“You could feel the discomfort in the room, because our folks lived in the suburbs with the best school systems,” he recalled. But he stressed to his flock that this was, in fact their shared responsibility. “Do you think God cares about the 32,000 children, or the teachers?” Hamilton asked his congregants. “And if he doesn’t, what do you think God cares about?”
“We took this thing that was uncomfortable for people,” he said, and forced them to grapple with what it meant, through the prism of their faith.
They passed around the offering plates. But instead of asking for donations, Hamilton used them to distribute postcards with the contact information of teachers and administrators, urging congregants to reach out to them and offer help. Today, the church gives more than half a million in donations every year to six area elementary schools, and supports a variety of tutoring and enrichment programs.
Hamilton retold the story Tuesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. He offered it as an example of how his United Methodist Church has found ways to bridge partisan divides to engage with its community. “We try to bring both the evangelical and social gospel together regularly,” he said.
Hamilton is engagingly unassuming; his church website refers to him as Pastor Adam. The church now claims nearly 20,000 congregants spread over its four Kansas City-area locations.
Predictably, he looks back to the Gospel for inspiration.
“Among his disciples, [Jesus] chose Matthew the tax collector, who was a collaborator with the Romans, and he chose Simon the Zealot, who was absolutely opposed to the Roman occupation, and he was willing to kill and terrorize to drive them out.” Hamilton sees a model in that approach. “In essence, he took a hardcore Democrat and a hardcore Republican, and asked them both to be his disciples,” he quipped.
But finding ways to respect divergent views doesn’t mean that people will agree. “We’ve had members of both parties running against each other,” he said, stressing that congregants could share goals even as they disagree over the means of achieving them.
The election of Donald Trump has proved particularly challenging. After the election, Hamilton said, his church had Republicans and Democrats who were distraught, but also fiscal conservatives excited about the course that Trump might steer, and a congregant who showed up in a “Make America Great Again” hat. And even though Hamilton parts ways with the president on both personal and political matters, he says he’s hoping for the best. “I’m going to pray that the office will ennoble him,” Hamilton said. “And that’s about redemption, and about hope.”
For his own part, Hamilton strives to position himself as above partisanship or political ideology. “People ask me this question all the time: Are you liberal or conservative? I can’t figure you out. And I say, ‘Yes, of course,’” he said.