Religion is controversial. For a significant part of human history, religion has served to unify communities in a shared set of values and beliefs. But it has also been an instrument (an institution) that stirs conflict and division. In these polarizing times, religions are called to overcome division and press for collaborative unity. Today’s bold leader believes that religion can be used as a catalyst for harmonious coexistence and cooperation across denominations of believers and non-believers, too. Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, the recent former Global President of the United Church of Christ (UCC), lives his theological philosophy and remains true to the teachings of his Christian denomination. Dr. Dorhauer is an exemplar of compassion, kindness, and love. Join him as he shares his profound insights into the intersection of love, peace, and justice and how religion and spirituality can be a force for positive change in the world.
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Religion, Peace, and Justice: ‘I Hear Your Cry’ – with recent UCC Global President Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer in the USA
Unify Across the Churches and Non-Believers too
In this episode, our thoughtful, bold leader joins us from the city of Cleveland in the state of Ohio in the United States of America. It’s the city of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the home of Superman, and the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra. He is an American Protestant clergyman, author, and theologian who served as the Ninth General Minister and Global President of the United Church of Christ between June 2015 and July 2023.
He has a passion for delivering justice through the power of love. He received the Eden Seminary’s Shalom Award for his commitment to peace and justice. In 2017, the Center for American Progress named him as one of the Progressive Religious Leaders to Follow. He has a BA in Philosophy, a Master’s in Divinity, and a Doctorate in Ministry, where he studied the effects of White privilege on the church.
He is also the author of three books: Steeplejacking, Beyond Resistance, and Into the Mystic. Stay tuned as he shares with us his simple yet profound definitions of religion and spirituality and explains why he thinks traditional churches are in steady decline, how a Christian denomination Church partnered with the Greek Orthodox Church to serve two and a half million Muslim refugees in Jordan after being displaced from Syria, and why Nelson Mandela’s gift to humanity is essential now in the USA and worldwide? We warmly welcome Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer and welcome to the show.
John, thank you so much for coming on and having this conversation. You’ve played such a significant role in the world of the church in the United States and around the world. I feel truly blessed that you’re coming to have this conversation and joining this global movement for change.
Anne, let me thank you. It is a delight, an honor, and a pleasure to be counted among those that you are speaking with. I’ve seen the list of leaders from around the world that you’ve talked to. To even be thought of in their company is a great honor to me. I love the work that you’re doing, trying to deeply instantiate the world and its leaders with notions that Nelson Mandela built. I’m proud of what you’re doing and honored to be a part of this conversation with you.
Thank you so much. I would love to begin with this. What attracted you to the church? Perhaps you could share a little bit about your background as well. I know you were born and raised as a Catholic. You are 1 of 7 children. You were born in Ohio and moved to St. Louis when you were three years of age. You were raised a Catholic but then made a transition. My question is, within the context of some of the forces that shaped your life, what drew you to the church, and what drew you to this position?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know that I was drawn to the church. I was born into it. Like a fish in water, it becomes a part of the surroundings that you don’t feel like you really choose. However, as I matured, I had many opportunities to walk away from the church if I wanted to. I stayed not because I appreciate so much the institutional power that it wields as I do when, at its best, it engages in the kind of ministry, mission, and practice of love that has the capacity to bring good to the world.
From that perspective, the church, for me and its Christian articulation, is a pathway toward kindness and compassion when practiced at its best. I don’t argue that the church is the pathway or even the best pathway. It is simply a pathway and it happens to be the one of my choosing. I was raised a Catholic, and at a young age, I felt what I thought was a clear and unmistakable calling to the priesthood. For quite a few years, every decision I made, including turning down a soccer scholarship at the number one-ranked university in the country, I obeyed what I heard as that call to the priesthood.
I Said ‘No’ to Rome
I spent eight years in seminary preparing for the priesthood and was accomplished enough as a student that I was invited to finish my studies in Rome. I knew what that meant. That was an offer you don’t say no to, but I said no to it. I was just beginning to wrestle with some big things. The best way to describe that is through those eight years, from day one, I found myself pressing questions that I needed to resolve, knowing that what I took of a vow of obedience to the bishop, that vow of obedience would require me to compel members of my parishes to believe the teachings of the church given to me by the bishop.
I kept pressing for answered questions, “Why can’t women be ordained? What exactly do we mean when we say there is no salvation outside the church? Why do we practice exclusive communion rituals? What about celibacy is required in order for me to live out my calling as a priest?” I wasn’t willing to argue about them being right, me being right, and them being right.
I simply wanted to know what you’re thinking about this. Make it make sense to me because I’m not sure I understand it. The response was invariably something like, “John, these are the church’s teachings. They have been the teachings for 2,000 years, and who are you to question them?” For a long time, I was disappointed, but I just put up with that.
