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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Whitney Houston funeral guest shows his program to journalists (photo by Christine A. Scheller).
Whitney Houston’s family achieved the near-impossible for themselves and for her. They managed to hold a private “home-going service” for the superstar, and did so, in part, by graciously broadcasting that service to the world.
I was in Newark, New Jersey, yesterday, embedded with an international pool of journalists on a corner a few hundred yards from New Hope Baptist Church, where the service was held and where Houston’s family has roots extending back a half century, according to the Rev. Dr. M. William Howard, Jr., pastor of Newark’s Bethany Baptist Church.
The setting was an unlikely one, dotted as the neighborhood is with abandoned and half-built buildings. An exceptional, appropriate silence prevailed throughout a wide perimeter around the church. Local gangs reportedly even called a truce in Houston’s honor.
When I spoke to Rev. Howard in preparation for my reporting, he expressed concern that fans would forget that, although Houston was a public figure, her untimely death is fundamentally a family tragedy.
“If people have any kind of dignity and compassion, if they truly love Whitney Houston in the best sense of the word, they won’t go clamoring at the church, knowing they have no invitation,” Howard had said.
Perhaps fans did, in fact, love her enough to stay away, because there were no crowds—only a couple hundred journalists, a significant police presence, and handfuls of fans keeping vigil several blocks away as limousines and luxury cars came and went.
The Rev. Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, New Jersey, has known the Houston family for decades. He shared his memories of the woman he called “Nippy” at CNN.com and provided commentary for the network with Soledad O’Brien, Piers Morgan, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson as the service got underway.
When I spoke to Rev. Soaries Friday evening, he said his ministry to grieving families is informed by his own painful experience of having lost his father suddenly when he was only 24 years old. Because of his father’s stature as a minister in their community, other clergymen came to visit him and his family in the days after his father’s death. None sought to comfort or pray with him, he said. Instead they tried to influence who would preach the funeral. When the time came, minister after minister got up to speak until Soaries passed a note to the emcee saying the family would leave if these men didn’t stop their “foolishness.”
“It was clear to me that their presentations had nothing to do with my dad, nothing to do with the family, and everything to do with them seeing the church full of people, and this big crowd. They were motivated to perform rather than serve,” said Soaries.
Roberta Flack and N.J. Gov. Chris Christie pass a sign that flashed "We Will Always Love You" and "Whitney Houston" as they leave her funeral (photo by Christine A. Scheller).
Perhaps because they’ve dealt with sycophants for so long, the Houston family seemed to give the microphone only to those who would focus on their “Nippy” and her faith in God.
“You paid a tremendous price in life,” Bishop T.D. Jakes told Houston’s family as he began his remarks. “You shared her with the world and we want to take a moment and say thank you.” Yes, thank you so much.
Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Costner said he fought for Houston to play the leading role in her first film, The Bodyguard, and talked about the insecurities that both made Houston great and contributed to her decline. He said insecurities like hers are not unique among the famous.
Media mogul Tyler Perry said there were two constants in his friend’s life: “a grace that carried” and her love for the Lord. Quoting from the Apostle Paul, he said neither the height of her fame nor the depth of her struggle could separate her from God’s love.
“What then say you to these things?” said Perry. “If God be for you who can be against you? God was for her and she is resting, singing with the angels.”
Soaries said it’s important to focus on the positive aspects of a deceased’s person’s life because “there is some redemptive value in every life” and because doing so “helps counter negative feelings and the negative imagery of the dead body.”
This week a reporter told Soaries that sources who knew Houston kept saying, “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
“That’s poetry and, for some, it takes years for the morning to come,” he said. “There’s nothing in the Bible, either in verse or theology that suggests we get over death. Death is too unnatural. What the Bible promises is that God will help us get through it.”
In regard to Houston’s long struggle with drug addiction, Soaries told Piers Morgan that she “was surrounded by an environment of temptation” growing up and “had access to all kinds of things.”
“I would not condemn [ex-husband] Bobby Brown for Whitney’s struggles,” he said.
