When he speaks, you can sense a depth of earnest care in his voice. When you hear his stories, you know you’re in the presence of a sacred soul. And it sort of sneaks up on you that he’s served in hospices and with the homeless, that he spends his days mentoring college students as UPenn's University Chaplain. From gentle stories about his daughters to lessons from his “knucklehead punk” youth days, and revolutionary New Year's resolutions, Rev. Charles Howard—or Chaz, as he is lovingly known—shared insights along the valleys and peaks of his service journey, and the inter-connections that stand woven underneath it all.
The vibe was extra close during this week's Forest Call, with Chris
—an old student of Chaz’s—moderating in a mentee-mentor way, a rich opening circle around the theme of resolutions, and even a special birthday song to top it all off! By the end, at least a couple of us were moved to tears. Below are just a few pieces of the many gems that flowed across the airwaves.
Chris: What inspired your service journey? As you say, you’re called to serve the poor. What called you to a life of being such a presence activist? You are a force of love wherever you go. What inspired your journey in that way?
Chaz: I was raised in Baltimore, Maryland… My mom died when I was eleven, right in my arms, which left a pretty strong impression on me. She was a wonderful, wonderful woman who—while working pretty hard in her law practice—was deeply loving, and gentle, and gracious. Just an amazing saint of a woman. And she passed when I was eleven. And then my father passed a few years later when I was a teenager. I was a punk orphan in Baltimore, getting caught up in the wrong thing; insecure, not sure where life was going to take me. And then my sister Amy adopted me. She was 22, taking in a 12 or 13 year old. And I’m eternally grateful to her for that. She was young, single, and just starting to be a teacher. She taught special education in Baltimore, and I was a lot for her. So it was between her, some cousins, aunts and uncles, and some coaches… And they all just loved me. They didn’t have to love me, but they loved me. So to me, my first inspiration in my life were these people who went above and beyond and offered a love that wasn’t required of them. And to me, this whole notion of service and generosity, and kindness—it starts there. It’s so easy to love people who are nice to you, and who are beautiful and kind and awesome. And it’s even easy to love those who you kind of have to love—your family members, your children, your partner, siblings... But the next level, is a challenge to kind of a “radical love”: a love for those who are undesirable. For those who are “dirty”, who have nothing to offer you. Even a love of those who are mean to you. Sort of this notion of loving one’s enemies. This was my inspiration. People loved me when I was just a knucklehead punk in Baltimore. And they still love me as a knucklehead, older guy in Philly. But to me, the challenge is to love in that way.
Amit: As a minister and student of divinity, you have undoubtedly come across the term, concept, the problem of evil. If God is good, omnipresent, and all knowing, then how can evil exist? I'm sure many have asked you the same as they dig into their own faith. As a "soldier of service" on the front lines fighting for the underserved, the inequities of life become clearer. So how do you address this so-called problem of why evil exists?
Chaz: I'm embarrassed I'm giggling at the question in that it is such a whopper of a question! In Jewish tradition, in several traditions actually, the Book of Job tells a story of a man who's on top of the world. Suddenly, a number of horrible things just befall him. He loses his children. He loses his work, his house. Everything sort of just crumbles very quickly. He sits with his friends, and his friends are trying to figure out why all this bad is happening to him. "Surely it's because you did something in your personal life," "You didn't worship properly," or so forth. "Just take your own life, Job. Curse God and die. Everything's bad. this is horrible. Why did this happen?" They're trying to make sense of it. And then Job begins to try to process it. And he, at last, asks the Divine, "Why would this happen? Why would you take my children from me? Why would you let such evil to happen around me? Then, God (or the Universe), responds. He speaks to this one human being and says, "Who is this that darkens my counsel? With words without knowledge?"
And to me--those humbling lines there, to little humans like us--to me, there is a point of understanding that we can grasp. And certainly a point of understanding that we should seek. I think that's one of the ways that we, in my tradition, worship. Is by seeking to cultivate our minds, and seeking to sort of gain knowledge. I think that one of the great privileges of being human is learning. But there is a certain point that we don't need to know all the answers. And that is a horrible response to my own kids, of "Why not, Daddy?" "Well, I'll tell you when you're older." That's like the worst answer. They hate that. I didn't like it when I was a kid. I know they don't like it. But there are just some things that are just too big for them to understand. And I feel the same way around certain things. Why--particularly in monotheistic traditions--why would a god (or, in other traditions, the gods) allow that to happen to Japan? Or Haiti? Or New Orleans? Or that wonderful little girl who was killed the other day? Or that great family who are such outstanding citizens? And I think it's dangerous for the clergy person to attempt to answer that. I think it's presumptive. I think it's arrogant. I think it's speaking with words without knowledge. To try to describe why they are.
