Courtney Cowart: Puerto Rico Reminds Us, Faith Leadership Matters

Courtney Cowart: Puerto Rico Reminds Us, Faith Leadership Matters


Since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico I have watched, listened, and conversed with many partners who served with me in Louisiana post Katrina. Our story is relevant as the church mobilizes to support another embattled community of American citizens, again predominantly citizens of color, at risk of betrayal and abandonment. It is a story that demonstrates how theological education prepares people of faith to emerge as moral leaders in times of great public tragedy. This reflection is addressed to theological educators, clergy, seminarians and leaders of faith in positions of governmental and political power, as well as every Episcopalian citizen in the pew.

Disasters are a crucible for moral and spiritual leadership. Domestic disasters are defining moments that reveal who we really are as a country. Often these tragedies lift the veil on various forms of social neglect, dramatizing heartbreaking gaps between our country’s ideals and our reality.

Katrina dramatized racism and poverty in America. Sandy dramatized our failure to maintain public infrastructure. More recently, Harvey exposed Houston’s failure to deal responsibly with its water management system. Now Maria has revealed longstanding problems in the relationship between the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the United States affecting 3.4 million of our brothers and sisters in Christ.   

Where many types of leadership and expertise are called forth in these contexts, the contribution of theologically trained spiritual leaders can be particularly profound, enabling us to emerge from catastrophe a more responsible, compassionate and spiritually mature country than we were before. This is especially true when theology effectively engages public policy.

Our experience at the time of Katrina illustrates how formation in a life of prayer, reflection on biblical and other theological texts, grounding in church history, and exposure to contextual education including facility with such tools as community organizing, legislative advocacy, asset based community development, and diversity training can all contribute in essential ways to reforming failures of public policy that destroy lives.

Bishop Charles Jenkins’ accounts of key decision points in the response to Katrina provide a case study in how training and formation provided in seminary can come together years later to empower great spiritual leadership.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm Jenkins recalled “reeling at the size of the sin” he was witnessing. His leadership journey began with the practice of spiritual discernment. As a seminary-trained Christian leader, the Bishop of Louisiana instinctively turned to prayer and to theological texts for guidance. It was the writing of Rabbi Jonathan Sachs that focused the bishop on the moral and spiritual realization, “Their fate [those who were abandoned in the evacuation] is our fate. We share a common fate.” He then prayed that God would provide “grace, and a strength, and vision that was far beyond myself.”

On Martin Luther King Day five months after the storm, the bishop was led to study the famous speech delivered by Dr. King at Riverside Church, Beyond Vietnam. Reading King’s interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan Jenkins was profoundly moved by a key passage that came to shape the Episcopal Church’s unique response to Katrina: “One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar…It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

This passage led to a systemic approach addressing disparities in housing, education, and health care, as well as inequities in the recovery that could only be tackled by a significant commitment to community organizing and advocacy.

Working with both the Episcopal Office of Governmental Relations and the Washington firm of Krivit & Krivit, the bishop travelled frequently to Capitol Hill testifying before numerous committees and providing evidence for those legislators charged with federal oversight of FEMA, HUD, and DHHS. Exercising the moral authority of the Church, including authority arising from deep personal knowledge of the plight of thousands of people whose recovery the Episcopal Church was assisting, made the bishop a particularly effective advocate in the halls of government. His brand of spiritual leadership changed the course of the recovery for tens of thousands, reforming some aspects of national disaster recovery policy that have endured to this day.

These efforts were supported by hours of public policy research, a heavy schedule of travel and preaching, press conferences, television and radio interviews, rallies and actions carried out by faith-based community organizers, and large write-in campaigns to Congressional representatives engaged by Episcopalians across the country. Underpinning all of it was a constant theological framing of the issues that galvanized the moral conscience of many Americans, later resulting in a public statement by the House of Bishops:

…The vision he [Jesus] proclaimed is known as the desire of God, the peaceable kingdom, a society of justice and shalom, or the city set on a hill. It is an icon of what God intends for all creation: that human beings live in justice and peace with one another, that the poor are fed and housed and clothed, the ill are healed, prisoners set free, and that the whole created order is in right relationship. This vision is our goal and vocation as Christians…This nation has a long history of struggle for racial justice…Today the struggle continues in the form of the Gulf Coast recovery. During our visit to New Orleans the bishops have witnessed powerful signs of God’s presence in the struggle…Greater leadership at the national level in this moment could broaden this sustained American commitment into a movement that would make history.

Speaking last week with my former colleagues Dan and Sandy Krivit in Washington, D.C., who have extensive experience working in Puerto Rico, they recalled very clearly, “The moral and spiritual authority of Bishop Charles Jenkins conveyed through his personal advocacy moved the Congress and the Executive Branch to take needed action.” It was the Krivits’ observation that the Episcopal Church has both an opportunity and an obligation to exercise similar forms of leadership on behalf of our Puerto Rican neighbors. “The lesson learned from Bishop Jenkins’ Katrina experience is that the Episcopal Bishop of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands need to personally come to Washington, DC, and use their powerful voices of moral authority to persuade our government to do the right thing.”

Their view was echoed by Shakoor Aljuwani, lead organizer for the Diocese of Louisiana post Katrina. "Bishop Jenkins consistent theme that we must "transform the Jericho Road" not only in sermons but in our day to day work was decisive.  Such strong spiritual and moral leadership, was and is, so necessary when some politicians inevitably, try to use histories of poverty and injustice to ignore the disparate impact of disasters on the poor and oppressed."

We can never predict the ministries that will come to us. Part of SIM’s mission is to ensure that our future leaders are grounded in a theological education that produces spiritual leadership that matters at critical moral junctures in the life of our nation such as those we are confronting today. It was striking to me, as I worked closely with Bishop Jenkins how well his theological training prepared him for discerning and courageous leadership. I am quite certain that without the profound grounding in the Christian faith we receive from the seminaries of the church none of us called into challenging public ministries could rise to the occasion.

This week I am more grateful than ever for the tradition of Anglican formation we have inherited and for the new interpretations of that tradition that are expanding our capacities to send out God’s light and God’s truth. I have found myself redoubling my commitment to ensuring that this formation is made financially accessible to more, not fewer people ready to consecrate their lives to the ministry of the Church. Heaven knows we need them now more than ever.