It then dawned on me. If I couldn’t get to a place of intellectual reconciliation with this, I was not about to take a vow of obedience to the bishop that would compel me to force others to believe things that I didn’t yet know I believed. I knew there was something wrong with me, not the church, and that eventually, I would get it, and then I could, with integrity and good faith, take that vow. Heartbreakingly, I walked away from what I was sure was my calling.
I scratched my head, wondering what somebody with a degree in Aristotelian to Mystic Philosophy now does if they’re not going on to the priesthood. As fate would have it, I met a woman a week after those eight years because she was the maid of honor at my brother’s wedding. Her claim is she fell in love with me at the wedding when I read 1 Corinthians 13 as a part of the ceremony.
We don’t need to go through all of these circumstances, but within a short while, I was going out on dates with her, still believing that my pathway was somehow ministry in the Catholic church. I toyed with joining a monastery.
I talked with a group of Marianists about going to China and doing missionary work in a monastery in China. (Editor’s note: Marianists believe that the best ways to live a spiritual life are to share their faith with others, work with the poor, and educate and nourish the mind, the body, and the soul. They believe that the Blessed Mother is the perfect model of discipleship, and we take as our motto Mary’s words to the servants at the wedding at Cana: “Do whatever he tells you.”)
I had about a two-month window if I were going to do that before I would leave and study Chinese culture and language in New York for three months and then spend the rest of my life as a missionary in China.
Meanwhile, falling madly and deeply in love with this woman who happens to be Lutheran. I went to my spiritual director. I went to my friends. They all said the same thing, “You’re going to throw away what you know is your vocation for a woman you just met after eight years in a celibate all-male environment? That makes no sense.” It didn’t make any sense except that my heart wouldn’t let me say no.
She was Lutheran. (Editor’s note: Lutheranism, a major subset of Protestantism, identifies primarily with the theology of Martin Luther, the 16th-century German monk and reformer. Martin Luther helped reform the theology and practices of the Catholic Church and launched the Protestant Reformation)
I ended up making a decision by the end of that summer to continue in a relationship with her, and within the year, we were married and have been married for many years. A funny thing happened a year into our marriage. I was still struggling to find out what I was supposed to do. I taught for a year. I worked with a painting contractor for a year. One day, I’m cooking dinner in our kitchen for her extended family. Her mom was there. Her brother was there, and their kids were there.
Are you talking about Mimi, your wife?
Mimi, my wife, yes, and her family. Her brother, John, walked into the kitchen where I was cooking, and with no polite conversation to introduce this, he just walked in, looked me in my face, and said, “Just because you’re no longer Catholic doesn’t mean you’re no longer called.” I began worshiping in the Lutheran Church. The minute he said it, whatever I felt as a child that led me to believe I was called into ministry was rekindled in that moment. I felt both a sense of obligation to fulfill that call and joy that I had options that, for whatever reason, I hadn’t seriously considered.
I remember going to bed that night with Mimi after they had all left and telling her what he said and saying, “I’m wondering what you would feel about me going back into the seminar.” She celebrated that. I think she knew that was my calling. We were living in St. Louis at the time ( Editor’s note: The City of St. Louis is located on the Mississippi River, the eastern boundary of the State of Missouri, in the USA mid-west). She was pregnant with our first child. We didn’t want to uproot our family at that point with the support that we had from our respective families.
The only seminary that was compatible with this evolving theology that I had was Eden Seminary, which belonged to a church called the United Church of Christ. I never heard of it. I didn’t know anything about it. I remember walking into the Dean of Students in my overalls at the end of a long day with a painting contractor covered in paint, sweat, and smelly, saying, “I’d like to explore a conversation with you.” I told him I had spent eight years in a Catholic seminary.
Where Have You Been All My Life?
His first words to me were, “John, if you come here, you’re going to have to learn to question everything.” I thought, “Where have you been all my life?” Having been raised Catholic and having now entered as a Lutheran, both Mimi and I, our discovery of the United Church of Christ led us to believe that this was the church of our heart. It’s a denomination that teaches that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here. That’s the church I had been longing for, and that’s the church I’ve now spent many years in ministry with and remain dedicated to because of its capacity to bring love into the world.The United Church of Christ is a denomination that teaches that no matter who you are where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here. It has so much capacity to bring love into the world. Click To Tweet
That’s a powerful statement. To that point, what’s also struck me, John, and we’ve touched on this previously, is this trending downward of people feeling confident and comfortable going to church and the fact that church attendance is on the demise and churches are closing. There are two things. What is your definition of religion, and why do you think this trend is happening and accelerating?
Here’s my simple definition of religion, and I have come to identify myself as a theological minimalist. I only now hold two things that I will defend as theologically true other than the belief that there is a God. About that God, I only postulate two things. God is love, and God is just. Love without justice makes no sense to the eyes of the God that I have come to know and enter into a relationship with.
