Interviewsand Articles


Radical Love and Holy Play: Conversation with Charles Howard

by Chris Johnnidis, Apr 28, 2012



When he speaks, you can sense a depth of earnest care in his voice. When you hear his stories, you know you're in the presence of a sacred soul. And it sort of sneaks up on you that he's served in hospices and with the homeless, that he spends his days mentoring college students as UPenn's University Chaplain. From gentle stories about his daughters to lessons from his "knucklehead punk" youth days, and revolutionary New Year's resolutions, Rev. Charles Howard--or Chaz, as he is lovingly known--shared insights along the valleys and peaks of his service journey, and the inter-connections that stand woven underneath it all.
The vibe was extra close during this week's Forest Call, with Chris-an old student of Chaz's--moderating in a mentee-mentor way, a rich opening circle around the theme of resolutions, and even a special birthday song to top it all off! By the end, at least a couple of us were moved to tears. Below is a condensed transcript of the many gems that flowed across the airwaves.
Chris: To start things off, tell us what inspired your service journey? As you say, you're called to serve the poor. Many experience you as a 'presence activist',  a force of love wherever you go. What inspired that journey in the first place?
Chaz: Well, I'm still learning, I'm still being inspired! But I was thinking about it this morning: I was raised in Baltimore, Maryland. Both my parents were lawyers, pretty involved in their work lives. And then the bottom fell out of life. My mom died when I was eleven, in my arms, which left a pretty strong impression on me. She was a wonderful woman who-while working extremely hard in her law practice-was deeply loving, and gentle, and gracious. Just an amazing saint of a woman. She passed when I was eleven. And then my father passed a few years later when I was a teenager. I was this kind of punk orphan in Baltimore, getting caught up in the wrong thing, insecure, not sure where life was going to take me. And then my sister Amy adopted me. She was 22, taking in a 12 or 13 year old. And I'm eternally grateful to her for that. She was young, single, and just starting to be a teacher. She taught special education in Baltimore, and I was a lot for her. So it was between her, some cousins, aunts and uncles, and some coaches -- and they all just *loved* me. They didn't have to love me, but they loved me. 
So to me, my first inspiration in my life were these people who went above and beyond and offered a love that wasn't required of them. And to me, this whole notion of service and generosity, and kindness-it starts there. It's so easy to love people who are nice to you, and who are beautiful and kind and awesome. And it's even sort of easy to love those who you kind of have to love-your family members, your children, your partner, siblings... But the next level, this challenge to kind of a "radical love": a love for those who are undesirable. For those who are "dirty", who have nothing to offer you. Even a love of those who are mean to you. Sort of this notion of loving one's enemies. This was my inspiration. People loved me when I was just a knucklehead punk in Baltimore. And they still love me as a knucklehead, older guy in Philly. But to me, the challenge is to love in that way. That's where I'd begin the answer.
Chris: Wow, a very personal inspiration. So following that thread, from there you graduated Penn, followed a call to the chaplaincy, got your masters and PhD and now serve as the University Chaplain at UPenn.  And in the last few years, you've started blogging on the Huffington Post, for example, and created an initiative called Resolution 12 to encourage  service-oriented  New Year's resolutions. Does it sound true to you that you've widened your circle of outreach? And if so, what inspired that next level of service?
Chaz: I lived in Boston for three years when I was in seminary, and I worked at some random jobs, including working in a bookstore where they carried sort of spiritual writings. It was a beautiful place to work; I loved it. And I met there this nun named Mary Macrina who ended up becoming my spiritual director, kind of a counselor. And we couldn't be more different: at this point she's gotta be ninety-something from Indiana, and when I met her I was 22 from Baltimore. And our conversations meant so much to me. One of the refrains in her life, that she passed on to me was: everything is connected. That at best, the various rooms in our lives really should be connected by a larger house. That's been an interesting challenge to me, who, like many others, has a lot of different interests. And a lot of different passions. There's a big part of me that loves being outside, and loves nature. And then there's kind of a tech geek in me too, that loves playing on little gadgets and stuff. You know, I love peaceful chant music, but I'm a hip hop head too. That's a part of who I am as well. So I hear Macrina's voice, that challenge of if everything is all connected... And something I'm trying to do now, rather than have these different sides of myself, is to find ways that they're all connected.
