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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Post THIS to Your Status

Post THIS to Your Status

In recent weeks, Facebook has annoyed its patrons by adding stuff they don’t want and moving features they do like to hard-to-find spots. More troubling than that, the social networking giant has made folks increasingly nervous about privacy issues. People are concerned that the techies at Facebook make too many tweaks to the privacy policy without making the changes clear to their users. (Yep, they do.) And people are worried that the Facebook crew is sharing our personal information with advertisers. (Guess what? They are. It’s called their business model.)

But while people are obsessing over privacy, my question is: Where’s my check?

The more I hear about the recent changes to Facebook the more irritated I get, mostly because I haven’t received my check yet. What check?

Listen, Mark Zuckerberg owes me something.

Let me explain. I’m not one of those people who are waiting for their handout from “the man” and I’ve never expected that I’d see my 40 acres and a mule. But I do understand one thing about the new economy: if you can deliver the right potential customers (leads) to advertisers, they will pay you for the service. And the more information you can collect about a person’s interests and buying habits, the better you are able to match that person up with advertisers, and the more money you will make.

This is not a new concept — over the past hundred years or so the advertising industry has made demographics a science.  Search providers like Google, Bing, and Yahoo take it to the next level. Ever search for a new car and then notice that some of the display ads that you run across later in the day are new car ads for that same brand you searched for? Google calls this “retargeting” and advertisers are happy to pay for it.

Facebook, on the surface, is like a huge community center where your friends and family get together and share stuff that you like. Did you know that 4 percent of all photos are on Facebook? OK, I’ll wait while you read that sentence again. I’m not talking about 4 percent of photos taken last year, I mean 4 percent of all photos EVER TAKEN. So that community center is HUGE. And while I’m sharing songs and photos on Facebook, they’re taking notes. They know my favorite TV shows and movies, my hobbies, the last book I read . . . they know me almost as well as my wife. All of this information (which I’ve freely shared; no one held a gun to my head) has value.

I recently visited Facebook (and let’s not kid ourselves, it was 60 seconds ago; what can I say? I’m an addict). Amidst the status updates and Farmville accomplishments from my middle school classmates, I see an ad for Klipsch speakers. I like Klipsch — I’m even a fan of their page. I’m not offended or annoyed by the ad, and I’m actually more inclined to click on it simply because I’m interested in it and like the product. Facebook uses the information I provide to show me ads that I would be interested in. So as a target consumer I am pure gold to the company. And I hear that Zuckerberg guy’s got, like, a million dollars. You see where I’m going with this? I want some of that!

“But,” you say, “Facebook is free! Look at the benefit you get from it! Why are you so greedy?” Well, being broke makes me greedy, but that’s a philosophical discussion for another time. My point is that Mark Zuckerberg should be paying me.

There are 750 million Facebook members. Ad revenue for this year alone is expected to be in the neighborhood of 3.8 billion dollars. I want my piece of the pie. More specifically, I want to renegotiate my Facebook privacy policy on my own terms.

Mr. Z, I need to get paid based on the amount of personal information I provide to Facebook. Sharing my hobbies? Three . . . no, five bucks each. You want to know what cars I would maybe like to test drive? I’ll let you know for twenty-five. And I’d better see some serious coin, otherwise I’ll clam up like a . . . clam.

And the real power’s in numbers. Facebook doesn’t care about you as an individual; they simply want to be able to deliver thousands of interested eyeballs to their advertisers. So, the only way that this will succeed is that you, dear reader, have to work with me . . . tell your friends, tell your family . . . post this to your status. If enough of us post, Mark Zuckerberg won’t have any choice but to cut us a check!

Right?

Otherwise, we can all just migrate over to Google+, where they’re still trying to figure out how to make money off of us.

Blessed Are the Poor

Blessed Are the Poor

The latest statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau about poverty are heartbreaking. How is it possible that, in one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, 1 out of 6 people are living below the poverty line? Many of us will never have to know what it feels like to be poor (thank God). But when so many people in our cities and neighborhoods are in the grips of poverty (especially blacks, Latinos, and children), we need to pay attention and take it personally.

