From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Episcopal bishop interns in Washington, D.C.
18 Apr 2000 15:40:15
Bishop Shaw of Massachusetts spends month as intern in
by Tracy Sukraw
Bishop Tom Shaw of Massachusetts recently spent a month
as an intern in Washington, D.C., taking a closer look at how
the nation's government impacts the lives of people.
While his unprecedented undertaking did have an air of
experiment and apprenticeship about it, he didn't go to Capitol Hill
to prove any political theories, and he certainly didn't spend
his month as a gofer, making coffee for superiors and photo
copying policy statements.
Shaw went to Washington simply and ambitiously to learn
as much as he could about the people and practice of
government, and to do so as a companion-in-residence with Rep.
Congressman Amo Houghton, an Episcopalian who represents the 31st
Congressional District in southwestern New York.
While in Washington Shaw met President Clinton and had
meetings with several members of the Cabinet, numerous
senators and representatives--Episcopalian and not, from both
sides of the aisle--Supreme Court Justice David Souter and
ambassadors to the United Nations and from South Africa,
Great Britain, India and Canada. He attended a Renaissance
Weekend in Santa Fe, where he attended seminars with leaders
from government, business, science and the arts; traveled to
Corning, New York., and its environs to get a feel for
Mr. Houghton's constituency; made a pilgrimage to
Selma, Alabama, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge with
a bipartisan delegation to mark the anniversary of the
historic voting rights march that took place there in 1965;
and he attended countless meetings, hearings, receptions
and press conferences.
In doing so, he stirred up the most extensive media
coverage Houghton's office has ever experienced, and
managed to make the church's witness in the world not only
visible, but very personal for many. In the sense of advent
and venture, arrival and bold undertaking, Shaw's month
in Washington was more adventure than experiment.
"This has been a wonderful experience," Houghton said in an
interview in his office on the first floor of the Longworth House
Office Building. "Our lives are a witness. You can be
committed to certain ideas, but you've also got to be involved.
Tom's is an outward language, and he uses it in a
Shaw's interest in trading the intense schedule of the
bishop's office for the even faster, noisier one of the
congressman's--and Houghton's invitation that he do
so--was "a spontaneous explosion," according to
Houghton, brought about by the closing events of 1998.
"Amo was one of the few Republicans that voted against
President Clinton's impeachment, and around that time,
he was as tired as I've ever known him. I could tell from
going around the parishes in the diocese that people were
really confused about how to look at the situation morally.
And then we started bombing Iraq," Shaw recalled.
In response, he quickly organized a vigil at the
Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston. Houghton was
among the speakers, and though there was little time for
publicity, more than 350 people showed up. "It was then
that I decided I wanted to come here," Shaw recalled.
Meet the press
As he neared his final week in Washington, Shaw had drawn
the curiosity of the press. He's done interviews with more than
two dozen media outlets, including ABC's "Nightline," CNN, the
Associated Press and Gannett News Service. Reporters seem
especially interested in what he wears--his usual habit and
pectoral cross, which sets off metal detectors everywhere he goes.
"It starts out as novelty. There just aren't any monks
in Congress," observed Chet Lunner, Houghton's chief of staff.
"But the interaction ends up in a much deeper place. People
here are just instantly interested, and it's giving Bishop Shaw
remarkable access and a more profound level of exchange,"
He still gets plenty of stares, but by this time he's getting
recognition, too. Crossing Independence Avenue on his way
from Longworth to the Capitol, his robe a black stream in the
spring breeze, Shaw returned greetings from a congressman
who passed by, and pointed out other new acquaintances
walking further down the street. Earlier, at lunch, a cafeteria
worker approached him to say she was sorry to have
missed his latest appearance on television.
Pausing on the Capitol steps, with tourists and children
from school groups chattering and scampering about nearby,
he took time for some reflection on his Washington immersion.
"I think people are really interested in bringing the faith
experience to complex issues. Maybe in some way, because
I'm an Episcopalian, I embody that," he ventured, squinting
into the sun at the Washington Monument in the distance.
"I also think that people are very cynical about government
and see this place as one of corruption, and so they are sort
of fascinated by the fact that somebody from a monastery,
and a bishop, would come wading into this. In fact, I don't
think that's the reality of Washington at all."
His church experience brought him to Washington with an
open mind, he said. "People say that it's terrible to be a bishop.
Well, it's not actually. There are a lot of wonderful things
about it. People say the church is divided, and that's just
not the case. With that background, I thought, maybe it will
be pretty different in Washington than the popular conception.
I really have been much more impressed with what goes
on here and with what people are trying to do than I thought
I would be. There are a lot of things that government and
the church have in common, not the least of which is the self-
sacrifice that people are willing to make so that others can
live better and larger lives," he said.
A tale of two friends
Amo Houghton, 72, was elected to Congress in 1987, a year
after he retired as CEO of Corning, Inc., the Fortune 500 glass
and ceramics company founded by the Houghton family in 1851.