“I’m surprised to hear all these secular people talk about demons,” Soaries told me. “Once you claim Whitney or anyone was struggling against demons, then you have to understand that it’s not her struggle. All of us, therefore, are struggling against the demons that attack our vulnerabilities. When we are incapable of dealing with demons, that’s when God and God’s emissaries take control, which means that death for a Christian is deliverance from the attack; it’s not surrender to the attack.”
Houston’s struggle wasn’t unlike the struggles of a person who can’t afford to buy food, but buys lottery tickets every week, he said. “It’s the same problem … It’s not that drugs used by a superstar are any worse than gambling for someone on food stamps. Something attacks our vulnerability and causes us to behave in self-destructive ways.”
This is what journalists call the "coffin shot": Whitney Houston's casket being carried out of New Hope Baptist Church after her funeral (photo by Christine A. Scheller).
Rev. Howard went further in his assessment of Houston’s decline. He believes that she, like so many exceptionally talented artists before her, succumbed to an “occupational hazard.”
“Talented people are somehow caught in a cycle of demand for their services without regard for their humanity,” said Howard. “I think it’s a dance between the artist’s temperament and their vanity or ego and their desire to remain on top in a very competitive business. I think there are people who are around them, who suck their blood, so to speak.”
I felt like one of those people yesterday, showing up as I did to photograph and report on her funeral. Around me journalists jockeyed for shots of her casket being loaded into a hearse and for the inside scoop on why Bobby Brown abruptly left soon after the funeral began. Like them I took the coffin shot and reported what sources inside were saying about Brown because that’s what the world wanted to see and know.
“What is the social madness? What is the social need that makes us virtually deadened to the family hurt and pain of this loss?” Howard asked. He would have liked to see Houston singing into her old age like Etta James (who died last month at 74 years old) did.
“[James] had her own struggles, but she managed somehow to pull out of this,” he said.
Perhaps the great lesson to be learned from Houston’s unlikely funeral is the one her family — rooted as it is in community, church, and gospel — taught us. Artists like her generously share their gifts with us. They don’t belong to us. They belong to the people who love and nurture them through the heights and the depths of their lives, and who send them home with grace when their battles are done.
“If Job weren’t in the Bible, I probably wouldn’t be a Christian,” says Aslan Youth Ministries co-founder Craig Bogard, whose personal tragedies have not stopped him from ministering to the needs of kids in the poor communities of central New Jersey and Haiti.
Craig and Lynn Ann Bogard grew up in a small, predominantly white community in New Mexico but sensed a call to minister to African American youth in central New Jersey after a short-term mission trip to the area in the early 1970s. Thirty-five years later, despite living through periods of relying solely on God for their next meal, the Bogards are still at it. They have faced the kinds of challenges that only a deep and abiding faith could pull them through — fundraising struggles, misunderstandings about their motives by both blacks and whites, and, most recently, the untimely deaths of their two beloved sons, Daniél, 28, in 2004 and Dustin, 25, in 2007.
I’ve been aware of the Bogards’ Aslan Youth Ministries for many years, but only just met Craig Bogard last month. As I listened to this slight, serious man recount Aslan’s history, what I really wanted to know was: How do you keep ministering to other people’s children when your own were taken from you?
Craig says he asks himself that question every day, and did so that morning before our interview. The still-grieving father opened up to me about his new life of “pain management” after I told him about the death of my own child. We shared our thoughts on the bittersweet experience of ministering to children who come from seemingly hopeless situations while our own cherished children seemed to have lost sight of the hope we instilled in them. “If Job weren’t in the Bible,” Craig says, “I probably wouldn’t be a Christian.”
He cites Lamentations, chapter three as a source of strength. It’s a difficult chapter that begins and ends with pain, but tucked into the middle are these words: “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the LORD. I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning” (Lam. 3:18-24, NIV).
Quoting a long forgotten source, Craig says, “I’ve done so much with so little for so long, I can do almost anything with nothing.” These days, even with a drop in ministry donations reflective of the economic downturn, the “nothing” the Bogards make do with tends to be more spiritual and emotional than material. Still, God provides.
