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.
“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.