So to answer your question, I do see it as part of the same goal of loving radically. So when I'm sitting with a freshman who's nervous because she's far away from her home and isn't sure what she's going to study, I feel the same connection of having the opportunity to write [an article] that a few more people may connect with, challenging them to discern who they are and what they really want to do. I'm really thankful for the opportunities I've had to write a bit more, and share more -- totally undeserved, but I enjoy them. It's been fun. 
Chris: In encouraging others like that, what about the challenge of when to push a little bit, and when to let yourself be pulled? How do you experience that edge of encouraging good, but also knowing that people can't be forced to change?
Chaz: Ah, that's a good question, and a good challenge. And a good resolution, I think: discerning when to push and pull. I love the power of story, and a story comes to mind from last year, of a student here. She just graduated. And we had been in dialogue for the last couple years about her studies. She had been pre-med, really almost before she came to college. Both her parents wanted her to be a doctor; there was an expectation on her that she would go into medicine. And in conversation with her, she quickly revealed that she really didn't want to be a doctor. That this was an expectation of her family,  kind of an expectation of those around her: she was smart, got brilliant grade, she tests well -- of course she can be a doctor. She can write her own ticket and study at any med school she wants, do any type of medicine she wants.  But about two years ago she went over to India and spent time in two places -- I think she interviewed people who were involved somehow in a brothel over there, and people involved in a hospice. She saw really extreme moments in people's lives, involving pressure and desperation and realness, and suffering. She was very present to that. And it was life-changing for her. She came back deeply grieved, yet deeply inspired, and wanted to do something around that. So she comes back for her senior year and it's game time. It's MCAT time, it's application time. And her parents are sort of beginning the victory lap of our daughter's graduating and getting ready to go to med school. And sitting with her, part of me wanted to say 'hey, here's the phone, call mom and dad, tell them you're not doing this, that you're ready to move and pursue a life of service and care for others.' And it's not that easy. And if I'm being honest with myself, I think she wasn't ready to do that yet. I think she saw where she was heading, and sensed it, felt drawn there. It's not the place of a fellow sojourner, of a mentor, of a friend, to push someone over to the other side. It's our role to bear witness and be a companion along the way.
The student didn't make that phone call to mom and dad, until the day after graduation. Which is a hard time to make that call. But she made it. And they loved her of course, and were gracious and affirming, and surprisingly encouraging. And she's taking the year off, working at a nonprofit in Philly right now, and looking at a lot of different options. And she's planning on going back to India next year. Not sure what she's going to do, but she's doing what she is called to do. 
And I think that's one of the biggest challenges in a university or college, or with anyone who's working with young people: creating a space where they can be free to be who they really are, and who they really want to be. There are so many pressures on us to uphold some type of image, or some type of expectation, but if we can sort of break off chains -- some that we impose on ourselves -- and allow people to really breath, oh my gosh, so many beautiful things can happen.
Chris: Reminds me of a saying, something like: "it's not about creating something new, it's about honoring what is already underway." And that connects to resolutions, in a way, as perhaps they can be about further committing to what is already underway in our lives. I wonder if you have any comments about that, or maybe another story related to resolutions and the resolution 12 project.
Chaz: Well said.  You know, one of the joys we find with resolution 12 and what we did last year [resolution 11] is being present when someone is discerning their resolution. Particularly those who take time to think about it, whether it's a big service-minded resolution, or a very personal one. One of the touchstones for me -- there's a Catholic saint, Teresa of Avila, who some people may have heard of. And in the old bookstore, I saw a quote of hers that has just stuck with me, something to the effect of: it's not a matter of doing much, or writing much, but "do whatever most kindles love in you." I love that phrase: "do whatever most kindles love in you." And sometimes when we're talking with people who are trying to discern their resolutions, we share that with them. What is it that kindles a fire within you, what are you passionate about, what moves you, what breaks your heart? What is that can start you off on a journey? Whether this a resolution, or a life service journey, what is it that most kindles love in you? For some people, it's the environment: a sunset just grabs them and does something to them, or a body of water just touches their soul, or their heart breaks when they see a stream polluted, or animals suffering because of our actions. For other people it's children. My partner in resolution12, Len Matty -- anything with kids just grabs his heart. And to some people they might think about adopting, or becoming a mentor or big brother/big sister, or tutoring at a school. Or just taking a neighborhood kid to a game. There can be biggies, or small acts that can make a difference.