Love without justice is mere sentimentality, and justice without love is mere self-righteous anger. I don’t think either has the capacity to change hearts, but together, it is the force that can change the world. That’s what religion is. Religion is any enterprise or any effort that has the capacity to engender kindness and compassion towards another. Why the enterprise of religion is failing? There are multiple dynamics going on, but there are two things. I write about this in my second book, which is a reflection on the institutional church meeting the post-modern world.
The churches I know, in their current 21st-century Western articulation, are more interested in the preservation of their institutional identity than in the propagation of a mission calling people to love, compassion, and kindness. When I talk about a church being fed by the movement of the Holy Spirit, I see any institution more interested in its preservation as being abandoned by the spirit that has no use for it anymore, and without that, it will die.
Whether that dying is a result of the abandonment of the Holy Spirit, not being interested in watching institutions perpetuate themselves, or merely the product of post-moderns who see institutions as irrelevant is a difference without a distinction. Nobody wants to spend their life helping an institution preserve its identity. To the extent that we do that, nobody’s interested in it.
The second thing is a bit more mechanical and technical. At least in the United States, we referred to the time after World War II as the Baby Boomer generation. There were two things going on at the same time. There was the expansion of the American household and the boom of babies born after World War II. You couldn’t build schools fast enough. You couldn’t build suburbs in neighborhoods fast enough. You couldn’t build churches fast enough, but it was the last generation that would feel a deep loyalty to the institution.
After World War II and the dropping of two atomic bombs, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Civil Rights Movement, generations of leaders lost their faith in the institution as an instrument of change. It became an institution of perpetuating the status quo. After the Baby Boomers left the church and had fewer children, the expansion that took place in the ’50s saw us with a glut of churches that we just no longer needed, and they were going to close.
Add to that the attachment that the church has with institutions and now a third generation that is not loyal to institutions but, in fact, is working to deconstruct the power built by institutions, and you have what we see nowadays. None of which, by the way, says anything about whether or not current generations have a spiritual hunger and a capacity to do good to the other. I believe they do.
John, I want to pause you there because that’s such a profound statement. Another burning question I have for you is this distinction. I have a number of friends who say, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” To that end, and just taking your observation around this new generation who truly are seen as a positive force in the world or a positive force for change, how would you define spirituality vis à vis your definition of religion?
Spirituality is a pathway to the sacred however you articulate that, or however you define your relationship with the sacred or the holy. Spirituality is that pathway that gives you access to your sacred. For some, it’s a quiet walk beside a mountain stream. For some, it’s standing in the spires of a gothic Cathedral with light streaming in through the stained glass windows and feeling a deep connection to something bigger than you and beyond you.Spirituality is a pathway to the sacred. Click To Tweet
For some, we want to say in our Christian tradition, “Where 2 or 3 are gathered, I will be there in your midst,” and quietly share stories about your journey and what you’ve encountered along the way and quietly pray with, to, or for one another. There are a myriad of pathways. What we’re discovering about emerging generations is they see a multiplicity of pathways as something beautiful, and they’re not going to be what I refer to as monogamous worshipers.
They’re not going to extend their spiritual loyalty to a single institutional articulation of spirituality. They’re going to sample the menu of opportunities and the rich array of opportunities that are available to them. They’ll be Buddhist, yogic, Kabbalah Jewish, Catholic, deeply traditional, and New Age, and all of that. You can experiment with it and ask a couple of questions about the experience.
1) “Can I connect with my sacred?” 2) “Will they take seriously the life experiences that I bring into the connection and not just send an expert to me who has all of the answers?” 3) “Will they engage me in my life’s work and energy in actions that make a positive difference in the world?” I think those are the questions they’re asking.
I would love you to also, for the benefit of our audience, define what you mean by sacred. When you reference bringing me to my sacred place, what is your definition of that?
This is the hardest question to answer, and typically, we want to anthropomorphize this. God is a man or, moving a little bit beyond gender, God is a woman, a mother, or a father. We want to anthropomorphize that. That’s appropriate only as long as we understand that is the response of the poet or the artist among us who’s looking for a metaphor to try and attach meaning to something we have no language for.
I say it this way. It’s whatever inspires in you a sense of awe and wonder and a sense of mystery. A sense of, at one in the same time, connecting you to something so far beyond yourself that you can’t imagine it while, at the same time, feeling intimately connected to it and others through it. I have no language for it. I don’t imagine it to be an individual or an entity.
I don’t even know how to describe it. I only know that when I find myself in its presence, I am deeply moved and I am aware that there is something beyond my capacity to understand. I get the inclination to worship it. Though I don’t know that whatever it is, it’s interested in that. I think just simply standing in awe and wonder is what is sacred.
When you say deeply moved, in what way?
I don’t want to give a definition of that. I’ve always said that worship is that language that we use in our Christian tradition, and others use it. It is nothing more than coming together in ways that have the potential to connect you to the sacred. That connection to the sacred, when authentic, is always going to produce a response in you. It may be awe, wonder, or fear. It may be motivation. It may be inspiration, but both the encounter must be authentic and not manufactured as well as the response. You can’t manufacture a response.
