There was a surprise one recent Sunday at Broad Street Ministry, the diverse, eclectic community Reverend Bill Golderer has built and nurtured over the past decade, where hipsters worship side by side with the homeless and where, hanging from the airy sanctuary’s ceiling, multi-colored scraps of paper contain the hand-scrawled dreams of parishioners for their own lives and for those of their neighbors.
Golderer, 43, is an interesting mix. He’s one part data-obsessed social entrepreneur, who is partnering with chef Michael Solomonov on Rooster Soup, a restaurant that benefits Broad Street Ministry and its groundbreaking model for holistically serving the homeless with an emphasis on hospitality and customer service. But Golderer is also a throwback, an old school moralist who thinks not enough of our public life is dedicated to thinking—and talking about—right and wrong. When Golderer, a swaggering presence, began one recent sermon, it promised to be just another of his inspirational stemwinders.
He began by sharing with his flock the story of Paul of Tarsus, who, before his transformation, had been named Saul and had been part of the problem. “In his life, Saul traded all mystery and discovery for the assurances offered by the status quo,” Golderer said. “He not only settled for the status quo, he reinforced it.”
When “God got a fresh hold on him,” Saul became Paul, someone “who felt an urgency about the wider world. Paul moved out of his comfort zone because he was filled with the belief that things must change…”
Golderer is a throwback, an old school moralist who thinks not enough of our public life is dedicated to thinking—and talking about—right and wrong.
To his parishioners, Rev. Bill was up to his usual rhetorical tricks, bringing old stories to life. What they didn’t know is that, over the past weeks and months, he’d been undergoing something of a Paul-like transformation himself. Before entering the ministry, Golderer had cut his teeth in politics in the early ‘90s at the Interfaith Alliance, a national organization that describes itself as a “faith-based voice countering the radical right.” Now the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington, D.C. had been heavily recruiting him to run for Congress against incumbent Republican Rep. Pat Meehan in the Delaware County-based PA 7th District.
Marcel Groen, the newly minted head of the state Democratic party, and long one of the state’s most powerful backroom players as the chair of the Montgomery County Democrats, met with Golderer and swore he was being visited by a ghost. Forty years ago, this very same District—despite a Republican registration advantage—had embraced a different minister as its congressman. The late Bob Edgar gave voice to a reasonable center in our politics and seemed to transcend partisanship. A man of God, he was about service and compassion, and had no time for placing team colors ahead of the common good.
Last month, Golderer decided to follow in Edgar’s footsteps. (Last Sunday was his last day at Broad Street Ministry.) Yet, despite Groen’s reaction and the party’s enthusiasm, you couldn’t find a political pundit who thought he could win. Meehan not only had over $2 million in the bank, he was a Republican local Democrats felt they could work with. Local funders like Alan Kessler, a big bundler for Al Gore and Ed Rendell in the past, were already with Meehan, who had never been seen as an idealogue. Besides, though he lived in the District, Golderer had spent the last decade developing groundbreaking ways to treat the city’s homeless population—not exactly a front and center issue in working class Delco.
So everywhere Golderer went as he wrestled with whether to move out of his comfort zone, he was met by smart people who told him he couldn’t win. But, he kept reminding himself, his question was, “Should I run?” Not “Can I win?”
In the sermon, Golderer made the transition from Paul’s quest to our needs today. “I have been troubled by the problems facing our society,” he said. “But I am equally troubled by the spirit with which we are approaching them…the rancorous way elected officials talk about each other is at least as troubling. Flinging blame—avoiding responsibility. Whatever issue we are dealing with—violence in the streets, schools that are failing our families—it remains the same. There is no transformational leadership, no inspiration, only bickering and blame…It is easy for me to imagine Saul—before he became Paul—being right in his element in our current partisan pain. He would love it—but remember he was suffering from a spiritual sickness. I believe that is what is going on underneath the surface of our bitter partisanship disguised as principled stances—a spiritual affliction in our society.”
“Sloth is a condition of the spirit that robs us of a chance to live fully—to participate,” Golderer says. “Those whose spirit is gripped by apathy tend to respond to everything without passion. They say to almost everything, ‘I don’t care.’ And friends, I need you to know, when you stop caring—you are dead.”
Religion is often fixated on contemplating the rewards that await us in other lives, on other planes. Suddenly, Golderer was making an equally time-honored argument to meet the world where it is. In Judaism, it’s called Tikkun Olam—“repair the world” — and in Catholicism its precepts can be found in the writings of Teilhard de Chardin, a 17th Century priest who was excommunicated because he argued that our job on this earth is to finish the work of Creation. It was a radical idea at the time, but a lovely prescription for those, like Golderer, who feel a spiritual calling to serve the modern-day common good.
In his sermon, Golderer started talking about what he calls the “BIG 7”—those seven deadly sins that were ingrained in him during his upbringing in the Roman Catholic Church. “The one that gets forgotten the most is: Sloth,” he said. “Sloth gets confused with being lazy—lying in the bathtub too long or binge watching shows on Netflix. But sloth is more serious than being a couch potato. It is a condition of the spirit that robs us of a chance to live fully—to participate. The condition of sloth in the Greek language is acadia—or apathy…Which means that those whose spirit is gripped by apathy tend to respond to everything without passion. They say to almost everything, ‘I don’t care.’ And friends, I need you to know, when you stop caring—you are dead.”
Golderer closed with a hopeful refrain. “I believe it is time to take a page out of Paul’s playbook,” he said. “Because I have seen such transformation here in this community—where I have seen that we can have different opinions, and we can even fight, but then push through and do something amazing—I know we need not be doomed to the current spiritual sickness of bitter partisanship. We can work for transformation because we have seen transformation here.”
By the time he was through, it was clear that here was something completely different. Our politics have been overrun by bloviating; Donald Trump is only the most extreme example of the soullessness of our public conversation. Golderer hasn’t yet uttered a single policy prescription, but he’s arguably laid out something more important and definitely more inspiring: A rationale for action, a call to arms, a high-minded embrace of the possible. It’s what Robert Kennedy did in 1968—“Some men see things as they are and say why; I dream things that never were and ask why not?”—only RFK was also a ballbusting political SOB who could get stuff done.
And that’s the question floating around Golderer’s ideals. Can he mix the pragmatic with the spiritual? Can he inspire and deliver? There are many, after all, who fell for high-minded rhetoric in the presidential election of 2008 who don’t want to be fooled again.
The pundits are likely right that Golderer can’t defeat Meehan. But does that even matter? We need more Bill Golderer’s to make Paul-like leaps, not fewer. We need a movement of Bill Golderers to run for office. In his sermon, Golderer had an answer for those—mea culpa, like me—who fixate on the “can he win” question ahead of the “what do our politics need” question. He quoted activist academic and writer Cornel West: “Vaclav Havel put it well when he said ‘optimism’ is the belief that things are going to turn out as you would like, as opposed to ‘hope,’ which is when you are thoroughly convinced something is moral and right and just and therefore you fight regardless of the consequences. In that sense, I’m full of hope but in no way optimistic.”
Who cares about the outcome? Here’s to Bill Golderer’s hopefulness.
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that Golderer had spoken to and has the support of George Soros.
Header Photo: Patrick Clark.