The little answer that I could try to give is that it presents an opportunity to love. The evil in the world, I don't think is there to be fought against. Or necessarily to be destroyed and chased out of the world. I think it presents an opportunity to love. And that's a gift. And it's a scary gift. But it's a chance for us all. Is that why evil is in the world? I don't know. I really don't know. I pray someday, on the other side, maybe we will know. And there are a lot of books written that maybe explain why there is evil in the world. Is it because we've been given free will, and the ability to choose? And some of us choose good and some of us choose evil? Maybe. But I sort of see evil, and I see suffering, and sadness and grief, as an opportunity to bring light into the world. To Love.
Kanchan: I noticed that you’ve done a lot of work with homeless people. I live in Berkeley and I do see homeless people around me. I once went up and spoke to someone and we had a 30-minute conversation. He had a Ph.D. and seemed to be a pretty intelligent person, so I have this question: From your work, what are the main causes of people being homeless? And what can we do?
Chaz: I love what you did. Having the courage to go up and speak to someone. We talk about homelessness in our country, in the world. It’s a talking point. It’s a number. A percentage. But you humanized this person. …What you did is beautiful, and so rich, and so much the answer. Did that get them off the street? Not necessarily. But it gave them life...
One of the things I’ve seen over the years is that all fruit comes from a certain tree. People are on the street for a reason. There’s some sort of deep-rooted thing in their lives that got them there. It’s usually a combination of steps that lead to really dire situations that lead to not having anywhere to live. There’s a guy who has been living on and off the streets in West Philly named Chris. I’ve known him since I was eighteen years old. When I first I saw him panhandling in a scene that made me cry, literally. He was asking for money, and a group of guys said they’d give him money if he sang and danced for him. And he did. …I was so hurt by the way they treated him like a toy, like it was a joke. That Chris became the first homeless person that I ever talked to. And over the years, it was revealed that Chris has a drinking problem… he’s had other substances that he’s abused over the years. Right now, he is HIV positive, which is a major challenge in his life, obviously. And it all started because his mother died sometime during his early twenties. Before he was on the streets, Chris was a cook. Successful. Married with children. And then his mom died, and his life spiraled out of control. He was depressed, lost his job, broken marriage, began to drink. Everything in his life fell apart.
How in the world can I vilify him? And blame him? And demand that he just get off his butt and get a job? When that so easily could be me, too. When I’ve felt that grief—that paralyzing hurt. That loss. That need for some type of company that’s only relieved by drinking. When my own sister’s an alcoholic? How in the world could I not love him? Or at least look at him, and at least share in my own resources there. So what should we do? I think the first thing we can do is not be afraid to look at people on the streets. And if we can learn someone’s name, all the better. And if we can go beyond that and try to change someone’s life, oh my gosh. It’s possible. I think there are concrete things, too. There are outreach teams in every city. …But the little thing that we can do is just engage. Be wise, be safe about it. But if someone’s out in front of the 7-11 or a convenience store asking for change, don’t just throw a nickel in there: “What is your name?” It’s so nice to be called by your name.
Prakash: If you would like to add one value to your life, what would that be?
Chaz: Wow. Beautiful question. Thank you. What am I learning now? What am I hoping to add? You know, I have young children. And I feel like I’m learning a lot from them. Which is a surprise for me. I didn’t expect them to be so much my teachers, as they are. And I’m learning this notion of radical grace… The grace that I see in them is such a teacher to me. That, no matter what, they always welcome me home. Whether I’m in stinky mood, or if I’ve gone too late on campus. No matter what, they always welcome me home. With big hugs, and big kisses, and long stories about their days at school. And I wish I had that type of grace in my life. That type of quick forgiveness, and just amazing love. And also just that notion of play… One of my teachers by the name of Kirk Byron Jones wrote a book called Holy Play, which is such a clever title. And I see my little buddies, my little girls… everywhere, in the backseat of the car, they’re playing. If they look at a playground, they’re playing. In the middle of school, with their friends, they’re playing. They wake up, and the first thing they do is pull their little dolls together and start writing a play. Literally, a play. …And they get their jobs done—they do their homework and their little jobs around the house. But they play. And I wish more “bigger people” played more. I think that’s another thing I’m trying to integrate into my life—this notion of play.
There’s a lot of work to be done. There’s a lot to be taken seriously in the world. Poverty and homelessness, here and abroad. Suffering, and sexism and racism. Violence. There’s so much to be taken seriously, that needs work. But from Kirk and my kids, it’s really clear that the play that we do and the joy in our lives make our work so much richer and life that much better. And one can bring about change, and turn hearts, and change cultures through their play. I think that’s something I’m trying to think about this year, bringing radical grace in my life, and bringing in joyous holy play in whatever form that may be.
For more about Chaz, check out his articles, TedTalk, and Resolution 12, a campaign to encourage New Year's resolutions based on outward acts of service.