My experience is that in these authentic encounters with the sacred, anything is possible. I’ve been in a room where people stand up, dance, shout, and exclaim. I’ve been in a room where people are moved to deep, internal solitude just to reflect quietly on what they’ve experienced and what it means. I’ve been in the room when people are moved to tears and don’t even know they’re crying. All of those are authentic, and you can’t prescribe them. You can’t manufacture them. You can’t require them. They are what they are. I don’t want to try and define it.
You’ve encapsulated wonderful examples of how people can and do experience that. It leads me to a different question around some of the awe and wonder that you’ve been creating in the world with the UCC or United Church of Christ and the work you’ve been doing abroad. Can you share with us a particular example?
I’m struck by the very moving example you referenced when we spoke about the work you have done with the Greek Orthodox Church in Jordan and resettling two million refugees from Syria. Could you take us back to that moment? What was the context of the event? What did you experience? Is this an example of awe and wonder and the work of you, the church, and multiple churches coming together to deal with a very real human crisis?
Church Coalitions: Unity Around Compassion, Kindness, and Love
This is a story about a Christian denomination partnering with the Greek Orthodox agency and servicing a Muslim refugee community in Jordan. All of which have agency in the unfolding of the story that I’m about to tell and the interconnectedness of a world that can organize itself around compassion, kindness, and love. The United Church of Christ is one of 64 United and Uniting communions that were built within their contexts.
Usually, their countries are a coalition of the willing. What I mean by that is any pre-existing denominations that wanted to lose their previous historical identity and merge with others to form a united body became a part of the United and Uniting worldwide movement. We’re one of 64. The United Church of Christ here is in the US context, but we have relationships and mission partnerships with over 90 countries around the world.
In those places, we don’t show up in the typical model of a missionary looking to proselytize, convert, and convince the “heathens and barbarians” that only Christ can save them from their wicked ways. We now practice what we call an accompaniment model of presence. It comes out of the liberation theology context that emerged largely in the 1970s and later in Latin America, Southern Asia, and in other places.
It sees God’s primary action in the human community as an agent of liberation, freeing people from their oppressors so they can live what we call in our constitutional American language their pursuit of happiness unimpeded by the influence of oppressors. We try to look around the world in places where oppression and injustice are rampant and be present to accompany those unjustly treated on their journey.
It’s not just to rescue them, be their saviors, or walk in with a previously articulated pathway to justice that makes sense to us, but simply to say, “We are here to accompany you on your journey. Here are the resources that we bring with us. Are you able to use them in ways that could be meaningful in your struggle for justice and freedom from oppression and tyranny?” In one such instance, we work with a non-governmental organization in Jordan run by the Greek Orthodox Church there and, in particular, a woman by the name of Wafa Goussous.
The King of Jordan
Jordan is a country that’s what we call a developing third-world country. It’s very poor. Its geography is almost all desert, yet with only six million occupants, they house, welcome, and support about two and a half million Syrian refugees. It embarrasses me that the country in which I live, the largest and wealthiest nation on Earth, during the Trump presidency, reduced its recipient of refugees from around the world to 10,000 people.
One of those communities of refugees is a tent village of about 250 families about a kilometer from the Syrian border. Two or three times a week, Wafa takes truckloads of goods to that community in order to support them. One of the most poignant and maybe one of the saddest yet beautiful commentaries that I had when visiting there was from a father.
As I looked around at this tent village in the desert where they have to walk 6 miles to a grocery store with the $20 a week they get from the UN; this father is telling me that his child sleeps more comfortably, quietly, and safely in that tent that he did in their home in Syria, that the conditions were so bad that they had to flee and this was their better option and their children sleep peaceably in those tent villages. That’s both poignant, beautiful, and sad at the same time.
John, perhaps also share the profile of these refugees.
These are lawyers. These are doctors. These are college professors. This is the intelligentsia of a country now exiled into this desert village and doing everything they can every day to make sure that their children, even in spite of the circumstances they live in, have an education so that they can uplift themselves when the circumstances change. There’s a tent that is the school room where the parents sit with their children every day in the classroom, teach them, and educate them.
The hope is signaled in that – this is not a community of despair. This is a community believing that their circumstances are going to change and that their children are going to have a better life, and they want to prepare them for that. One of the things that happened on our behalf is we send some of our mission dollars there and we send mission personnel there. I had the opportunity over two consecutive years to go and visit the village.
I have a picture of me holding a little child who was just months old on my first visit. Also, going back and finding him the second year, holding him again and taking another picture with him. His mom is beaming. Wafa went on our behalf and sat down in one of the tents with just the women of the village and spoke woman to woman to them. She said, “What is it you’re not getting that you need?” They began to talk about things like birth control, feminine hygiene products, and things that churches aren’t comfortable with or aren’t willing to talk about.
