Reverend Hurmon Hamilton prompted the attendees to shout words including “story,” “organizing,” “invitation” and “relationships” — all of which he uses to describe how his faith inspired his increased involvement in activism.
On Thursday, Hamilton and Rabbi Jonah Pesner led a conversation in the Whitney Humanities Center about how people of faith can come together to advocate for justice. In 2005, Hamilton and Pesner co-led a grassroots campaign that organized thousands of religious people in the Massachusetts fight for health care access. Their work became a nationwide model for reform. During Thursday’s event, they discussed how they navigated deep ideological differences and how religious groups should approach activism as a community.
“This is the story of people of faith who worked together to co-organize,” Hamilton said. “We have had major disagreements, and we came out of that campaign, loving each other. That’s the best of organizing — the invitation, the moment, the organizing — that produces lasting relationships, not just lasting changes.”
In 1998, Hamilton co-founded the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization and worked as its president for over a decade. He simultaneously served as the senior pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Boston.
GBIO — composed of more than 70 Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith organizations — has worked with various religious institutions to address social problems in Boston, such as improving housing and healthcare, reforming the criminal justice system and addressing racial disparities in the city.
“The deep work we did came out of our faith,” Hamilton said. “It wasn’t like an addition to the work that I did. It was about exploring your story and asking what does your faith mean? How does that lead you or not lead you into action?”
Pesner was a rabbi at a Jewish synagogue called Temple Israel, a Boston Jewish congregation, when he first became involved with GBIO. He said his own personal story of “being impacted by systems of oppression or injustice” inspired him to engage with the group. During their time working with the GBIO, Hamilton and Pesner would discuss issues that were central to each of their religious communities and found that the issue of health care came up in almost all churches and synagogues. Under their leadership, the GBIO launched Affordable Care Today in 2005, and they were able to gather 125,000 signatures and put its own universal health care mandate on the Massachusetts ballot.
“One of the reasons I do interfaith work is to hold me accountable that my view may not be right,” Pesner said. “We all came from one source, but have become so beautifully diverse and a tapestry, of identity, of ethnicity, of religion, of faith, of beliefs … I think it’s important to be in study communities where we learn from one another, we learn how we think about the text. It doesn’t mean I have to accept their interpretation of it, but I want to be challenged by it.”
Hamilton first wanted to participate more in activism after finding out that a young man got shot and murdered close to his home and the church at which he worked.
He could not rationalize the plethora of churches as well as escalating violence in the community and believed the solution was communication between religious communities.
“It is only when you get churches in relationship with one another and then get them in relationship with the broader community and others that you have the power to bring the change that you’re talking about,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton believes that his and Pesner’s ideological differences regarding same-sex marriage is a testimony of being able to collaborate with one another despite differences in opinions, with Hamilton having a conservative stance on the issue and Pesner having a progressive stance.
Pesner reached out to Hamilton to have dinner with him and two same-sex couples where they were able to converse.
“We have two groups of people at the center of civic life in Boston, screaming at one another, and there’s a stone wall between us,” Hamilton said. “My prayer is that when I go, and engage, I’m not going to turn that wall down. But maybe the stone wall will become a glass wall. So that we see each other, we know each other and respect each other. Did we change our political or theological position? No. Were we changed? Absolutely.”
During the talk, they simulated the same environment that brought them to organize by encouraging participants to take eight minutes to turn to someone near them and tell their story.
Jadan Anderson ’22 said their favorite part about the talk was when Hamilton emphasized that polarization was necessary to make decisions, but depolarization needed to build relationships.
“It was striking to me because I think that’s a really good way I can check my vision,” Anderson said. “It echoes the way I’m supposed to approach an academic text, seeing how starkly different the ideas may be from my own but also being quiet enough to see where the ideas or experiences are connected. It’s cool to hear explicitly the importance of that approach on the much larger political and social scale.”
As for addressing the polarization in the United States regarding politics and other issues, Pesner believes the solution lies in faith and religion.
“The faith community is the one place where people could come together, who are bound by a belief in a higher power and a deeper truth than narrow political self-interest,” Pesner said. “We have this expression that you know, everybody was created in God’s image … I hear God speaking through you, and have respect for your beliefs, your opinions, your ideas and learn from them.”
The Whitney Humanities Center is located at 53 Wall St.
Khue Tran | firstname.lastname@example.org