Kansas City Clergyman Seeks Way To Pastor Across The Political Divide

Feb 3, 2017
Originally published on February 3, 2017 5:19 pm

Clergy across the country are sermonizing about events in Washington, D.C.

For Rev. Adam Hamilton, that is both a challenge and an obligation.

Hamilton founded the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas in 1990, hoping to attract what he describes as thinking Christians with little or no engagement with their faith. The congregation began meeting in the chapel of a funeral home.

Today, it's a multi-campus church with a membership of more than 20,000. It's the biggest Methodist church in the country, and it has been cited as one of the most influential churches in America.

The new sanctuary that's about to open at the main campus just outside Kansas City hosts the largest single stained glass window in the world.

Hamilton tells NPR's Robert Siegel he didn't set out to claim that record. But he did set out to build a church that will serve as a house of worship for a century, if not more.

"We'll baptize 30,000 babies in here," he says. "We'll give 30,000 children their third-grade Bibles. This congregation over the next 100 years will give away 50,000 units of blood, 10 million pounds of food. And over the next 100 years, we'll give between $4.5 and $6.5 billion to ministries outside the walls of our church."

Hamilton is in the midst of a series of sermons he calls "Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope."

On Sunday, his focus will be fear related to the direction of our country. He will touch on President Trump's executive action temporarily barring refugees and citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries.

"So part of it's just dealing with fear," Hamilton says. "You know, our fear of President Trump, our fear of the whirlwind of activity – so if you tend to be left-of-center, there's a great deal of fear there – and I want to address that and say, 'We need to be a careful about overreacting, and being people who are stirring up fear.' "


Interview Highlights

On Trump's executive actions on immigration

One of the things that struck me was that President Trump was doing exactly what he said he was going to do when he was running for office. And it was clear to me that a lot of people would feel safer because of this.

I didn't personally feel safer. I think, I felt this adds to a perception of America that might further support the feelings of more radical jihadists who would say well, "Here America's showing its true stripes." ... But I can understand why some people would feel that way.

On the decision to talk about refugees in his sermon

Well, I knew actually as of Friday night (Jan. 27) that I would be saying something, but I chose not to address it in church immediately after that on Sunday because I felt like I didn't know enough yet. And I had people who were disappointed that I didn't talk about it in church immediately after that.

And part of my thinking was, "If every time President Trump issues an executive order that I might question on Friday, I change my sermon to preach out about it, I'm going to be preaching about President Trump every Sunday for the next four years."

And our congregation is divided. We have some folks who are Trump supporters. We have folks who were not Trump supporters. The Trump supporters [are] like, "Please don't talk politics every Sunday. Don't bring your personal opinions into the sermon every week." And other folks are like, "Why aren't you speaking out? Why aren't you saying something?"

On what he plans for his next sermon

I will also be speaking specifically about refugees, so I'll be reminding them of what the Scriptures say about the refugee, the immigrant, the alien in your midst. What does the Bible teach us about how we react to people who are in troubled situations? You know, what does it mean to be concerned for those who can't speak up for themselves? Then let's ask the question, how would Jesus define greatness? If we're really trying to be a nation that is great.

On how he feels speaking to a divided congregation

When you have a congregation like ours that's divided on both sides of the political spectrum and conservative, progressive and a whole lot of people in between, the question is how do I continue to be pastor for all of these people? And how do I help them hear each other?

I mean, part of the challenge in the last presidential election for Democrats is they were tone deaf to the concerns of people who were on the right, and lost an election they thought they had in the bag. And I think that's true in the congregation. That I've got to be able to understand why are some people saying, "Finally, we've got a president who's doing something," while other people are fearful and saying or angry and saying, "We have to go protest."

I want to help both sides be able to hear the legitimate and sometimes not necessarily legitimate concerns of the other. My aim is not to see 40 percent of my congregation walk away saying, "I don't know if I want to come back." And I've said to pastors across the country, I've said, "It's easy to irritate people. It's harder to influence people."

My hope is that I've influenced people on both sides to come together and find out, OK what's reasonable, what makes sense, and then what is in keeping with the Gospel. How does where we go, you know, when we walk out of the church and are thinking about this, influenced by our faith in Christ?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Across the country, clergymen and women find themselves sermonizing about events in Washington. For Reverend Adam Hamilton in the Kansas City area, that's both a challenge and an obligation. Our colleague Robert Siegel met Reverend Hamilton at his church this week.

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: Adam Hamilton founded the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in 1990, hoping to attract thinking Christians who had little or no engagement with their faith. They began meeting in the chapel of a funeral home. Today, it's a multi-campus church with a membership of over 20,000. It's the biggest Methodist church in the country, and it's been cited as one of the most influential churches in America. The new sanctuary that's about to open at the main campus just outside Kansas City is simply awe-inspiring.

Oh, my, we're looking at a massive stained glass window.

REVEREND ADAM HAMILTON: Now this is the largest single stained glass window in the world.