Certainly, they are unwilling to fund and support, but Wafa knew that the United Church of Christ would not have an issue with that. It was with a great deal of pride that I listened to a translator articulate her gratitude to the United Church of Christ for providing the women of that village with what they needed. Here I am, living comfortably in Cleveland, Ohio, listening to a woman in a village a kilometer from the Syrian border in the desert, living in a tent, thanking me for taking care of her.
That’s a remarkable story, John. You also alluded to it, which non-government organization is it that you work with in Jordan.
I don’t remember the name of that off-hand.
I’m also intrigued to know to what extent the King of Jordan is involved.
The King of Jordan
On that trip, we met with one of the princes, and I got to tell you, listening to him talk about how proud they are as a country and as the governing body that the prince is representing the voice of the King to care for the poor refugees in their midst knowing that they have very little. That deep sense of hospitality and sense of obligation to care for the stranger in your midst and the willingness to sacrifice for others was deeply moving to me.
About a year ago, I had an opportunity to meet face-to-face with the King of Jordan. I remember the day before I met him in New York and the day before I flew to New York, I was visiting with my grandchildren in Chicago. I was telling my son what was about to happen, and he said, “Our neighbors across the street are from Jordan.” I said, “They are?” I went over and I knocked on the door. The mom and dad speak very broken English, but their son was there who speaks English.
I told him what I was about to do. He said, “We are so proud of our King and our government.” He cited two things. One is their care for the refugees. This is a young man himself who now is a refugee living in Chicago speaking with great pride about how their King takes care of the refugees. The second is the religious tolerance of that largely Muslim country and how the king allows for other expressions of religious faith to thrive in their midst.
Those are the two things he was proud of. The next day, I was with the King. I was one of a few other religious leaders from around the country, so I wasn’t one-on-one. I talked to him about that trip to the desert and how proud I was of their country for taking care of the refugees. You should have seen his face line up.
Did you share with him what the young man in Chicago said?
I did. I told him that he was so proud. He couldn’t stop talking about their obligation to care for the poor and the stranger among them. Although he’s not a Christian, that is straight out of the Christian and Hebrew texts. That moral obligation to care for the stranger in your midst.
John, it evokes such a pressing question I’ve personally had for some time. To what extent can we build bridges? You have already done this, but build these bridges across different faiths and religions, and perhaps instead of a particular religion providing the blueprint or the specified blueprint of that religion, look at the spiritual laws of the universe.
Whether I would call this the spiritual law of the universe, I want to play with that notion. Still, I believe there is something quite natural to developing the spiritual universe and the human community within it to build connections. I think that’s what we’re wired for. I think we have to be conditioned otherwise.There is something quite natural to the development of the spiritual universe and the human community within it to build connections. That's what we're wired for. Click To Tweet
When you say conditioned otherwise, in what way?
The crass term for this is brainwashing, but it’s the indoctrination of religious and/or legal beliefs that whatever identity you want to claim legitimizes, if not requires you to see others as inferior. It’s good, perhaps, but inferior, too. We can do this with race. We can do this with gender. We can do this with physical abilities. We can certainly do this with cradle articulations, but it has to be taught. I don’t think we’re wired that way. We have to be indoctrinated to think that way.
I think it’s born of fear that those who orient in the world with the fundamental belief that others are out to get them and are conditioned to respond to fear are always going to utilize, whether it’s religion, gender, the color of your skin, or any of that. It utilizes their identity as a way of securing themselves against the fear of others. It’s an interesting thing about fear as an emotive response in the brain’s evolutionary development.
The first part of the brain to develop was the amygdala. That’s what recognizes fear and we can all understand living in a world where knowing fear meant survival. If you couldn’t detect the lion that was in your pathway and if the brain didn’t have a mechanism to override higher thinking and produce that fight or flight response, you weren’t going to survive. When that lion attacks, you can’t go down a laundry list of eight opportunities and start categorizing them by the most likely to succeed.
You’ve got to make a decision right there. That early primitive brain overrides higher thinking. I’ve discovered that when people are either motivated by fear or taught to fear, the art of rational articulation to a better idea has no use, purpose, or function. You must first lower the fear to get there. It’s been my experience that the only antidote to fear is love. The only thing that can make me fear you or stop fearing you is to see something in you to make that bridge, that connection, or that pathway that engenders love.The only antidote to fear is love. Click To Tweet
That’s the role I think of religion. Religion is wrongfully being used now to engender fear and to indoctrinate a feeling of hatred, judgment, condemnation, and superiority towards others, and using religion as the pathway to that. I don’t think that’s religion. I think that’s something else entirely. Also, love is an articulation of faith.
Love is an articulation of human compassion and kindness. Is that which can build the bridge that fear destroys? I’ve seen this. I’ve seen the most raging homophobe. I’ve seen the most strident bigot develop a relationship with somebody that they had previously ‘othered.’ Once the heart feels that, it is hard for their fear, condemnation, and judgment of that person to return.
