#1: Pragmatic Path, Prophetic Voice (Rev. DeWayne Davis & Rabbi Zimmerman)

In this inaugural episode of TEMPLE TALKS, Rabbi Zimmerman talks with Reverend DeWayne Davis, Minneapolis’ newest senior clergyperson, now serving as Lead Minister of Plymouth Congregational Church. Rabbi Z and Rev. Davis discuss his path from spiritual disgruntlement to congressional staffer to ministry, the challenges and opportunities of Christian-Jewish dialogue, and how liberal religion responds to the real-world challenges of our day and of our city. Please subscribe to TEMPLE TALKS and review the show. Comments and questions can be directed to TMoss@TempleIsrael.com. Talk with us!
An edited excerpt from this week’s Temple Talks follows below. 

Rabbi Zimmerman:

So you talk about your work in DC, and I know that one of the interactions we’ve had over the years is a conversation about Reverend Barber’s work and the Poor People’s Campaign. 

In so many ways, people bifurcate what happens inside the synagogue or the church—the prayer that happens there—and the work on the street. I think something that Reverend Barber does so beautifully is say, no, no, no! They are one and the same; they are extensions of each other. And so I’m wondering how you, both theologically and practically, see that work that you had in DC and that you now have as a minster inside churches?

Rev. Davis:

I was a congressional staffer for fifteen years. I worked for three different members. 

The funny thing is you can’t get away from the way you were raised. My folks lived in a world where it was about service, and giving, and taking care of people. I tell people all the time, there’s two things that I always remember. First, I remember when people would come to the door, and it was grownup talk so I didn’t care what they were talking about, but on occasion, what my mother would do, was go into the kitchen, and start going through the pantry and filling up bags and giving people stuff. And that was just fine, until she started giving away my peanut butter too!

And secondly, I’d hear stuff from my father like, come and help me, we’re going to pick up a bed and carry it to someone who needs it. And these were things that went on all the time. 

It wasn’t until I started working in politics, that I started to make the connections of how public policy was affected so much of that. And that some of the things that were happening around social services, some of the worst outcomes, where you just wonder why it’s not working, it was that it was intentionally done through public policy. 

That was the really shocking experience, where I would see politicians who would make it harder for people to access things because they didn’t like the program. Ideologically they were opposed to it, so they would use public policy to get the outcomes they want, and then point out the program and say “it’s not working” or “poverty programs don’t work.”

And that was the real learning experience when I was a staffer. And then I thought, OK, I’m going to use my skill to try to get at that. And I got into strategy: how to drive public policy, how to advise members of Congress, how to do it so we can get what we want out of it. 

As I got more into it, unfortunately, I did get a little cynical. But when I started to explore faith, one of the things that I found was a great freedom in what I saw in the biblical witness. The prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, boy did they fill me with a lot of energy. And I said, maybe where I could do something, especially with the knowledge I have of how it’s done, is I could speak with a prophetic edge instead of a pragmatic edge. I had to learn over time that as a preacher, as a clergyperson, as a public theologian, I don’t have to be pragmatic. I get to say and name truths vividly. 

And so there was a moment there where it was real uncomfortable. How do I move from this place of political strategy, ideology, working rooms and compromise, and all off that, and then get to this place.

I had to figure out my identity. There was a moment there, when I was in those two worlds and I wasn’t quite comfortable.

What I love about Reverend Barber, and what really hits me where I’m most excited, is that I don’t have to compartmentalize it. I do get to name the truth and say it out loud. And then I can also say, I know what it takes to get it done.

I’ll give you one other story. I do a lot of work with Bishop Yvette Flunder, who does a lot of work with queer Black people of faith, and regarding HIV/AIDS in Oakland, California. I was doing some work on HIV and I was talking to her about some of my frustrations. What she made me see was that I’d gotten into a policy room and I was getting back into the way I used to operate as a congressional staffer. And she said something that really brought me back to myself. She said, you’re also a minister, and called minister. So sometimes you need to bring that into the room with you. 

So yes, there are times when I can go back to the best of that strategic engagement with it, but boy I love getting up and saying “Thus saith, the Lord,” to just remind people, that there’s something bigger than the pragmatism that got you into the room.   

Welcome to Temple Talks, a new podcast from Temple Israel in Minneapolis, where Jewish wisdom meets our ever-changing world. Join us as we talk with our favorite partners and thought leaders, from around town and around the world. We hope these talks will inspire you, challenge you, and give us all new ideas about Judaism, religious life, and social justice. Join us for services, learning, and community at TempleIsrael.com.