SIEGEL: Reverend Hamilton says he didn't set out to have the largest in the world, but he did set out to build a church that will serve as a house of worship for a century, if not more.

HAMILTON: We'll baptize 30,000 babies in here. We'll give 30,000 children their 3rd-grade Bibles. We're going to - this congregation over the next hundred years will give away 50,000 units of blood, 10 million pounds of food.

SIEGEL: Reverend Adam Hamilton is in the midst of a series of sermons he calls Unafraid: Living With Courage And Hope. On Sunday, his focus will be fear related to the direction of our country. He'll touch on President Trump's executive action from a week ago temporarily barring refugees and citizens of seven majority Muslim countries.

HAMILTON: You know, one of the things that struck me was that President Trump was doing exactly what he'd said he was going to do when he was running for office. And it was clear to me that a lot of people would feel safer because of this.

SIEGEL: Did you personally feel safer?

HAMILTON: No, I didn't personally feel safer. I think I felt this adds to a perception of America that might further support the feelings of more radical jihadists who would say, well, here America's showing its true stripes.

SIEGEL: The image of America shutting the door on a lot of people.

HAMILTON: Right, right, right, but I can understand why some people would feel that way.

SIEGEL: How early in this past week did you figure you would be saying something about refugees and immigrants?

HAMILTON: Well, I knew actually as of Friday night that I would be saying something, but I chose not to address it in church on - you know, immediately after that on Sunday because I felt like I didn't know enough yet. And I had people who were disappointed that I didn't talk about it in church immediately after that, and part of my thinking was, if every time President Trump issues an executive order that I might question on Friday I change my sermon to preach about it, I'm going to be preaching about President Trump every Sunday (laughter) for the next four years.

SIEGEL: It's going to be programmed...

HAMILTON: Yeah, exactly.

SIEGEL: ...Into the life of your church.

HAMILTON: It's - right, so I think - and you know, I have folks who - you know, our congregation is divided. We have some folks who are Trump supporters. We have folks who are not Trump supporters. The Trump supporters are like, please don't talk politics every Sunday, and don't bring your personal opinions into the sermon every week. And the other folks are like, why aren't you speaking up?

SIEGEL: Yeah.

HAMILTON: Why aren't you saying something?

SIEGEL: Well, where is all this leading you this coming Sunday? To what kind of message, what kind of sermon?

HAMILTON: Yeah, so part of it's just dealing with fear - you know, our fear of President Trump, our fear of the whirlwind of activity. And so if you tend to be left-of-center, there's a great deal of fear there. And I want to address that and say, we need to be careful about overreacting and being people who are stirring up fear and continuing - and so having said that, I will also be speaking specifically about refugees.

So I'll be reminding them of what the scriptures say about the refugee, the immigrant, the alien in your midst. What does the Bible teach us about how we react to people who are in troubled situations? You know, what does it mean to be concerned for those who can't speak up for themselves? Then let's ask the question, how would Jesus define greatness if we're really trying to be a nation that is great?

And however you choose to look at the executive order - I mean so my hope would be, sure, go ahead and look to see are we vetting people properly, and let's make sure that process is as safe as possible. I'm OK with that. But let's make sure we're treating the people who are in process and already on their way as we would want to be treated - right? - the golden rule. And then somewhere in there, let's make sure that we're still a country that welcomes people who are in duress or people who are in trouble.

SIEGEL: When you are speaking to the congregation on Sunday and when the topic is something which you know the congregation might be divided about, what are you thinking at that time? You must know faces you're looking at, and you know people - you can pretty well imagine what they're thinking about...

HAMILTON: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...What you're saying at that moment.

HAMILTON: Yeah, when you have a congregation like ours that's divided on both sides of the political spectrum and conservative progressive and a whole lot of people in between, the question is, how do I continue to be pastor for all of these people? And how do I help them hear each other?

I mean part of the challenge, you know, in the last presidential election for Democrats is they were tone-deaf to the concerns of people who were on the right and lost an election they thought they had in the bag. And I think that's true in the congregation.

But I've got to be able to understand, why are some people saying, finally we've got a president who's doing something while other people are fearful and saying, you know - or angry and saying, we have to go protest? I want to help both sides be able to hear the legitimate and sometimes not necessarily legitimate concerns of the other. My aim is not to see 40 percent of my congregation walk away saying, I don't know if I want to come back.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

HAMILTON: And I've said to pastors across the country - I've said, it's easy to irritate people. It's harder to influence people. My hope is that I've influenced people on both sides to come together and find out, OK, what's reasonable? What makes sense? And then what is in keeping with the Gospel? How does where we go, you know, when we walk out of the church and are thinking about this influenced by our faith in Christ?

SIEGEL: Reverend Hamilton, thank you very much for talking with us.

HAMILTON: My pleasure. It was good to be with you today.

SIEGEL: Reverend Adam Hamilton is the senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan.

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