That’s very powerful, John. It provides remarkable insights and anecdotes about a way forward and thinking about forward. In your mind, what do you think is bold leadership? Where and what do you think are the biggest current threats that we face as a humanity regarding the future of leadership?
The two things I fear the most are fundamentalism in any articulation. 1. My set of beliefs, values, and religious understandings are fundamentally true, and no other can be accepted. The willingness to set your sights on what you believe and close your eyes to all others so that others can close their eyes, too. You force others to close their eyes to anything else. That is fundamentalism.
2. The second is this rising tide of fascism that we see around the world. Whether we’re talking about Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, or Donald Trump. There is a rising tide of fascism that is being fed by an internet that now connects us but that separates us with algorithms that can identify even the slightest tendency towards that fascism and feed it to us constantly. Those are the two things I fear the most.
My Mandela Moment – his Gift to Humanity.
In terms of movements that I see that are built to sustain the human community, you asked me to reflect on a moment when Nelson Mandela had an impact on my life. I want to say a word about what I saw him do and then one more personal anecdote where I saw what he envisioned in work in a tangible and substantial powerful way.
Following Nelson Mandela, his rise to power and his release from prison. Also, being elected to serve the government that had imprisoned him unjustly and create the Truth and Reconciliation Task Force, knowing that the unfolding of the untold history, as painful and wounding as it was, was the only pathway towards healing a nation was a brilliant and inspirational insight.
It took courage, and it took wisdom. It took an amount of self-sacrifice that I can’t even imagine. It was his gift not just to the people of South Africa but it was his gift to humanity. He was the articulation of a pathway forward. It matters to me because here in the US context, White America is scared to death to open up the history books to 400 years of enslavement and genocide that we refuse to tell the full truth about.
It’s for fear that we’re not only going to lose our power, but the moment that justice gets enacted upon us for this evil, we can’t even imagine the horrors that will be done to us. This articulation of truth and reconciliation as the pathway to the mutual rebuilding of the human community is, I think, a gift to the world. I was in Colombia, working again with a number of human rights organizations that we partnered with around the world.
Columbia – Followed by a FARC Rebel
At the end of a 52-year civil war, the longest extended civil war anywhere on Earth, we were there. Within months of a peace accord being signed between the FARC rebels and the Colombian government, the United Nations had forces in Colombia to hold the peace. I walked into a village in the Andes, and we drove an hour through the mountains in the jungles to get to a remote village in Grenada. We found ourselves in a museum memorializing the dead in that town, and the victims were victims of 4 or 5 different warring factions there in the country. There wasn’t an enemy. There was a multiplicity of enemies.
Two things happened that were utterly unscripted. We found ourselves being followed by a gentleman who didn’t speak a word, and neither we who were there touring the museum nor the museum’s curators who were telling us the story of the deceased families knew who this person was. Somebody finally stopped and asked him. This was a FARC rebel. This was one of the insurgents against the Colombian government.
He had spent about two and a half three years in prison because part of the peace process was the articulation of their own truth and reconciliation project. The peace agreement that was signed offered this. Any soldier who came forward and confessed their war crimes would spend a small amount of time in jail but then would be released to community service to do good in the communities they have harmed.
This gentleman began to tell the story about how he was kidnapped at the age of eleven by the FARC rebels and tied to a tree, where he was almost starved to death for weeks. He was released and then indoctrinated/brainwashed to become a soldier for the FARC rebel army. That was the story of his mother spending years looking for him and eventually finding him because she heard a rumor about a FARC Battalion coming through their village. She went out to meet them and found her son lying in the street in front of him, weeping and begging him to come back, but he was so indoctrinated that he simply slapped his mother and continued walking down the street and abandoned her.
In that town of Grenada or in that museum were memorialized about 100 victims who were killed by a bomb set off by the FARC rebels in town. It was in a truck. It was a truck bomb that exploded, and about 100 people died. Yeah. This Soldier confessed his complicity in those war crimes. He’s just been released from jail and told his story to us of him being kidnapped, being indoctrinated, and spending his adult years as a war criminal. He was confessing his crimes.
We left the museum and went from there to a group that was working on a road extending the paved road from the village up further into the mountains where families lived but had no access to the village. It was a paved road, but about every 10 feet in the paved road was a memorial stone. The memorial stone commemorated one of the dead. Working side by side building that road were both citizens in the village and these FARC rebels who had confessed their war crimes and were now doing community service. They are literally building a bridge to a better way.
That’s what Nelson Mandela has done. This combination of telling the truth out loud and openly and this movement in America to end education about our racial history is a scourge and will only deepen the wounds that it has created. What Nelson Mandela has done to articulate the call to speak the truth to pay for the crimes you committed, but then to receive compassion, kindness, grace, and forgiveness. Also, to stand side by side with those who your crimes violated in the construction of a new pathway to a better future is something that I believe in, and I think it is Nelson Mandela’s greatest gift to the world.
