In our 5Q4 (“Five Questions For”) feature, we share stories from all over the Idealist network of people making connections and doing their part to build a better world.
Today you’ll meet Bill Golderer, Founding Pastor and Convener of the groundbreaking Broad Street Ministry, known throughout Philadelphia, PA and beyond as a “different kind of church.” Based out of a gothic cathedral on the Avenue of the Arts, a section of the city known as much for its culture scene as its homeless population, the ministry was intent on establishing itself as an engaged member of both communities right from the beginning. With programs like its Center for Subversive Theology and monthly No Barriers Dinners, the goals of the ministry are to provoke a shift in the inner working of the community and to foster a broader conceptualization of what people identify as faith, advocacy and community.
Our correspondent Trish Tchume caught up with Bill, who was kind enough to share his thoughts on everything from old minister tricks to Paris Hilton. Settle in for a treat:
1. What brought you to your current position at Broad Street Ministry?
Bill: The year before founding Broad Street Ministry, I was unemployed for the first time in my life. I had been a seminary professor for almost 3 years and hated it, but was afraid to leave. Finally, my soon-to-be wife pointed out that I was miserable and encouraged me to take some time off and move to Berkeley where she was going to school. I went and ‘lived in the desert,’ so to speak. I spent a lot of time in a Benedictine monastery, keeping silence. I really had to be quiet and just think about what I wanted to do with my life. I also repaired my relationships with friends and mentors that I had broken during my unhappy time. A lot of clarity came from knitting that web of relationships back together. I filled the rest of my time meeting with interesting people in the Bay Area, listening to their stories and trying to identify the elements that spoke to me. That’s when the vision for Broad Street Ministry came to me.
There’s actually a deep irony in me being ordained in the church. I grew up going to church but when I went away to college I found that being a part of a faith community was counter-cultural to the people I wanted to surround myself with. Most of the changemakers, artists, and activists didn’t tend to hang out with ‘churchy’ people. God’s funny that way. But I still saw in the church an opportunity. Because when it’s at its best the church is one of the few institutions that crosses the lines between race, class, and ethnicity and is not content to let those divisions be. The church doesn’t shy away from looking those differences in the face and encouraging people to make themselves vulnerable to those conversations.
2. Talk about a recent experience that reminded you why you do what you do.
Bill: With this sort of work, I spend so much time staring such crushing need in the face that I often worry about becoming really callous against people with greater resources. This can be a serious issue when I have to put on my fundraising hat and approach some of these people for support. I was recently at a fundraising dinner when one of our donors — a really wonderful older gentleman who we’ve known for a long time – approached me to explain that he and his wife would not be staying for dinner. He explained that his wife’s dementia often left her embarrassed in situations like this because she couldn’t remember the names of people that she knew she was supposed to know. So I let him know that I understood and went over to his wife to thank her for coming. And when I reached her she said to me, “I’m so sorry. I don’t remember who you areâ€¦but I have the sense that you love me.” It was so comforting to hear her say that, because I really do love her. I don’t share that as a sentimental story. That to me is an activist’s story. There’s so much coming at us, so much static, but all advocacy has to come from that place of love. And I was just so glad that even though I sometimes feel myself hardening against people with means, there was still something in me that was able to communicate that love to someone.
3. Tell us about an inspiring or unexpected connection you’ve made because of this work.
Bill: I was getting up from my table at an event last weekend and my chair bumped the chair behind mine really hard. When I turned to apologize to the person I’d bumped, I realized it was the new mayor, Michael Nutter. As soon as I started talking he said, “I know who you are. You’re that minister down on Broad Street that’s working with the homeless. I want you to come see me so we can talk about what you’re doing and what you think we should be doing.” It was just such a great reminder of the fact that I can be in this dialogical relationship with someone like Mayor Nutter, who really cares about this city, who sees his role as a calling. I think there are a lot of good reasons for a pretty high wall to exist between a mayor and clergyman, but for him, the equation was simple: you care about homelessness, I care about homelessness, neither of us can claim to know everything about that so let’s get together and talk about it.
I think there are just a finite number of people in the world for whom it would mean something to me to have their respect or to have them say “that guy’s no joke” or even just to have them know about the work that we do. Honestly, I could really care less if Britney [Spears] or Paris [Hilton] knows what we’re up to. But there are people like the mayor or Sister Mary Scullion of Project HOME that are absolutely heroic to me because they are just up to their ears in commitment and leveraging their power everyday to make systemic changes. That’s the goal of Broad Street Ministry — to be known by people like that for what we do across institutions and faith lines.
4. Is there a book/resource that you often recommend or a piece of advice that you often offer to people looking to do work similar to your own?
Bill (Laughs): I think it’s an old minister’s trick to give someone a book no matter what the affliction. Actually I’m sure a lot of people would probably give this answer but I would say, Po Bronson’s What Should I Do with My Life? It’s a series of 30 vignettes written by people who just have a deep sense that they want to make a change. Some of the changes end badly, and I appreciate that about the book: it points out that there’s inherent risk in making change. But there’s also a gift in asking the question “what should I do with my life” rather than “what do I want to be when I grow up.” Bronson even talks about this: how the latter question, which focuses more on what we want, robs us of our moral imperative, whereas the first question allows us to start from the posture that life really does have a purpose for you. There’s inherently a way that you’re supposed to roll. You just have to figure it out.
5. What’s the thing you’re most looking forward to in the coming year?
Bill: What’s magic about this work is that this outfit keeps finding new ways to reacquaint old friends into a new mission. Just recently I had a colleague of mine leave a very established gig in California because she wanted to help build this. I’m constantly meeting people that I immediately feel are like people I’ve known for my whole life. And it’s always really interesting for me to see over the course of a year who of those people moves out of the acquaintance zone or the observer zone and makes the choice to travel alongside us as we build this ministry. And it happens all the time. People find their passion through Broad Street Ministry, and a lot of times it has nothing to do with their day job. We try ev
ery day to find opportunities to use this ministry to give people an opportunity to act on what they truly feel like they should be doing in this world.
[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]