The Washington Post

D.C. pastor tries to balance spiritual and political roles

The Rev. Derrick Harkins sits for a portrait at the 19th Street Baptist Church in Washington. (Ricky Carioti/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Derrick Harkins has had a tough week.

Phone call after phone call from pastors, friends and congregants who are angry over President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage. Many feel betrayed. And Harkins, the director of faith outreach for the Democratic National Committee, is the man they can vent to.

That would be challenge enough. But Harkins is also pastor of the District’s historic Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, which is generally theologically conservative. He’s also a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals, the country’s largest such group.

For now, at least, Harkins is a man on a high wire. And, uncomfortable moments aside, he loves it.

Officially, Harkins’s job as the DNC’s point man on religious issues is to build the party’s base by meeting with pastors to keep the faith community connected with the president. Unofficially, he plumbs the corners where public policy and faith meet, and tries to reconcile for the faithful the complications that can surface.

“It gives me the opportunity to share what I really believe are the meaningful advancements of this administration,” Harkins said, citing Obama’s initiatives on health care, education and immigration, among others. “This is a president who really believes in his values, and he is motivated by his faith.”

When asked in a telephone interview how he responds to those who question why they should vote for someone who doesn’t espouse all their values, Harkins seemed to bristle.

To him, he said, much of the Democratic platform is about “being our brother’s keeper [and] compassion.” He added that the party “doesn’t revolve around one or two hot-button issues.”

“I think we need to understand that values are not the property of one party,’’ he said. “I reject the premise that one party is of the greater value than the other.”

When Harkins was appointed by the DNC in October, some Democrats questioned the choice. Nevertheless, prominent gay leaders in the party spoke out in his support.

In an e-mail published last year by the Washington Blade, Harkins called himself “a strong defender of the rights of all people, including LGBT people.”

“I consistently state, from the pulpit and elsewhere, that there is never a time when words or actions that dehumanize or marginalize any individual have a place in our life as a church and faith community,” Harkins wrote.

On Thursday, Harkins said almost the same thing in an interview. He then added, “While the theological debates may continue, the protections of the law and the guarantee of the rights of same-sex couples should be seen as just and fair.”

In church, the 53-year-old pastor said he tries to keep politics out of the pulpit.

“When I am in the pulpit, my primary purpose and motivation is the gospel,” Harkins said. “I would be less than effective if anyone thought they were unwelcome in the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church because of their political affiliation.”

Gerald Young, a member of Nineteenth Street Baptist for 19 years, said Harkins’s approach to his congregation is working.

“He is very good in allowing church to be church,” said Young, 47, a lawyer. “No matter what he is doing, the church is not inundated with a lot of politics.”

Harkins’s role in the DNC has put him on a schedule that begins at 4:30 a.m. and often doesn’t get him home until at least 8 p.m. He hasn’t missed a Sunday in the pulpit since he took the DNC job.

In between those hours, he’s likely to be fielding calls from ministers and mobilizing pastors in swing states for the November election. He participates in conference calls with the White House on faith-based issues, and has been invited there on numerous occasions.

He likes policy and politics, and seems to enjoy the occasional role as the loyal opposition.

“Public policy affects all of us and we have a right to have a voice in that,” Harkins said. ”I believe that the Bible calls us to be engaged in a way in the bettering of society.”

Harkins’s ability to cross political lines goes back at least as far as George W. Bush’s presidency, when Harkins and then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft got to know each other through Bush’s faith-based initiatives. Ashcroft attended Nineteenth Street Baptist several times.

Years later, the church — despite its historic name, it has been on 16th Street NW for decades — was the first that Obama attended in the District as president-elect, on the eve of his inauguration.

Obama hasn’t returned, but Harkins savors the memory of the day he was there.

“The most important thing that happened on that Sunday morning,” he said, “was that the president-elect, his wife, his children and his mother-in-law got a chance to get a word of encouragement not just simply from me, but from the strengths of God’s word.”

Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.

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