So one story that I love sharing is a kid named Justin Reilly, who had this interesting journey over the last twelve months. He was a college basketball player, and comes off as this big athlete guy. But his passion is really poetry. He's a spoken word artist, really talented cat. Just a gift of words.  And he stumbled on resolution11 last year, and we were trying to figure out what he was going to do.  He felt led to do something with poetry. So his resolution was to write one poem a week about a different cause, or organization or issue, just to bring awareness to it. Which to me was a really neat idea. There are some of us who will be able to donate money once a month, or volunteer once a week, and his life wasn't such that he could do that, but he could share a poem. And one of these poems that he wrote was called "Shooting Straight." It's a poem challenging people to sort of back off and dissolve homophobia in their own lives. His poem ended up going viral online, and he was invited to all sorts of award shows, and performances. The safety and affirmation and encouragement that people got from his poem was just amazing. And he was doing what he loved. And the effect was powerful and real.
There's a woman here in Philly who loves knitting little things as gifts. This year she resolved to knit caps for a hospital that they give to little babies. Such a sweet thing. Her body is not such that she can go out and do a huge yard cleanup, but she can knit. And that's a beautiful thing.  You know, one resolution we saw this year was the resolution to smile at a new person every day. Which is ridiculously simple! But anyone who's living in the northeast right now, or has been to the northeast, certainly knows that we can use a few more smiles on the street. I can certainly put my head down and walk right form the train to my office. Smiling at someone can be just as powerful as donating a thousand dollars to, say, Heifer International. Both are needed, and both are gifts that different people can give. So it's been such a treat to see people's different resolutions take shape.
Questioner: What are you learning now? And f you could add one value to your life, what would that be?
Chaz: Beautiful questions, thank you. What am I learning now? What am I hoping to add? You know, I have young children. And I feel like I'm learning a lot from them. Which is a surprise for me. I didn't expect them to be so much my teachers, as they are.  And I'm learning this notion of radical grace. The grace that I see in them is such a teacher to me. That, no matter what, they always welcome me home. Whether I'm in stinky mood, or if I'm gone too late on campus. No matter what, they always welcome me home with big hugs, and big kisses, and long stories about their day at school. And I wish I had that type of grace in my life. That type of quick forgiveness, and just amazing love.  That's one of the first things I'm learning from them.
And also just that notion of play. One of my teachers by the name of Kirk Byron Jones wrote a book called Holy Play, which is such a clever title. And I see my little buddies, my little girls: everywhere, in the backseat of the car, they're playing. If they look at a playground, they're playing. In the middle of school, with their friends, they're playing. They wake up, and the first thing they do is pull their little dolls together and start writing a play. Literally, a play. And they get their jobs done; they do their homework and their little jobs around the house. But they play. And I wish more "bigger people" played more. I think that's another thing I'm trying to integrate into my life, this notion of play.
There's a lot of work to be done. There's a lot to be taken seriously in the world. Poverty and homelessness, here and abroad. Suffering, and sexism and racism. Violence. There's so much to be taken seriously, that needs work. But from Kirk and my kids, it's really clear that the play that we do and the joy in our lives make our work so much richer and life that much better. And one can bring about change, and turn hearts, and change cultures through their play. I think that's something I'm trying to think about this year, bringing radical grace in my life, and bringing in joyous holy play in whatever form that may be.
Questioner: As a minister and student of divinity, you have undoubtedly come across the term, concept, the problem of evil. If God is good, omnipresent, and all knowing, then how can evil exist? I'm sure many have asked you the same as they dig into their own faith. As a "soldier of service" on the front lines fighting for the underserved, the inequities of life become even clearer. So how do you address this so-called problem of why evil exists?
