loyal supporters. (Photo: Explorations Media)

Booker has been deeply involved in public service at least since his Stanford days. His political rise in Newark has been the subject of two documentaries: Street Fight and the Sundance channel series Brick City. When he served on the Newark Municipal Council, he lived in public housing and, in 1999, engaged in a Bible inspired 10-day hunger strike that also involved sleeping in a tent to protest “open-air” drug trafficking in a crime-ridden neighborhood.

“It transformed my life,” Booker told The Washington Post in 2006. “Within 24 hours, people were saying, ‘You’re not sleeping out there alone,’ and eventually there were dozens of people sleeping under this huge wedding  tent. The first morning of the strike, we had a prayer circle of four people. By the end, there were enough people for us to form a circle around the two buildings. Priests, rabbis, Latinos, blacks,” he said. That same article noted that Booker “doesn’t smoke or drink, he rarely swears and does not eat meat.” It also said a local gang issued a serious threat to kill him after he was elected mayor.

In 2009, Booker told U.S. News & World Report that he was raised in “a very religious home, with two parents who were deeply involved in the black church.”

That church was African Methodist Episcopal, Booker said, and its theology “helped frame” his ideas of social justice and struggle. “A lot of black church theology is about struggle—the fight for justice, for redemption, for contribution. The teachings of the home and the teachings of the church are the bedrock on which I stand,” Booker said.

As he got older and studied other faiths, they “deepened” his own faith, he said, but also “expanded [his] capacity just to love God and to love other people.”

Studying with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

One person Booker studied with was Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Boteach lives in New Jersey and was in attendance at the mayor’s “State of the City” address. I talked to him outside after the mayor had left. He said he is planning to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives representing New Jersey’s ninth district.

“What has enriched you from your interfaith dialogues with Mayor Booker?” I asked.

“The mayor is a naturally spiritual man. He has so much heart and his faith has always evidenced itself in his love of humanity. I was rabbi at Oxford University 20 years ago when the mayor and I met. He became the president of my student organization. He was a magnet for so many people. What we did was create a mutual faith community of Jews and Christians and Muslims. We had people of every faith. We studied a lot of Judaism together. We studied a lot of Christianity together,” said Boteach.

Booker can quote whole passages of the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy) in the original Hebrew, Boteach said, and they continue to study together via telephone.

“He’s very interested in the content of the Torah reading of the week. He’s a sponge for information. I don’t want to speak for him, but I’d like to believe that Judaism has greatly informed his Christian faith,” said Boteach.

Booker was an inspiration for Boteach’s new book, Kosher Jesus, the rabbi said. “There’s a big blurb from him at the beginning of the book, because having studied so much Judaism, he wanted to know more about the Jewishness of Jesus.”

FRIEND AND TEACHER: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. (Photo by Explorations Media)

I asked Boteach if he thinks Booker is able to effectively ground his political rhetoric in the language of faith without being punished by the public because that faith is authentic. Boteach said yes. He also said that because of Newark’s ethnic and religious diversity, having someone like Booker “who really learns from every group and who believes he’s enriched by exposure to every group” makes constituents of the city feel “valued.” So when there are “tensions,” like recent revelations that the New York City Police Department had been surveilling Muslims in Newark, “the Islamic community knows how deeply he respects them, just as the Jewish community adores him and the Christian community adores him.”

I don’t know about “adoration,” but I do know that Booker, who led an interfaith fasting retreat in the city in 2010, was passionate in his defense of Muslims in response to press questions about the NYPD’s surveillance. While affirming the need for vigilence in fighting terrorism in the region after the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks that not only took the lives of Newark residents, but also of Booker’s childhood best friend, he nonetheless said his greatest concern right now is for Newark Muslims.

“The one thing I know and I feel very driven by, is the need for people to understand what this has done to the Muslim community in my city. This is a grievous harm. It is inhibiting people’s free expression of their faith. It is inhibiting people’s free association with other people because they’re afraid of what that might mean or how they might be accused in the future. They’re afraid to go to certain restaurants in my city. That is not healthy for a free democracy,” said Booker.

After Booker’s first inauguration, which was also held at NJPAC, The Washington Post’s reporter said it “felt more like a church service and pep rally than a swearing-in” and “the audience gave him one standing ovation after another.” Six years later, well into his second term, the response to Booker’s leadership at NJPAC was decidedly more ambivalent, but the mayor just keeps moving forward, dressing his public service unapologetically in religious language. I wonder though if there are any theological parameters to his faith aside from loving God and neighbor, or if it is as thoroughly syncretistic as it sounds? Perhaps someday I’ll get the chance to ask him about that.

*An editorial change has been made to the article to clarify Booker’s comment and the course of events when two council members left the stage at his “State of the City” address. An earlier version said: “Booker told the audience they ‘couldn’t take the heat’ after he called out council members for failing to reduce salaries and staff when the city had laid off 25 percent of its work force.”

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