A Conversation with John Hisle, Executive Director, Good Faith Communities Coalition, Washington, D.C.
April 1, 2018
Background: In April 2018, undergraduate student Deirdre Jonese Austin interviewed John Hisle as part of the Doyle Undergraduate Fellows Program. Hisle is the executive director of Good Faith Communities Coalition that works to address homelessness in the District of Columbia. In this interview, Hisle describes his inspiration for faith-based social justice and interfaith dialogue.
What does social justice mean to you?
Social justice goes back to my years in college. I’m 76 years old. My wife and I graduated from college in 1964 and 1965. Back in the 1960s and 1970s in Catholic colleges, where I went (I went to Fairfield University in Connecticut), we were very caught up in the Civil Rights Movement. We heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak multiple times. Later in life I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.
Additionally, St. Ignatius speaks of gratitude for the gifts I’ve been given. I’ve been given many gifts, none of which I’ve earned. For me, giving back, taking the gifts I’ve been given and using them for others, is important. Social justice means that we’ve all been created equal and our society should be equal and open for all people irrespective of creed, color, race, age, religion, etc.
In my life, I’ve worked hard to make that happen. I was a caseworker with the Department of Social Services in the Bronx. I was a Head Start director, and I had a career with the federal government working with health programs to provide access to primary care for people who are underserved because there are no hospitals available in the urban areas or a lack of people willing to serve in rural areas.
When I first retired in 2005, I got caught up putting houses together. Some of us from Holy Trinity Catholic Church went to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and built houses. Then we put together Good Faith Communities Coalition. That happened back in 2007 or 2008 when we put together interfaith congregations working with people who are homeless and advocating with elected leaders for people who are homeless. The call of Christians is to minister to people who are the poorest of the poor, and that is the homeless in many ways.
Could you share some examples of religious teachings or scriptures that inspire your commitment to social justice in the community?
Isaiah, Amos, and others of the psalmists and Jesus, for example, says, “I don’t want sacrifice, I want mercy.” We are called through many prophets in the Hebrew Bible and Jesus and his disciples to minister to the needs of those who are less fortunate: the poor, the needy, the marginalized, the homeless, etc. Many people forget Jesus himself was homeless. They asked “Where do you live?” and he says, “Come and see.” Come and see where I live, which is outside. The call to serve the poor is present throughout Christianity and Judaism and Islam, as I know it. It’s about your sacrifice and making it possible for those who are less blessed than you are, and blessings come from the Lord. It is about ministering to those most in need. Like Latin American liberation theology, it centers in the poor.
Are there any pivotal moments in your life that led you to do the work you do?
In college and theology, in colloquial school and Fairfield University, which is a Jesuit school, was where I really got what our belief system and theology calls us to do. And I was fortunate to meet my wife back then, in 1961, who was also committed to social justice and has been a great partner. Meeting her and being with her was very critical. It was also meeting and understanding the Civil Rights Movement and hearing Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Daniel Berrigan, S.J. as well as modern-day prophets Fr. Richard Rohr and Fr. Thomas Keating. We meditate twice a day, many times a week. If your theology says the Spirit of God is in everything and every person, including yourself, and we see the Spirit of God and the presence of God in every person, we do what we can to honor that presence.
Could you tell me about your work with Good Faith Communities Coalition?
It started out at Holy Trinity. A bunch of us were on the social justice committee in 2005 and 2006, and there was a new pastor, Fr. Mark Horak, who is now in Atlanta. Holy Trinity was founded in 1787, around the time Georgetown was founded in 1789, and it decided to donate a tithe to charity. Charity is providing fish to those who need fish whether homeless or hungry, but the higher calling is not to give people fish but to teach them how to fish. So, we brought in organizations that are currently doing the work: the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. We had them come speak and decided that we would form an interfaith coalition that would advocate for better funding and better programs for the homeless. Previously I worked in management. I worked in managing health programs for the poor, but I had never done advocacy work and neither had my friends, but we pulled this coalition together.
When we started, we had some 50 congregations sign an open letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser when she was running for office, asking her to commit to increased funding and better programming for people who are homeless over time, with many other advocacy groups. She has done that, and the D.C. City Council has offered new programs to address homelessness and affordable housing. We would organize meetings with the Mayor’s Association, attend rallies, and write letters asking for improved services and funding for the homeless. We’ve been doing that for 11 years. It’s beginning to fade out now because we are getting older, but we decided let’s declare success and fade away.
How do you connect your faith to the work you do in the community?
I’ve seen my work as being integral to my faith as a caseworker in the Department of Social Services in the inner city in the Bronx, the same with running the Head Start Program, the same with the federal government where I worked on improving healthcare with those who are underserved, in retirement building homes for people in Mississippi, working in advocacy with affordable housing and the homeless. I also work with Jubilee Housing. I’ll also be starting a mentoring program for young people who are homeless, and maybe with us mentoring them they won’t devolve into the homeless cycle. So everything that I’ve done---we have four kids and grandkids and our kids went to as many rallies as we did---everything I’ve done has been focused on faith and social justice and making the world a better place.
What is the role of interfaith work in your congregation/organization? To what extent is this a useful conversation/engagement in your work?
Interfaith becomes very obvious if you’re going to do effective advocacy. You know that you need partners. The bigger the coalition, the more voices you have when speaking to elected officials, the better. Another reason it makes a lot of sense to do interfaith advocacy is because we don’t want to just be stuck in our Catholic world. The more partners you have, the better. I’ve learned a lot from our Jewish and Muslim partners. They come from a different place and different background, but their experiences are valid.
In what ways can interfaith and intercultural dialogue help to build peace in our communities?
The more people you can engage in a social justice issue, the better. We all believe at some level we are called to work on behalf of the less fortunate. For example, the last big action was supporting the establishment of a community-based homeless shelter for people in Ward 3. There was a lot of opposition for this shelter in the midst of an affluent society. We pulled together a coalition and had lots of meetings and wrote lots of letters to the city council and the mayor and we overturned those in opposition to the shelter. The more people from a more diverse perspective, the better. They can’t say it’s just a bunch of Catholics or just a bunch of Jews or just a bunch of Presbyterians. They’ll see a diverse community of people advocating and it’s what you should do.
Could you share some of the things that you think young people should learn about religion and its effects on society?
I think young people that rose up out of the Parkland massacre were energized by fear and anxiety and a sense of moral outrage that our country, the United States, and many in our country, especially politicians, cared more about gun rallies that their lives. They learned the lesson well. You have to speak out and speak your own truth and do it in an intelligent way, and you have to gather more voices with your own to speak out with you, and you have to be smart about it. When you do all that together, there is hope for change, or things get worse as the forces of money and power and opposition overwhelm you, and that’s where many go. If you don’t organize and speak out and stay vigilant, things don’t change, they get worse.