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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

January 30, 2024

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

U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, one of 11 Presbyterians in the Senate, recently spent an hour with the Rev. Jim Wallis 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.

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.

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.

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: US Senator Chris Coons of Delaware answers to a higher calling

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Janelle Baker, Mission Specialist, Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Kristine Baker, Associate for Risk Management, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)

Let us pray

For those you have called to lead your church, O God, we give you thanks. Be with those who teach, preach and care for the least of these. And to all of your children, give the peace of Christ and the community of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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