Unlikely Convert

May 3rd, 2012
Hollifield with Karl Rove in 2006

The Spiritual Awakening of a Former GOP Operative

“You're wrong about Karl Rove." So began my first conversation with an outspoken United Methodist pastor who eventually would become my mentor.

It was early in the fall of 2009. We were on a break from a comparative religions class and it was the first time I’d ever spoken to a United Methodist clergy member.

The Rev. Rich Lang, the aforementioned clergyman, had taken issue with the Bush administration’s relationship with fundamentalist congregations during a lecture at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology on “American Civil Religion.”

I was taking the course in my second year of graduate school as a requirement to complete my Masters of Christian Studies. I never suspected the class would focus on fundamentalist sects of world religions, but was happy with the focus, if it meant appropriate reflection on the broken relationship between a secular political agenda and religious practices.

By this time in my life I had come to a new understanding of the so-called separation of church and state. My disagreement with the Rev. Lang wasn’t based on the ease with which political ideologies exploit the pulpit as a soapbox. I disagreed with his assertion that Republican political operatives and conservative religious leaders shared the same goal.

Without a doubt, the Bush reelection campaign used the Christian Right. And, conversely, the Christian Right used President Bush’s reelection campaign.

Political parties co-opt theological imagery and language for their own secular political purposes. I am all too familiar with this convergence of political and religious power.

Republican Inner Circle

Prior to becoming a student at The Seattle School I spent six years as an inner-circle member of the Republican Party. I worked as a paid grassroots coordinator for the South Carolina Republican Party in 2002. I was field director of the Western I-4 region of Florida for President Bush's reelection in 2004 and received a prestigious appointment in the White House Office of Political Affairs working closely with Karl Rove and numerous other top officials following the campaign. From there, I went on to manage a high-profile congressional election for a Republican candidate during the 2006 cycle.

All of this was before my 25th birthday.

The Rev. Lang and I talked for over an hour. Then he invited me deeper: He requested that I, a former political adversary, visit his congregation.

At this point, the question may be creeping into your mind of what someone with my background was doing at an interdenominational theological school, and how I came to be a staff member for the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society.

The explanation is in Christ's movement in my life. That is, it’s the story of those who have shaped me in Christ-likeness and encouraged my transformation.

I'm sharing it because it's relevant for my generation. We are a generation defined by political and religious paranoia that divides us into warring camps where we become predictable and easily controlled. There must be another way.

Ananias’ Example

Stories like mine encourage us to follow Ananias’ example and courageously welcome the most unlikely converts (Acts 9:1-19).

I began to sense a spiritual and existential disconnect between my gifts and engagement with the world while managing that congressional campaign in 2006, despite receiving many accolades as a young Republican political operative. The disenchantment with my aspirations was so profound that I would not be able to tell my story if not for The Seattle School’s life-changing curriculum and courageous faculty.

The Seattle School taught me that transformation of the world begins with my own transformation. My family history going back several generations tells of hardship, abuse and broken relationships. This history is combined with a tendency to bury these stories under addiction and fundamentalist expressions of Christianity.

Explore Broken Places

The curriculum and community at The Seattle School gave me permission to explore the broken places in my own story without feeling isolated, hopeless or ashamed. As a result, I was able to connect my pain to a world groaning for a story of resurrection.

The process of self-reflection and evaluation gave me new interpersonal skill. It also gave me a new perspective on spirituality, privilege, theological convictions, personality and familial relationships.

It was a harrowing journey that eventually led to healing and a capacity to sit in the presence of immense suffering with compassion and empathy. It taught me to trust that the spirit of God is a spirit of transformation.

Many extraordinary people helped me put the broken pieces together in a new way. Perhaps none are more important than the folks at the Rev. Rich Lang’s former congregation, Trinity United Methodist Church in Seattle.

It took me several months to make good on my promise to visit. I did so on All Saints Day 2009, but wasn't expecting much. It had been nearly 13 years since I attended church regularly, and as a seminary student I was increasingly skeptical of the institution.

That first Sunday at Trinity UMC would change my course forever. There I encountered a motley community of political radicals, aging mainliners, young professional families and homeless persons all mourning their losses from the previous year and expressing profound hope in the face of death and injustice.

Their care and compassion for one another was palpable. Their openness and invitation was intoxicating. I was hooked.

I was buoyed weekly by a message and promise of justice and joy, expressed in the offertory prayer the Rev. Lang wrote:

I pledge, o God, to discover how much is enough for me to be truly fulfilled, neither rich nor poor, and to consume only that. I pledge, o God, to be part of the discovery of how much would be enough for everyone, not only to survive but to thrive, and to find ways for them to have access to that. May this offering of restraint and justice teach me to live like Jesus, healing my life and the life of the world. Amen.

Within a year I was a member in every sense: teaching adult education, preaching children’s sermons, serving on Staff-Parish Relations Committee and acting as secretary of the Advisory Board. More importantly, I was learning what it means when the body of Christ models the radical peace and acceptance of Jesus within our increasingly violent and divisive culture.

I moved back to Washington, D.C., to begin searching for a position where my career could more closely mirror my vocation as a person of faith. At GBCS, I have worked with people of all faiths toward this end because it is important for our denomination to engage this struggle. And in May, I will be certified as a candidate for ordination in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Powerful Good News

I'm thankful for the path my life has taken. I feel at home in the body of Christ that empowers me to tell the truth, move out of my comfort zone, and be a part of realizing a peaceable society in which everyone can thrive.

I'm no longer stifled by the sound-bite rhetoric that defines political parties and much of our religious discourse. I'm free to work with people from all walks of life to pioneer creative solutions to some of our most pressing concerns.

My call to ordained ministry was a call to brokenness, exploration and renewed hope. My goal for ministry is to move deeper into the way of healing and life called forth by Trinity’s prayer for all of creation to thrive. The meditation has expanded over time beyond the context of faithful finances and into a life-shaping hymn.

I sincerely believe Jesus’ example is good news powerful enough to heal individual lives that transform the world. This good news is at once personal and therapeutic as well as communal and political in its radical departure from the principles of popular culture.

Yet, this good news doesn't require me to disparage culture. Quite the opposite is true. I'm convinced that as a minister of the Gospel I'm called to authentic relationship with culture and to engage politically as I do theologically: with a courageous spirit, prophetic impulse and compassionate heart.

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