To that end, John, do you think that is relevant and has its place in the world now? I’m hearing this, but the extent to which that can be shared with the world to help us find a better way for all.
I think it’s essential. It is a pathway articulated through the primacy of love and compassion and not through the primacy of fear and hatred. If we can’t get off of this pathway of fear and hatred, we are going to destroy ourselves. It’s that simple.
That’s why we need more champions of change like you, John.
You’re very kind, thank you.
There are many others who are part of this movement worldwide who truly care about that pathway and believe in this interconnectedness of humanity and how, when we join forces, we create these pathways that are better for everyone. I’m moved. Thank you for sharing those. Moving to a couple of fun facts about you. I’m curious to know. What is the Corinthian verse you read? Can you share that verse with us or the essence of that verse that captured Mimi’s heart?
This was at my brother’s wedding. I won’t capture it all, but it begins with, “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not boastful. Love does not put on airs. Love does not delight in wrong.” It ends with that afterward phrase, “Faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.”Faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love. Click To Tweet
It’s beautiful. I can understand why you captured her heart. You gave up soccer. What was it about soccer, and have you played soccer since?
My knees and ankles have not but I still play but the competitive kind that I played growing up. I don’t know why but when I was a child, I fell in love with soccer. I was playing organized competitive soccer when I was five years old. When I was a child, I had a ball and I would be in my backyard. Even if I couldn’t find anybody, for hours, I and that ball were one. I dribble around and I juggle it. I kick it against the fence and imagine myself competing in the world cup. I would spend my Sunday mornings watching replays and highlights from the Bundesliga games in Germany.
I had the good fortune during my high school years of being recruited by the former both goalkeeper for the Brazilian National Team and then he coached the Brazilian National Team. He played on the World Cup teams that Pele played on. He was living in St. Louis. He was officiating games and saw me play. He pulled me aside and gave me some one-on-one coaching. He was a coach at St. Louis University at the time. They were the number one break team in the country. It was he that extended the scholarship.
When I walked onto a field, I never cared if I won or lost. Just the art of competitive engagement with others, all I wanted was for the game never to end. Even if we won, when the whistle blew to end the game, it was a moment of sadness for me. Can’t we keep playing? This the most fun we’re ever going to have together. It was it was where I found my joy. I sometimes had a rough childhood but moments like that were complete and utter joy for me. I’ve taken joy in coaching my younger brother, my son, and now my grandson and watching my videos for it.
The third question I have is this. What do you think each of your parents would say about you in terms of the thing they most admired, respected, and loved about you?
Thank you for that. My dad is died a few years ago. He used to say over and over and over again. All you have is your name. It was his way of saying, “Make decisions and live your life in such a way that when your name is spoken, you bring pride and honor to the household and the family.” He would say, “You spend your whole life doing that and one act will change at all.”All you have is your name. Make decisions and live your life in such a way that when your name is spoken, you bring pride and honor. Click To Tweet
I think what he would be most proud of and I said this at his funeral. Our dad said all we have is our name. I think what he would be most proud of is that I have not done that one thing that would bring shame upon the family but I lived a life that brought honor, dignity, and respect to the household. That would be what he’s most proud of.
My mom would be most proud that in every step along the way, I did what made me happy. Mom was never happier than when her children were happy. She was never more distraught than when conditions were such that we could not find our happiness. My mom is still living. I think what would make her most proud is that every step of the way, I opted for those things that made me happy. When my spiritual director and my best friends and elders were saying, “John, this makes no sense.” I went in the direction that made my heart happy and mom would be most proud of that. What a great mom.
What incredible parents to have inspired that living up to a great name and living up to what makes you happy. Certainly, listening to you, John, has shaped your path. I can hear that in the work that you do. In our final few moments together, what would you say to our generation and the next around the future of leadership? What do you think Mandela would say to the world now?
To the first question, center joy. That would be what I would say to leaders anywhere. I am very aware that because I am a leader and because I run an organization with literally 117 employees, that power can make others feel wary of you and feel nervous and anxious around you. I remember something that Thich Nhat Hanh once said. He said, “Sometimes my joy is the source of my smile. At other times, my smile is the source of my joy.”
That’s his way of saying you can choose to be happy. By finding or articulating joy, what I mean by that is bring that smile with you everywhere. As a leader, there are people who will fear you and be anxious in your presence. The mere casting of a smile can lighten the mood, release the anxiety, and help them let go of the fear. If your smile brings them a smile, the extension of joy is maybe the simplest and the greatest gift that we can offer.
As far as what Nelson Mandela would say, I’m going to go back to what I talked about. It’s that grace should always try on over retribution. I’m very aware that I’m saying that from the most privileged position on the planet as a White American heterosexual male. It can very easily come across as, “Ignore my sins, crimes and just be gracious and kind to me and forgive me.”