His committee appointments reflect his interests: He is the sixth-
ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee,
chairing its oversight subcommittee and serving on its trade
subcommittee. He is also a member of the international
relations committee and vice-chairman of its subcommittee
"The Congressman is fond of saying that in 30 years of
business he never closed a deal by poking the other guy in the
eye," Lunner said, "and yet, the culture here is increasingly
partisan and rancorous. Everybody laments it; Amo tries
to do something about it."
He is a founder of the Bipartisan Congressional Retreat,
held in Hershey, Pennsylvania, which draws Congress members
and their families for a weekend focused on the role of civility
in political life. Concerned that Congress is increasingly
made up of political professionals rather than people like
himself with perspectives gained from careers in business or
other fields, he founded the John Quincy Adams Society,
an issues forum for moderate legislators and business leaders.
And, in an attempt to bring more tolerance and inclusivity to
the Republican Party, he actively participates in the Main
Street Partnership effort to build a political block of like-
minded Republican moderates.
"You have to focus on what's important and what works
and not what shoots off Roman candles. It's very hard,"
Houghton said about trying to be an effective moderate.
"Business may be war, but politics are very personal.
So from the practical standpoint of trying to get anything
done in a place like this, relationships become very important."
A lot of listening
Shaw, a Democrat, added, with some amusement, that "when
it comes to social issues, Amo and I actually agree on a fair
amount. We have more challenging discussions about the
church than we do on political issues."
Providing Christian leadership, Shaw said, has a lot to do
with listening. "I really think it's about listening to the people
of faith and also listening to the Gospel and the tradition
of the church and from all of that trying to get a sense
of how God is calling us as individuals and as a people. If th
ere is some way that the church can help individual legislators
or people who work in government understand how it is that
God might be calling them, then I think we're doing the right
He noted that so far during his time in Washington, he hadn't
been questioned about church positions on controversial issues
or even about separation of church and state. "I don't know
why it is. At least the more serious people have really sensed
that the church might have something to say, not so much
opinions on particular issues, but about a way of experiencing
reality. They're fascinated with how I meditate and how I pray.
"Everybody's lives are so busy. Thoughtful people are
really concerned about wisdom and making good decisions,
and everything in this life [in Washington] and everything in life
in the Diocese of Massachusetts dictates against that. It's too fast.
There's too much information. How do you sort through all
that? It's bad enough for us, but I think it's 10 times as bad for
Bridging the gap
Having had little time to process what he's experienced,
Shaw was hesitant to say what meaning his experience might
have for the Diocese of Massachusetts or the wider church.
"I can say that people are really hungry to talk about
public issues and about their faith and how they can serve
their communities and their church. My hope is that there is some
way that I can make that a reality in the diocese in a way that
maybe we haven't before.
"Because I've done this and gotten a fair amount of attention
on it, maybe I'll encourage other leaders in the church to come
here and make connections and relationships with people that
will feed the church."
Observers in Washington had no doubt that Shaw's time there
has had an impact. "His is a voice that can bridge the gap
between church and state in a way that gets people to realize not
only how much they matter as children of God, but also as
individuals living in a great country," said Cathy Rafferty, an
Episcopalian and Houghton's legislative aide on agriculture,
education, health care and welfare issues.
"Members of Congress hear every day from interested
parties that have a stake in something. To see a representative of th
e church here says that the church has something at stake and t
hat's deeply important," said Thomas Hart, Director of Gover
nment Relations for the Episcopal Church. It's the job of his f
ive-person office to represent the public policy positions of th
e Episcopal Church to lawmakers in Washington.
Out of the 75 public policy positions taken by the Episc
opal Church since the last General Convention, the Office of Go
vernment Relations has made international debt relief and domes
tic hunger relief its priority issues, given their credi
bility as religious concerns and a sufficiently broad base of su
pport for them within the church. Shaw participated in a press
conference, organized by Hart's office, with Secretary of the T
reasury Lawrence Summers, House Banking Committee chairman James
Leach and others in a call for debt relief for flood-ravag
"I have learned that people in the church probably have
a lot more influence on the decisions that people in gover
nment make than we think they do, and I definitely will take
public life more seriously," Shaw said. Here he finds anoth
er similarity between life in the church and life in gover
"The people of the Diocese of Massachusetts, they are the c
hurch, not me. We won't get anyplace as a diocese if they think
everything depends on me, and we won't get anyplace as a count
ry if we blame the 535 people that work in this Capitol build
ing and the man that lives just down the way there," he said,
pointing down the Mall toward the White House. "It's all of us
and how willing we are to be involved at the local level on po
litical issues, and how willing we are to work for our commu
"I'm always trying to get young people to really think about
giving their life to the church, and I feel the same way about
public service, whether it's professional public service or wh
ether it's volunteer work. We have to be holding that up to ou
r children and young people all the time, and we have to be pract
icing it ourselves. That's as much a part of living the Gospe
l life as going to church on Sunday."
--Tracy J. Sukraw is the editor of The Episcopal Times, Dioce
se of Massachusetts
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