PCG Theologian-in-Residence, Larry Greenfield, offered this tribute to Executive Director, Al Sharp, in honor of his fifteen years of work at Protestants for the Common Good.
Not often have I urged the board and staff of Protestants for the Common to deviate from the core principles and teachings from our shared Protestant heritage.
But today is different!
Maybe I’m just getting soft in my old age or possibly being seduced by the tempters of other religious traditions and secular practices. Whatever the cause, it is my prayer that this digression from our central precepts related to gambling is only temporary and that we will soon return to the counsel of our forebears and resume the good fight against seeking gain from games of chance, either in our personal morality or as a matter of public policy.
After all, I want to remind you, St. Augustine (whom some of us claim as a precursor of the Reformation) was firm in his belief that the devil him/herself invented gambling. Luther taught that gains won by gambling are not won without “sin and self-seeking love.” Calvin, as a matter of public policy, outlawed all gambling in Geneva. And John Wesley held that gambling as a means of gain was inconsistent with love of the neighbor.
So our Protestant churches, unlike, for example, our sister Roman Catholic congregations and civic revenue collectors, have refrained from using bingo, raffles, and lotteries as a way of raising funds. PCG, as a matter of fact, is officially on record opposing any form of gambling as a way of increasing public revenues, even if those revenues are to be used for good public purposes, because gambling is, in effect, a regressive tax that inordinately hurts the poor and fails to serve the common good.
No, don’t worry, I’m not going to propose this evening, in this tribute to our retiring (somehow that word does not seem to fit the character and demeanor of our honoree), I’m not going to propose that PCG adopt a short-term gambling scheme to meet our on-going need for revenues – calling it something like the “Alexander Sharp Memorial Raffle” or the “Al Sharp Lotto.” Nothing that radical!
But I am going to invite you into the realm of gambling by asking you to be an odds-maker – to figure out the odds, to calculate the likelihood, the chance, the probability, supposing you were a gambler, of some particular thing happening.
I realize this may offend your Protestant sensibilities, but play along with
this game of odds-making, as odd as it may seem.
What kind of odds would you give a new and struggling organization, created and then run with hardly any funds, of hiring the Vice President of Business and Finance at the University of Chicago as the new organization’s first and only Executive Director. What odds would you put on that happening?
What kind of odds would you establish for that new, unfunded organization – that was attempting to persuade the wider public that the powerful and well-funded Religious Right was an illegitimate expression of classical Protestantism and that that Progressive Protestantism was the legitimate heir – would be able to hire as its first Executive Director an alumnus of Yale who had devoted a good deal of his extra-curricular undergraduate experience to journalism, who had an abiding commitment to public persuasion for the common good, and who was eager to write essays and op-ed pieces for newspapers across the state? What kind of odds?
What were the odds for that new, struggling, volunteer-staffed organization – committed to advancing the highly disputed claim that authentic Protestantism demands that Protestants relate their Protestant faith to public life generally and politics in particular rather than confining their religious faith only to the private realms of life and falling back on the excuse of the separation of church and state in order to escape the demand for public and political engagement– what would be the odds of hiring as its first Executive Director someone with a Masters degree in Public Affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University? The odds?
What were the odds that the infant organization, still testing its theological foundations, would be able to secure an Executive Director who had begun his graduate studies in theology, ministry, and social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York and then, after a long hiatus, resume and complete those studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School, studying theology and ethics with Franklin Gamwell and doing his field education at the Chicago Temple with Eugene Winkler, both of them exemplary in relating faith and politics? How would you set the odds on that?
What were the odds that this new faith-based organization, existing on a shoestring but still wanting to have a large impact on legislation related to economic and political justice in Illinois would hire as its first Executive Director someone who had experience as a public administrator in the State of New Jersey and had served as no less than the Commissioner of Welfare in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts?
What were the odds that this new organization, not giving much thought at all to the kind and size of a professional staff that might be needed, would be able to hire an Executive Director – who had always had large number of professionals reporting to him – and would see him quickly develop a truly talented, effective, and committed group of colleagues around him, and would find that he was unerringly supportive and loyal to those colleagues: encouraging them to develop their own expertise, fostering a climate in which new and creative ideas could be proposed, listening and learning from those colleagues himself so the whole organization could flourish? What were the odds of securing that kind of leader from the very beginning?
What were the odds that the new organization would be able to hire an Executive Director who had experience working closely with board members of distinguished institutions and organizations and use that background and those associations to enlist support for the new organization and to build its own board into a group of diversely-talented and highly devoted directors, giving individual attention to each of us and inspiring and preparing us for our collective work? What were the odds of that happening?
What were the odds of finding a first and continuing Executive Director of this multi-issue organization who had the wisdom and savvy to develop close and effective partnerships with single-issue organizations so that we at PCG could multiply our strength and outreach? What were the odds on finding such a person?
What were the odds that a new Executive Director would be hired who recognized early on that the new organization would have to give attention to both building a ever-widening cadre of financial contributions and making the case for funding of programs from philanthropic foundations – and taking on the huge responsibility himself of writing most of the grant proposals that provided the major support for continuing programs and new, groundbreaking initiatives? How likely was that?
What were the odds that we would find an first and continuing Executive Director of this experience and talent who was immensely successful in raising funds from donors, and being amazingly generous himself – but when, even then, the funds ran low was willing to stay fully, tirelessly, and enthusiastically on the job at reduced or no compensation for extended periods?
I don’t have to tell you, my board colleagues, that on every count Protestants for the Common Good beat the odds when we hired and were able to keep Al Sharp as our Executive Director.
But we really don’t have to default to the gambling vocabulary of “odds” and “chance,“ and “probabilities,” do we?
We have our own vocabulary with our Christian and Protestant tradition for making sense of what would otherwise be unlikely if not impossible.
It’s called “Christian vocation” – the reality of a holy calling to a piece of work that otherwise defies easy explanations or normal expectations.
We can only fully make sense of Al Sharp and his leadership of Protestants for the Common Good, with all of his education and experience, his competencies and commitments, his passion and persistence, if we acknowledge and accept that the God of love and justice, revealed in Jesus Christ and made efficacious in our world by the Holy Spirit, that God called him to this Christian ministry.
How else do you explain, as Nancy Brandt noted, that Al never, ever, worked a forty hour week at PCG, but was totally invested, day and night, in this organization and its issues?
How else do we explain his driven-ness, his commanding presence and voice, his melding of wise management, theological insight, policy expertise, and effective advocacy?
How else do we explain his willingness to lead from the front, never from behind, on contentious and complex issues?
How else do we explain his zeal and zest for the job – his love of the work.
Chris Gamwell put it well when he remarked to me that Al finally got to do what he wanted to do and he couldn’t have been happier or more fulfilled than doing it.
We have at least one other way of accounting for the relationship of Al Sharp and PCG, a way that is absolutely central to our Protestant heritage and identity: not beating the odds, but recognizing and embracing the reality of God’s grace as Al accepted the call to be our leader.
Not an odds-beater, that is, but an instrument of God’s grace – a gift to us at PCG and a gift to all who believe that together we are called to work for the common good.
Thank you gracious and loving God.
Thank you Al.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always, and with us all.