Chaz: I'm embarrassed I'm giggling at the question -- it's such a whopper of a question! [laughs] In Jewish tradition, in several traditions actually, the Book of Job tells a story of a man who's on top of the world. Suddenly, a number of horrible things just befall him. He loses his children. He loses his work, his house. Everything sort of just crumbles very quickly. He sits with his friends, and his friends are trying to figure out why all this bad is happening to him. "Surely it's because you did something in your personal life," "You didn't worship properly," or so forth. "Just take your own life, Job. Curse God and die. Everything's bad. this is horrible. Why did this happen?" They're trying to make sense of it. And then Job begins to try to process it. And he, at last, asks the Divine, "Why would this happen? Why would you take my children from me? Why would you let such evil to happen around me? Then, God (or the Universe), responds. He speaks to this one human being and says, "Who is this that darkens my counsel? With words without knowledge?"
And to me--those humbling lines there, to little humans like us--to me, there is a point of understanding that we can grasp. And certainly a point of understanding that we should seek. I think that's one of the ways that we, in my tradition, worship. Is by seeking to cultivate our minds, and seeking to sort of gain knowledge. I think that one of the great privileges of being human is learning. But there is a certain point that we don't need to know all the answers. And that is a horrible response to my own kids, of "Why not, Daddy?" "Well, I'll tell you when you're older." That's like the worst answer. They hate that. I didn't like it when I was a kid. I know they don't like it. But there are just some things that are just too big for them to understand. And I feel the same way around certain things. Why--particularly in monotheistic traditions--why would a god (or, in other traditions, the gods) allow that to happen to Japan? Or Haiti? Or New Orleans? Or that wonderful little girl who was killed the other day? Or that great family who are such outstanding citizens? And I think it's dangerous for the clergy person to attempt to answer that. I think it's presumptive. I think it's arrogant. I think it's speaking with words without knowledge. To try to describe why they are.
The little answer that I could try to give is that it presents an opportunity to love. The evil in the world, I don't think is there to be fought against. Or necessarily to be destroyed and chased out of the world. I think it presents an opportunity to love. And that's a gift. And it's a scary gift. But it's a chance for us all. Is that why evil is in the world? I don't know. I really don't know. I pray someday, on the other side, maybe we will know. And there are a lot of books written that maybe explain why there is evil in the world. Is it because we've been given free will, and the ability to choose? And some of us choose good and some of us choose evil? Maybe. But I sort of see evil, and I see suffering, and sadness and grief, as an opportunity to bring light into the world. To Love.

Questioner: I understand that you've done a lot of work with homeless people. I live in Berkeley and I do see homeless people around me. I once went up and spoke to someone and we had a 30-minute conversation. He had a Ph.D. and seemed to be a pretty intelligent person, so I have this question: From your work, what are the main causes of people being homeless? And what can we do?
Chaz: I love what you did. Having the courage to go up and speak to someone, and humanize someone. We talk about homelessness in our country, in the world, as a concept. It's a talking point. It's a number. A percentage. But you humanized this person, and hear their story, and gave them space to be acknowledged, rather than to be walked over, or to drop a couple nickels in someone's cup. What you did is beautiful, and so rich, and so much the answer. Did that get them off the street? Not necessarily. But it gave them life. And that's rich. 
One of the things I've seen over the years is that all fruit comes from a certain tree. People are on the street for a reason. There's some sort of deep-rooted thing in their lives that got them there. It's usually a combination of steps that lead to really dire situations that lead to not having anywhere to lay your head. There's a guy who has been living on and off the streets in West Philly named Chris. I've known him since I was eighteen years old. When I first moved to Philadelphia,  I saw him panhandling in a scene that made me cry, literally. He was asking for money, and a group of guys said they'd give him money if he sang and danced for him. And he did. He was sort of singing and dancing, and they were making a fool of him -- for like two dollars. And I was so hurt by the way they treated him, like a toy, like it was a joke, that Chris became the first homeless person that I ever talked to. And over the years, it was revealed that Chris has a drinking problem,  he's had other substances that he's abused over the years. Right now, he is HIV positive, which is a major challenge in his life, obviously. And it all started because his mother died, sometime during his early twenties. Before he was on the streets, Chris was a cook. Successful. Married with children. And then his mom died, and his life spiraled out of control. He was depressed, lost his job, broken marriage, began to drink. Everything in his life fell apart. And he hasn't been able to shake it since.