However, I want to say that from what I believe to be the heart of Nelson Mandela who had every right to orient his life in leadership around revenge but chose a pathway to grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation in order not just to heal wounds, but do open up pathways to mutuality that would not have been possible otherwise.
I think it will remind us of the powerful force that is grace and forgiveness. If you have time for just one small anecdote. That gentleman that I talked about in that museum, there was a point that which one of the warring factions had learned about his actions as a soldier and in order to get retribution, went back to his home village and kidnapped his sister. They got his sister on the phone and called him. The sister begged him to come home.
She was setting a trap for this individual that had kidnapped her. They wanted to kill him. When he wouldn’t, while on the phone that soldier shot and killed his sister. He swore that day that before he died he would avenge the death of his sister. Something happened to him in prison. He found faith. Whatever pathway to faith that was doesn’t matter and he felt called to forgive. While he was in prison, he met the man that kidnapped and killed his sister.
When the man saw him, he stood before him in utter fear because he knew that he was about to be avenged. What happened instead was that soldier forgave him. As this man told his story, I was in tears weeping. I think that would be Nelson’s word to the world that there is a pathway through grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation that vengeance could never find.
John, on that incredibly poignant, powerful, and resonant note, thank you for your gracious gift to the world, for building bridges, for finding pathways, and for being part of this transformational process and movement for change. I’m so excited for us to be doing more together. Thank you for your goodness, your grace, and your love.
You’re welcome, and thank you for bringing the world together for these conversations.
Nelson Mandela once said that religion is a private conversation between an individual and their chosen higher power. His religious leaders and friends refer to him as a closet Christian. A man of faith who was very private and careful to ensure that his personal beliefs did not alienate nor divide. A man who was bigger than anyone denomination in his quest for reconciliation to ensure that he could unify across multiple religions and non-believers, too.
I recall personally the day Mandela died and the week that followed. Every day as the heavens opened and the rains came down, different religious leaders and traditional leaders pay tribute to his glorious life at the Nelson Mandela Foundation and beyond, the chief rabbi, the Anglican bishop, the Catholic pope, the head of the Methodist Church, traditional leaders, and many more.
Listening now to the former Global President of the United Church of Christ Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer helps us reflect upon the changing role of the church. How do we unify across the churches? What is religion? What is spirituality? How do we align the two? His answers are reflected in simple yet profound loving actions, his spiritual capacity to connect with something much bigger than himself, and his religious capacity to bring kindness and compassion to those in need and beyond this Christian denomination.
As Global President of the United Church of Christ, John worked with the Greek Orthodox Church in Jordan to help two and a half million Muslim refugees from Syria. His work actively extends beyond a single denomination to bring love, peace, and justice to those in dire need. In John’s own words, he is a theological minimalist. For those of you who believe in God or a different higher power, he believes that two things matter, that God or our higher power is love and our higher power is just. He continues that love without justice is merely sentimental and justice without love is merely self-righteous anger, but together, with love and justice combined, we can change the world.
It make me reflect upon the current heartbreaking conflict in Israel and Gaza today. What if we unified across national borders, different religions, and denominations to bring peace, love, and justice to the Israeli hostages, to the Israeli people, and to the ordinary citizens of Gaza and Palestine in an equally loving and compassionate way?
To unify, we must be bigger than any one denomination of believers and non-believers, too. Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices. Bold leadership is about taking bold action. Just one small step at a time, one step for you, but together, a giant step for humanity. Take care and take thoughtful bold action.
- Beyond Resistance
- John Dorhauer
- Nelson Mandela Foundation
About Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer
John earned his BA in Philosophy from Cardinal Glennon College, a Master’s in Divinity from Eden Seminary, and a D Min in White Privilege and Its Effect on the Church from the United Seminary. After serving as a local church pastor for 16 years, John went into middle judicatory work for his denomination (the United Church of Christ), where he served for 12 years in the Missouri Mid-South Conference and then the Southwest Conference before being elected General Minister and President. Having finished his two terms as President, John has been called to and now serves as the Pastor at First Congregational UCC in DeKalb IL. He is the author of three published books, Steeple-jacking: How the Christian Right has Hijacked Mainstream Religion, Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World and Into the Mystic, a collection of reflection on finding the sacred in daily life.
John has a passion for the work of justice extended through the power of love. He is the recipient of Eden Seminary’s “Shalom Award,” voted on by the student body and given to one whose life has exemplified commitments to peace and justice. He was named one of the progressive religious leaders to watch in 2017 by the Center for American Progress. He is a noted speaker about race and privilege in America, and the evolution of faith in the postmodern world. He has done extensive writing, teaching, and speaking in each subject.
John is a proud father of three and grandfather of two. His children now pursue careers as composers (son John), artists (son Adam), and poets (daughter Molly). He has been married to his partner, Mimi, for 38 years, and they share a life of mutual love, support, and companionship. He loves music, baseball, long bike rides, good literature and poetry, and time with his family.