I remember being in a tight financial situation in college. I was a sophomore renting a room from a family in my church. I grew up poor and was the first in my family to go to college. Fortunately, the family I lived with during my freshman year shared my precarious situation with their friends before they moved. They knew that my chances of finishing college were slim without additional help. I was always struggling to work, carry a full class load, and eat. One anonymous person made a deep impression on me through her unexpected generosity. Every few weeks, I would randomly receive a check from this person with a note that said, “God told me to send this to you.” The checks usually came when I was at my lowest point. When they came, I cried out of sheer joy and relief. Years later when I inquired about my anonymous benefactor, I discovered that she was a single, middle-aged woman living on a fixed income.  At first I felt guilty — this woman who had very little sacrificed to support someone she didn’t even know — but then I felt a sense of awe. This woman gave out of her scarcity in a way that challenged my ideas about wealth, prosperity, and poverty. Ever since, I have followed her example in helping others.

As I have matured in my understanding of the Bible, I have noticed that God rarely extols a person simply because of his or her wealth. For wealth to be meaningful, wisdom has to be nearby. If not, we can end up like many celebrities and lottery winners: miserable. Solomon demonstrated this when God gave him a choice between wisdom and riches. He chose wisdom, but God blessed him with both. And his later life is a cautionary tale on the connection between wealth and pride. Godly wisdom is the sure sign of God’s blessings. We have it backward, which is why we forget that God can give His wisdom to anyone — even those we consider poor. 

God’s Concern for the Poor

According to the new census report, 46.2 million Americans are now living in poverty, the largest on record dating back to 1959 when the census began tracking poverty. This has considerable political implications considering the uptick in the unemployment rate and the debt ceiling legislation that just passed.

Defining poverty is not an exact science. For instance, by current standards, a white family of six would be considered poor even though they may make $50,000 a year combined, own their home, and live frugally. Yet the face of poverty in the U.S. media is usually a black single mother with children. Politics and election cycles often decide how the media will see poverty.

In his book Just Generosity, theologian Ron Sider makes it clear that there is room in God’s economy for the less fortunate. He points us to the Old Testament, where Yahweh charges the Israelites to remember where they came from and care for those who need help within their community. Once they settled in Canaan, the concept of gleaning (leaving leftover crops for the poor) in Leviticus 19:9-10 and the Year of Canceling Debts in Deuteronomy 15: 1-6 applied to everyone. Jesus said he came to preach the good news to the poor. There are many other scriptures that support God’s concern as well. 

The Widow’s Example

The crazy thing about wealth is that as we accumulate more of it, we typically find ourselves becoming ever more desperate to preserve it. We may not even be greedy or materialistic people. But the natural instinct is to get as much as we can, and then hold on to it. This is one reason why people with great wealth are rarely as happy as you’d expect.

One of the best antidotes to spiritual discontent is giving. And, paradoxically, it’s often those with the least who give the most. According to a variety of recent studies, lower-income Americans are the most charitable persons in our country. But our media would have us believe that the most generous people are the wealthy. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful when a Bill Gates or a Mark Zuckerberg donates millions to education or a third-world country. But I’m even more encouraged by my high school students who took up a collection to help a classmate’s family with funeral expenses. Most of them come from impoverished communities. This is one reason why the story of the widow’s offering in Luke 21:1-4 should have relevance for us: the widow sacrifices exorbitantly while the rich hoard their wealth.

Those who don’t have a lot have recognized the simple wisdom that God loves a cheerful giver and that He truly provides. The anonymous woman who helped me get through college believed this. And today’s Christians, along with our current crop of politicians, should work harder to remember this as well.

In part two of this post, I’ll share some ways that we can learn from those who are living in poverty. Please stay tuned, and share your thoughts about poverty, wealth, and generosity in the comments section below.