'Social Justice Is Unfinished Business'

December 10, 2009
'Social Justice Is Unfinished Business'
Christopher Hope

Originally from the Atlanta area, Christopher Hope is one of many Harvard Divinity School students with a passion for social justice and ministry.

Below, the second-year master of divinity student at HDS describes growing up through economic difficulties, how he has put his passion and talents to work helping needy local residents, and why he chose HDS as a training ground for his life's work.

I have always had a passion for social justice.

Growing up, my family went through different economic hardships. During a hard time in Atlanta and nationally in the late 1980s, my father lost his business. Going from the upper echelon of the economic ladder to then growing up in poverty was definitely a challenge for my family. During those first few years of elementary school, I remember living in motels and sleeping in the car.

When I was in middle school, my mother found a job, and we were able to move into a lower-middle-class neighborhood, so things got better. It still wasn't easy, and that experience gave me the passion and the drive to do something that would help people.

When I was younger, I wanted to be a doctor. I have always been interested science. I went to Tufts University, and it was there that I not only started to look at medicine, but also comparative religious studies.

During my time at Tufts, I delved into how I could apply my interest in science and religion together. After graduation, I decided that I wanted to pursue ministry, looking at it from the aspects of both spiritual and physical restoration. Medicine has the same agenda as ministry—both are trying to restore human life, just in different ways.

I then found myself in a position to help people at my church—Pentecostal Tabernacle near Central Square in Cambridge. When the outreach minister there stepped down, it left a void, and I had to make a decision: Am I just going to church, or am I a part of the church? There's a difference. A lot of people just go to church, receive the scripture, and then go home. But to me, that is not what Christ is calling us to do. The church needs broken hands to facilitate what God wants to do, so I decided to take a role in the outreach office at my church.

The first project I organized was a toiletry drive for HIV-positive homeless people in Cambridge for the nonprofit organization Cambridge Cares About AIDS. I had been thinking about how I could tie together my interests in medicine, ministry, and social justice. The toiletry drive was a perfect opportunity to blend these passions, and it ended up igniting in my spirit a fierce sense of urgency—like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., talks about—to help bring the kingdom of Christ in a very real way, so that from our broken hands the Divine can work.

The second time we did the toiletry drive, in the fall of 2008, we raised over 2,000 items. Our original goal, in the spring of that year, was only 200. After that experience, I thought, "This is for me." It is something that I'm good at, and I have a passion for.

As a result, I wanted to apply to a graduate school that would be able to give me the theological tools—and also the ministerial tools—that I would need to be the man of God I am and the minister and servant I will be.

I applied to HDS because, coming from the Pentecostal denomination, I felt that there were things I would learn here that I would not necessarily learn within my own denomination. Also, in order for me to cross as many lines as possible, I need to engage as many cultures and as many religious traditions as I am able.

Placing an emphasis on religious, cultural, and ethical pluralism is very important to HDS. I felt that, as a Christian minister, I need to communicate my faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ across cultural and religious lines. Not only communicate it, but hopefully find an overlap in other people's traditions—certain ethical and moral underpinnings that multiple religious traditions share. So for me, that foundation of religious pluralism is one of the major reasons I chose HDS.

A big challenge being here has been to stay confident in my own faith tradition—in my own Pentecostal denomination—and to be brave enough to engage in other people's religious thought. It is not enough simply to be tolerant; we need to actually engage.

This ideal has helped out my ministry, and the classes I have been taking at HDS, like "Christian-Muslim Relations" with Professor Jane Smith, have been applicable in the real world.

During the toiletry drive last spring, I engaged in dialogue with a mosque, but they were originally resistant to the idea of joining the project. So I referred to the Qur'an and said to the imam that this is an invitation for us to know each other better. The discourse then changed, and that speaks to the practical benefits of being here.

I've been able to grow, not just through HDS, but through the opportunities offered by the entire university. I am a DJ on WHRB 95.3 FM, here in Cambridge. It is a weekly radio program that airs on Saturday nights at 11 pm, for one hour. The show is about the intersection of pop culture, Christian theology, and social justice. We play music, and we have guests come on the program and talk about faith, social justice, and the hip-hop generation, which I consider myself a part of. I've been doing the radio show since my first semester here. Professor Cornel West appeared on the show, and the Rev. Peter Gomes has also been on the show. He's been a great mentor.

Another great mentor here at Harvard has been Leah Daughtry, who is the chief of staff for Howard Dean and is teaching a course at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I'm also taking classes.

I am very interested in the intersection of religion and government. How can the state and the federal government help religious institutions provide social services for local communities?

During this last summer, my field education project was to put on a series of gospel concerts at a park near Central Square. We supplied toiletries and free food. The music was a way for people in the community to congregate, but we also provided social services. It was phenomenal.

I want to be as bold, intelligent, and strategic for the kingdom of Christ as possible.

I am interested in religion and government and how that relationship plays out in the public sphere. How are faith-based initiative federal funds dispersed down to the local level? It is important to make sure churches and mosques and different faith institutions that are doing groundbreaking social service work receive the much needed funds to continue doing well.

I want to start off here in Cambridge, and eventually, I see myself doing faith-based work on the local and state level, and then going national and working in domestic public policy.

I believe in the faith-based initiative. One of the fully inspiring verses of the Bible for me is James 2:20, which says that faith without works is dead. I am constantly challenged to have a living faith, because I serve a living God. That means I am constantly challenged to understand that social justice is unfinished business.

—by Christopher Hope