Volume 5, August 2011








Capitol Hill is Holy Ground!

A Reflection by Rev. Clete Kiley, Past-President, The Faith & Politics Institute

Putting the words Congress, or Capitol Hill and holy in the same sentence, no doubt, strikes some as utterly shocking or absurdly naïve. President Ronald Reagan is reported to have once said: “It has been said that politics is the second oldest profession. I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first.” While I have no doubt he would have said this with his characteristic half smile, and an Irish twinkle in his eye, he captures something that, as the Italians say, if it isn't exactly true it is well said.

When I shared with close friends that I would be leaving my ministry at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to go to Capitol Hill and work on a ministry with Members of Congress as President at The Faith & Politics Institute, I have no doubt many found a dose of truth in Reagan's quip, and wondered what I was getting myself into. In fact one clerical colleague continued for some time to stumble through the name of The Faith & Politics Institute. It was as though the last word—politics—somehow got stuck in his throat. Somehow the nexus of faith and politics for many suggested a good oxymoron at best, a very bad idea at worst.

Politics seems a challenging venue for a ministry. Politicians don't always get high grades from the public for spiritual depth or personal integrity. As I arrived on Capitol Hill the public's approval rating for Congress was at an historic low. And yet I must tell you I could not have anticipated finding a more profound place for a spiritual ministry. I could never have imagined the depth of soul I have actually found in many of the men and women of Congress whom I have encountered. The staff, too, who serve our Congress revealed a grace at work which one must observe first hand.

My first weeks at The Institute I had the blessing to shadow the Reverend Doug Tanner, a Methodist minister, the founder of The Institute, and my predecessor as president. I asked Doug what initially prompted him to begin the work of The Institute. He answered simply. He said he had come to see the men and women in Congress as people who each in turn had responded to an inner call to do something good for their country and for their fellow citizens. They come with different philosophies, with different sets of experiences, with different histories, but, at their inner core was a person capable of greatness of soul and depth of character. Doug began The Institute, he told me, “to help them hang on to a piece of their soul.”

Doug told me the pace on Capitol Hill is frenetic. And it is! One Member of the House was mentored by a more senior Member who told him that the daily routine of a member of Congress was somewhat like being a T.V. set, only someone else has the remote, and they flip channels every fifteen minutes. I have found this metaphor reveals a major truth. The issues before Members of Congress are of enormous importance and gravity and the environment within which they must make decisions is rapid, intense and too often acrimonious. Hanging on to a piece of one's soul in such an environment is no small challenge. Yet, I have seen members do just that.

The Faith & Politics Institute has been an oasis for many members of Congress. After a few weeks participating in our weekly reflection groups with Members, I witnessed a transformation in the group. The Members themselves kiddingly pointed out that the hour-long weekly group had gone from being an “anger management” group to one where Members who did not know each other well, nor ordinarily socialized with one another, had become a community. The discussions turned from policy to struggles with deeply held principles of faith and philosophy in a public life and to standing with one another in the midst of personal or family concerns. My own spiritual training told me that grace abounded in this setting. Rabbi Heschel would have said these were moments of light. Dr. King would have said we were close to experiencing “The Beloved Community”. I told Doug Tanner one day as we left the group that I felt we should remove our shoes as we had “walked on holy ground”. Yes, and this was on Capitol Hill.

Perhaps The Faith & Politics Institute is best known for the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimages to Alabama. The Institute coordinates these pilgrimages with Congressman John Lewis, who many have referred to as “the conscience of the U.S. Congress,” a well-earned attribute in my experience. Over 150 Members of Congress have participated with Congressman Lewis and The Institute in the 10 pilgrimages to Alabama, as well as pilgrimages of Truth & Reconciliation in South Africa, of Courage and Creativity in Mississippi, and of celebrating the 5th Anniversary of Katrina on the Gulf Coast. These pilgrimages are an extraordinary opportunity for Members and their families to step into America's history or world events to find the spiritual courage and insight to offer leadership and the pathway to reconciliation across the lines of race, religion and political party that could divide our nation. Members have described these pilgrimage experiences as transformative. As Democrats and Republicans, Progressives and Conservatives, Blacks, Whites, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews walk arm in arm across the Edmund Pettus Bridge together, the best in our political leaders is evident. They hang on to a piece of their soul and in the process help America to hang on to a piece of its soul as well. Once again Congress is walking together on holy ground.

The work of The Institute will go on. It is an important work and a much needed one. As I move on from The Institute I know that The Institute's mission has also helped me to hang on to a piece of my soul. It has deeply re-invigorated my faith and hope in our country and in our system of government and in the men and women who serve in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Nobody is perfect. I do not always agree with the policy directions of one group or another. But I do not doubt the sincerity nor do I question the capacity of Members and Congressional staff to dip deeply into that spiritual place when given the chance. When they do, I know we are a better, stronger nation. When they do, Faith and Politics is a graced intersection and Capitol Hill really is holy ground.



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