A Presbyterian in the US Senate who answers to a higher calling

Chris Coons of Delaware talks about his faith formation during a Georgetown University forum

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware is a longtime Presbyterian. On Tuesday he talked with the Rev. Jim Wallis about his faith formation. (Photo courtesy of Senator Coons)

LOUISVILLE — U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, one of 11 Presbyterians in the Senate, spent an hour with the Rev. Jim Wallis Tuesday talking about how his faith has helped carry him this far. Listen to his conversation with Wallis, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Faith + Justice, by going here. Coons appeared as part of the Center of Faith + Justice’s “Higher Calling” series.

Coons, who grew up in the Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware, completed his graduate studies at the Yale Law School and the Yale Divinity School at the same time. “I often kid my friends he is the only theologian senator I know,” Wallis said, until Georgia voters elected the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock as one of their senators in 2021. “Chris Coons is a public servant who knows what the phrase ‘higher calling’ means.”

Coons said he’d been reading Wallis’ work for decades, beginning in Sojourners magazine. “I hope conversations like this can be commonplace, not rare,” he told Wallis while seated in Georgetown’s Riggs Library along with a large number of students, faculty and others.

He said he didn’t understand Presbyterianism “within the Reformed tradition” until he attended divinity school. At Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church, his mother and father were “very active,” and the church offered “a great youth group. I was indifferent and didn’t pay much attention, but I absorbed in action what my parents’ faith meant to them.”

During the mid-1970s, his mother welcomed a refugee family from Vietnam. “My mom never talked about putting faith into action. She just got to work welcoming them,” Coons said. In time, each of the refugee family’s five children, who were about the ages of Coons and his siblings, earned undergraduate and graduate degrees.

One Sunday, Coons’ father volunteered to accompany a visiting preacher to the maximum-security prison in Smyrna, Delaware, where he developed a relationship with a man named Paul, who was serving a sentence for murdering his abusive father. On furlough weekends, Paul was welcomed into the Coons household.

“I had a chance to visit Paul later,” Coons said. “He said the kindness and trust my father showed him changed the trajectory of his life.”

Those actions undertaken by his parents “defined for me who is our neighbor,” Coons said. “That was because of our church.”

Nowadays his wife, Annie, works up to four days a week helping to vaccinate people in prison, caring for sex workers and helping those who are addicted. She spent a recent Sunday on “a tough corner in Wilmington. I was worried about it, but she said, ‘Stop it,’” Coons said. “This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Coons spent a semester of his junior year in college studying at the University of Nairobi in Kenya and serving as a volunteer relief worker. “It transformed my view,” Coons told Wallis, recalling his host family’s “radical hospitality and unbelievable kindness. I’d never been in a household that prayed 10 times a day.”

In 2010, Coons won election to the Senate, where he attends the weekly Senate Prayer Breakfast and has twice co-hosted the National Prayer Breakfast. He told Wallis he’s preached at half the Presbyterian churches in Delaware as well as at others. “It’s the most challenging and rewarding experience I’ve ever had,” he said. When he was considering ordination in the PC(USA), the thought of reading Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek — and passing ordination exams in both — helped lead him along his current career path instead.

“Ministry shouldn’t be defined by a clerical role,” Wallis said. “I would say your work in the Senate and the way you do it is your own kind of ministry.”

Coons identified current and former colleagues including Johnny Isakson, Orrin Hatch, Mike Lee and John Barrasso as “people I would not have gotten to know” without the weekly prayer breakfast, open only to senators and closed to staff and the media.

“Almost every senator I know wants to get things done,” Coons said. “There is a lack of trust because we spend no time together.” He named just three opportunities for holding extended conversation among senators: traveling together, working out in the gym and attending the weekly prayer breakfast. “Those are places we can be vulnerable together,” he said.

With Coons’ packed schedule and all the pressure he and others are under, how, Wallis wondered, does he stay spiritually centered and humbled?

Coons said he reads Scripture nearly every day and feels grounded at the church he now attends, First and Central Presbyterian Church in Wilmington. “I try to find brief minutes of calm here and there in the craziness of the day,” Coons said. He chairs a Senate subcommittee that considers Biden administration requests for billions of dollars in financial aid in war-torn and drought-stricken regions. “If this fails and … children starve, I feel like it’s all my fault,” Coons said. “Being humble is the easy part. Accepting that I am forgiven — that’s the hard part, and that’s where faith comes in for me personally.”

A question-and-answer session followed the conversation. One student asked what advice Coons has for students who want to keep themselves open to different points of view.

First is to put your smartphone down, Coons suggested. “These are profoundly divisive,” he said, holding his phone up. “I spend too much time doom scrolling, looking at stuff that’s not constructive.” His second piece of advice is to spend time with people, which he called “a challenge, an opportunity and ultimately a blessing. If you aren’t listening more than you’re talking, you aren’t being open to others’ perspectives.”

He once journeyed to Minnesota to join Senator Amy Klobuchar in talking “to people of goodwill in Minneapolis who have welcomed refugees. It is truly remarkable,” Coons said. “We are in the middle of fighting about asylum. This is a country that has an incredible tradition of welcoming people fleeing persecution … I hope we will move past intolerance.”

“We have a significant population that feels angry and disconnected, that the alien is the source of their problems,” Coons said, reflecting a troubling political shift also going on in other countries, including recent elections in the Netherlands. “Welcoming the stranger is a foundational value of this nation. If we can’t find our way back to it, we cannot move forward.”

The Rev. Jim Wallis (contributed photo)

Wallis asked what Coons might say to people considering a career in politics.

“We need you now more than ever,” Coons said. “It’s my hope that some people listening will decide that being engaged in the work of democracy, whether that’s in an elected role or just in your neighborhood, through civic organizations or how we treat people, is worth your time.”

“I have lived and worked in a dozen countries destroyed by conflict,” he said, including Liberia. “Democracy is genuinely fragile. The United States is in many ways a source of inspiration for a lot of human rights activists, for folks who believe in democracy around the world, although we have our warts and faults and flaws.”

“Jan. 6 was a day that echoed throughout the world. The simple choice between violence as a tool of politics and humility, listening, reconciliation and consensus as a tool of politics is a choice. The U.S. will only continue as a democracy if enough people make the choice that they’re willing to invest their heart, their time and their effort in hearing from and respecting people of different perspectives, faiths and traditions and say, ‘I embrace you and respect you as my fellow American, as a person who is also here in this country. However you came here and whoever you are, I want you to be part of this community going forward.’ We need you today for that work more than ever.”

“We have heard a political leader tonight who tries every day to answer to a higher calling,” Wallis said, asking the crowd to show its appreciation. He urged Coons to “know that you are not alone.”

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