Hiring Barack Obama

Decades after he gave the Illinois senator his first job in community organizing, Jerry Kellman talks about Obama, his own religious conversion and both men's approaches to creating change

In the early 1980s, when Jerry Kellman interviewed a young, idealistic Ivy League graduate for a $10,000 a year job with Chicago’s Developing Communities Project (DCP) he had no way of knowing it would be a meeting that would follow him for the rest of his life. Now, nearly 25 years later, he is frequently asked to speak about Barack Obama’s tenure as a community organizer and how it shaped the candidate’s sense of himself and the world. What many people miss, however, is how both men’s sense of faith has fundamentally altered the way they see the world.

While Obama and Kellman eventually moved on from DCP—each because they felt that community organizing was not effective enough to solve major domestic problems—they both continue to work for justice in their own, unique ways. Kellman, who was raised Jewish, had a conversion experience and is now the Director of Spiritual Formation for several parishes in the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. In this role Kellman—who was the basis for the character “Marty” in Obama’s 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father—leads small group parish missions, weekend retreats and discussions with participants about areas they have struggled in their life.

Kellman recently spoke with Busted Halo® about his experiences with Obama and his own evolution as an activist and believer.

BustedHalo®: You’ve received some attention as one of Barack Obama’s mentors since you hired him as a young man for Chicago’s Developing Communities Project. Are you surprised with his fast rise through politics and his run for President?

Jerry Kellman: I’m not surprised that people respond to Barack. He’s carried himself with integrity and he has had the discipline to be successful in his political career.

BH: What did Obama learn from you and DCP during his tenure there?

JK: He didn’t learn from me, he learned from the experience. Barack came in idealistic, but the streets of Chicago made him practical and realistic in a way he had not been. He learned he liked working with people in the struggle and empowerment and he found his roots and a home here in Chicago and in the African-American community. He is an extraordinarily diverse person, and he gets along with people from all races, personalities and economic conditions.

BH: Since those early days, what are the differences between you and Obama in terms of trying to effect change?

JK: We don’t differ, we just committed ourselves to different career routes. His route is making change through politics and policy, while operating on a big-scale in terms of media and making his place in history.

My route has been trying to change the hearts of the masses. I think often that the world changes on anonymous acts that have a large impact, and as we touch people in our anonymous lives we have as much of an impact as much as people on a large scale.

BH: After all those years spent as a community organizer, why did you end up attending divinity school?

JK: I had a conversion experience at a project in Gary, Indiana when I was witnessing the history of racial and economic division in our country, in practices such as banks not lending to the residents. Just by accident I was on a project organizing farmers in Wisconsin and came across a book about prophets, The Prophetic Imagination, by Walter Brueggeman, and it touched me like nothing had.

For personal and social reasons I felt I had contributed to the problem by being arrogant in my professional and personal relationships, so I looked for answers to that. I had a need to grieve and was in denial, so I decided personally that I wanted to understand more about God and what people thought about God.

BH: What were the biggest lessons and biggest surprises you learned in divinity school? Did you have any assumptions that were proven wrong?

JK: The biggest lesson was learning the nature of who Jesus was historically, not as God and being resurrected, but as the person he was and living as a Jew in a Jewish world. I also learned how much he resisted any other forms of religion, dogma and hierarchy. If we want to understand God, we can not question who do you believe in, but what kind of relationship you have with God.

“With his strong bond in the African-American community in Chicago, Barack has been able to express his beliefs in a community drenched in religion. We find God together as a people and Barack brings that faith perspective in finding God in the community.”

I also have a stronger sense of sacramental tradition. Jesus’ purpose in public ministry was to express the Kingdom of God by acting it out in front of people. We can not talk about things, we need to act and take ritual actions that engage our body. I did not come to divinity school with that insight.

BH: How do you feel Obama has used religion in his campaign so far? Do you feel he may change his strategy as the primaries roll on?

JK: With his strong bond in the African-American community in Chicago, he has been able to express his beliefs in a community drenched in religion. We find God together as a people and Barack brings that faith perspective in finding God in the community. His church, Trinity United Church of Christ, has a strong sense of community as a whole.

Barack has articulated this better than any candidate in recent history, especially coming from an administration that has demonized their opponents and has divided people. I think that is so fundamentally anti-Christian I don’t even know where to start. This is the most profoundly anti-Christian administration of our lifetime.

BH: What have been the highlights in transitioning from community organizing to working in a faith-based environment full-time?

JK: People come to church with some of their deepest needs and it is great to support people with their lives. Working with people on a daily basis is the great contact of my life. To have the freedom to help people explore their spiritual life is a fundamental part of who we are. Without spiritual life we are only partial human beings. Often the most important realities are to see what you can’t see, it is more important than surface realities.

BH: In a perfect world, how would religious groups work with grassroots organizations like DCP in major metropolitan areas?

JK: It doesn’t have to be a perfect world since churches have funded community and grassroots organizations for a long time. Churches are supporting community organizations, but lack of understanding and communication of these problems can put this at risk.

Community organizations have had a hard time changing hearts versus changing structures, and are struggling in this changing world. The role of organizations is to give civil and human rights to citizens, but when the problems involve economic disparities it’s more complex. Any resolution in Barack’s debate has to be of political and social change.

BH: Who are your biggest religious influences?

JK: In terms of Catholicism, Pope John XXIII. The modern Vatican is due to Pope John XXIII, and in his brief four to five year tenure he turned the Roman Catholic Church upside down and gave us the church in the world as we know it. He embraced all humanity and found a way to engage the rest of humanity.

As a human Martin Luther King, Jr. because without justice God is not a presence. King taught us all about the price to find justice, regardless of race or religion.

BH: Where do you see the future of religion and youth in America heading?

JK: Some people are concerned that the youth are attracted to conservative forms of religions and more rules than compassion, and I do think there is some of that. I think the world is changing rapidly, and it is very disturbing. The key is to educate our youth that it is God’s world and faith can give you eternal strength to go through changes while not cutting yourself off from the world.