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At National Cathedral, dean preaches the gospel of activism

Published: Friday, Jan. 25, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Washington Post photo )
The Rev. Gary Hall, new dean of Washington National Cathedral in Washington, begins a baptism service on Jan. 13. Hall calls himself a “left-wing Democrat” and favors a strict approach to gun control, which he says is a religious issue.

The Rev. Gary Hall’s announcement that the cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal Church, would host same-sex weddings and his immediate embrace of gun control in the hours after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., have made him a regular on national television. On Thursday, Hall was the only representative of the clergy speaking at a Capitol Hill news conference where Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced a bill that would ban dozens of assault weapons.

One recent morning, Hall zoomed around town to three television appearances in an hour, triggering stares in network studios as he sat in his priest’s collar getting his makeup done while the usual pundits and politicos came and went.

His sermon two days after the Newtown shootings – “The gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby,” he said – got a rare standing ovation.

“You have to know how stodgy this place is,” he said, referring to the cathedral. “And it wasn’t like ‘bravo’ for an opera singer; it was: ‘Thank God someone is finally using the pulpit to speak about something we care about.’”

It was partly Hall’s comfort in the media spotlight and with controversy that landed him the job in the fall of transforming the cathedral from a dimming star struggling to boost its profile and fundraising to a hot spot for community activism and debate. Newtown dropped the gun-control issue into his lap months later.

But as someone drawn to religion in the ’60s by activist antiwar, antisegregation chaplains raring to make a scene, he believes he can use this. He can use it to hold the church up as the place that provides justice and hope in the dark times. That message fueled a generation of progressive religion and activism, and Hall is among those who hope it can again today.

On Sunday, Hall made that connection explicit when he preached about gun violence from the pulpit at the cathedral, from which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last Sunday sermon before he was shot dead in Memphis, Tenn.

“In the spirit of Dr. King, I want to say that opposing gun violence may have political implications, but it is not primarily a political issue. It is a religious issue,” Hall preached. “If we want to stand with Jesus and with Martin Luther King, we’ve also got to stand with those who, like them, die by means of violence. And that means we who follow Jesus and stand with King have to stand against guns.”

Yet even on a roll, Hall knows the challenges facing this clergy-led crusade.

He worries about the limits of news conferences in a world where it’s hard to get people’s attention. He knows clergy, like Americans, are divided on the efficacy of gun restrictions. He agonizes about the mostly white pastors at these recent gun control events. PICO, a major faith-based advocacy group, wrote in a letter to Vice President Biden that the “main question” clergy are asking is whether White House-backed measures will focus as much on urban violence as on sprees like the one in Newtown.

Hall understands that some think white America is late to this issue.

“Black clergy in this area have said zero about [Newtown]. We need to build relationships,” he says.

But right now, he knows there is momentum.

As leader of one of the country’s most prominent churches – and the site of Tuesday’s official inaugural prayer service, complete with the Obamas – Hall is being interviewed daily about measures he and a team of clergy leaders are promoting.

Ushers handed out 10,000 call-your-lawmaker cards to worshippers over the Christmas period. Hall and the Washington diocese’s bishop, Mariann Budde, traveled to Johns Hopkins University this week for a summit on gun control. They are soliciting criticism from gun-owning Episcopalians, hoping to broaden their pool of allies.

Hall is advocating for something striking to keep the subject on people’s minds. He likes the idea of wrapping the towering Gothic cathedral in black crepe in memory of gun violence victims. Or ringing its massive bells each morning to toll the number of deaths each day. Something that gets people’s attention.

“What I want to do is more like guerilla theater,” he said.

Budde, like Hall, knows that for now there’s a limit to the impact two white mainline Christians can have when they’re new in town (she came in late 2011). But they also know they have a community packed with influential members who are, whether Democrat or Republican, largely open to Hall’s argument that it’s time for a change on gun policy.

“Our plan is to mobilize people who never go first but are willing to go second,” Budde said last week after a packed news conference of clergy calling for a list of new gun measures.

Hall is seen as someone who may be able to smooth the racial and political jagged edges of this issue. While he calls himself a “left-wing Democrat” who would be just as happy with severe limits (like England’s) on firearms, his actual track record is more problem-solver than bomb-thrower.

Throughout his career, he has been called in to fix institutions.

When people started in the 1990s to talk openly about sex abuse and misconduct, he became the point man in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and handled 21 major cases, mostly involving adults. When it became clear that Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Illinois was failing financially, Hall was brought in to radically shrink and overhaul it. And as homosexuality became a bigger and more divisive issue in the Episcopal Church, Hall was one of a tiny group picked to build theological support for equality.

“He’s like the Joe Biden of the Episcopal Church. He has the personality and respect that can bring people together,” said the Rev. Susan Russell, a priest at All Saint’s Pasadena, a 4,000-member Los Angeles church where Hall worked for 11 years. All Saint’s is seen as a model of a thriving, politically outspoken liberal church at a time when mainline churches are largely shrinking.

Hall grew up with secular, divorced parents in Hollywood. His father, Huntz Hall, was a successful film actor in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and his mother was Leslie Hall, costume designer for Mary Tyler Moore. Hall himself wrote jokes for Steve Allen on “The Tonight Show” before stumbling into religion at Yale and then Berkeley through activist priests who inspired him during a period of political chaos.

“I thought it was pretty cool to see a place where there seemed to be hope and transcendence in a time of violence. That things weren’t all bleak, that there was some redemptive process,” he said.

To him, that process involves “having a big mouth,” as he puts it. Hall likes to be frank about what he sees as a desperate need for an overhaul in the mainline. If he has his druthers, he’d make interfaith efforts about more than just “a bunch of men in robes talking about abstract things.” He’d change the Episcopalian focus on elite, private schools “and show we care.” And of course, the Cathedral would be less of a “museum” and “more a place with a mission.”

Not that Hall wasn’t expecting to be doing any of it in this stage of his life. He was expecting, he said, to retire at his last job, as rector of a large parish in suburban Detroit. But then he got a last-minute call from Washington.

And now he has plans – for gun control and education and housing, modeled off an All Saint’s program that buys up city properties gentrifiers are eyeing and turns them into affordable housing.

Whether this child of Hollywood can bring his dreams to life, he doesn’t know.

“In some sense, we’re like the Republican Party and the tea party – we have aging constituencies,” he said. “But I have a cathedral full of people who want to have an impact. We need to think about how to do that.”

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