On the warm summer day when I visited one of Aslan’s three urban day camps, longtime volunteer Brenda Bouldin served both snacks and Bible knowledge to a group of campers while Lethea “Queenie” Ferguson, Aslan’s area program director, organized an outdoor game and the executive program director, Kat Eagles, pulled the threads together.
Queenie says what’s different about the Bogards is their passion for “kids nobody really wants or has time for.” She adds, “Their heart for children takes priority over programs.”
Relationships always have been the heart of the ministry, according to Lynn Ann Bogard (left), who was in Philadelphia straightening out passport issues in preparation for a youth mission trip to Aslan’s affiliate ministry in Haiti on the day I visited. By phone she later told me that program-driven ministry puzzles her and that Aslan’s success with kids has never been based on her or her husband having some intrinsic understanding of the African American experience. “We are not black and never will be,” she says. “It’s never had anything to do with things like that.” She says their ability to transcend barriers “almost underscores that we don’t have to be the same to care for others. We listen because we’re related, not because we’re the same.”
Much of what Lynn Ann contributes to the ministry nowadays depends on what needs to be done or what she feels competent to do. The 61-year-old says her lower profile is a result of both grief and age. Like Craig, she grapples with a spiritual conflict that, in the wake of her sons’ deaths, she doesn’t see ever ending “because there has been too much loss and what feels like betrayal.”
Still, her sense of calling is undiminished. “It’s not based on how I feel or what I’ve been through or anything else. As confused and disillusioned as I can be, God’s call is still written on my heart. Changing that would be like trying to take freckles out of someone’s skin. It is part of who I am.”
I didn’t meet Doug Eagles, Aslan’s chief operating officer (and Kat’s husband), on the day I visited because he too was preparing for the trip to Haiti by collecting donations for the personal hygiene kits that he, another adult, and nine teens would deliver.
Aslan’s work in the Caribbean nation, which began in 1996, was inspired by a youth mission trip that Daniél Bogard took to Uganda. It has three unique goals: 1) to introduce urban young people to their African heritage and to the rich African culture of Haiti; 2) to acquaint young people from difficult home environments in the U.S. with the often more difficult situations faced by young people in other parts of the world; and 3) to offer them the opportunity to develop leadership and personal skills through humanitarian aid projects.
In 2008, Craig told The New York Times that the only way he and Lynn Ann could emotionally survive the deaths of their sons is to be able to see their dream in Haiti become a reality. “Daniél and Dustin were the entire inspiration for it, pushing us every step of the way.” Lynn Ann says the same is true for their continued ministry in New Jersey. Her sons believed in the work “with their whole hearts.”told the Asbury Park Press, “We teach kids that you learn to lead through serving … to look beyond your need to others’ needs.” Not only do the Bogards model this value every day as they look beyond their own grief, but so do the Eagles, who joined Aslan full time after Dustin’s death so that they could support the Bogards and help assure stability in the ministry. Lynn Ann says she and Craig couldn’t have continued on without this young, energetic couple. Likewise, both Queenie and Brenda have been serving Aslan’s youth for more than a decade each.
Craig adds, “Both Daniél and Dustin struggled for years with substance abuse, but this is not what defined them.
Ultimately, it was the drugs that took their lives away, but their lives were filled with service to Christ both in New Jersey and in Haiti. At the end, their hearts were just broken. What is discouraging is there still seems to be such a stigma attached to anyone with addiction problems.”
Earlier this year, talking about the Haiti work, Craig
I think God crossed my path with the Bogards’ at just the right time. A week after I interviewed them, my husband and I volunteered once again to serve in our church’s Vacation Bible School program. There was a charismatic young man who helped with the VBS music. He reminded me of my late son, and it hurt. At one point, I wondered if I could keep doing that type of ministry year in and year out. Then I thought about the Bogards, the Eagles, and Aslan’s other volunteers, and I said to myself, “God will help me press past the pain.”
Urban Family, circa 1965: Christine (right) held by her mom, Carol; her dad, Vinnie, holds older sister, Connie.
I’m alive today because God used an urban ministry to bring my parents together, and to lead our family to a more dynamic faith.