How in the world can I vilify him? And blame him? And demand that he just get off his butt and get a job? When that so easily could be me, too. When I've felt that grief, that paralyzing hurt. That loss. That need for some type of company that's only relieved by drinking. When my own sister's an alcoholic? How in the world could I not love him? Or at least look at him, and at least share in my own resources there. So what should we do? I think the first thing we can do is not be afraid to look at people on the streets. And if we can learn someone's name, all the better. And if we can go beyond that and try to change someone's life, oh my gosh. It's possible. I think there are concrete things, too. There are outreach teams in every city. Philadelphia has one called Project Home. But the little thing that we can do is just engage. Being wise, being safe about it. But if someone's out in front of the 7-11 or a convenience store asking for change, don't just throw a nickel in there: "What is your name?" It's so nice to be called by your name.
Questioner: My gratitude for this call. It's just amazing. I've been working on a project, and that is: What is a lifestyle that is consistent with a commitment to being a responsible global citizen? And I'm building curriculum. If you were designing a curriculum,what  is the one thing that you think every human being needs to learn, to be a responsible global citizen of the world?
Chaz: Oh what a great question. I think just asking that question is helping to create community over borders and across nationalities. That's such a neat resolution and goal.
I think one of the things that we can think about is that people are people. And that we're all in process. The notion that someone on the other side of the country-that someone in Africa, and in South Asia, East Asia, in Europe, South America-that there's people there with the same hopes as me. And the same struggles. That we have or we are is an eye-opening, life-changing thing. It's so easy to classify people as "them," or into the caricature that we may see on television, or in the books that we read. But when we find out that they have best friends. They've been in love. They have vocational dreams. That they had a favorite toy as a kid. Or a favorite book or hobby. That they love to dance and play. That they love their pets, too. It makes a big difference in building community. So I think to answer your question succinctly, to learn and to share. That people may look different, or speak different, but on some level, we're all very, very similar.
Questioner: I just wanted to share that I've actually been crying through most of this call. I wanted to share a story from a recent Wednesday meditation. I had gotten a bodywork session done on a Tuesday before. And was extremely triggered around a traumatic memory of a child sexual assault. And I had just moved to the bay area, was just figuring out community and support. And being able to talk about something like that was really shameful. And I just sat down at meditation and started weeping and crying, and was being a really loud meditator. And Michelle, you came up to me afterwards, and just held my hand. And you said, "It'll be alright." And you just looked at me, and you know, you gave me this scarf that I still wear pretty much every day. And that moment of recognizing that whatever was coming up for me in my life-that there was a community here. That I could actually talk about things that I was going through. That there would be other people that could sort of hold me up when I felt my most vulnerable, and accept whatever it was that I was going through. And feel powerful. So I just wanted to share my immense gratitude, for Wednesdays, and Service Space, and for you, Michele. Because I realize I haven't really had the opportunity to thank you.
And then, I wanted to share this quote that came up on my Facebook page this morning. It has to do with Providence. It's a quote by Goethe:
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.
And with that, Chaz, I wanted to ask a question about boldness. And with Resolution 12, there's the question of having resolution. And something that I struggle with is how do I have resolution and still be compassionate and open, especially with myself? We all have our dreams that we're building and creating. It does require some determination and work. But how do you bring the softness into that, I think is the question that I would like to ask you.
Chaz: Sister, thank you for sharing. Not only the quote and the question, but your experience and your vulnerability. Your vulnerability is inspiring. It means a lot. So thank you, for that. While you were talking, I was thinking about an author named Henri Nouwen. He died almost 20 years ago at this point. And one of his most famous books was called The Wounded Healer. It's sort of a classic. And, essentially, one of the main thrusts of it is the gifts of our own pain and suffering may be pivotal to bringing healing to those around us. One of the parts of being soft, and compassionate, is being real. And loving and serving. Not only from a desire to put light out in the world, but also doing it from our own wounds.
I spent a few years working in a hospice. I was a hospice chaplain for a little while. And similar to hospitals, one of the things that happens to a lot of nurses and doctors is this need for distance in order to get your work done. You can't have your heart broken every time someone comes across your table, because it'd be impossible to do the work that you need to do. And I understand that. I think it's a little different for social workers and chaplains, though, in that space. I've found that, being someone who's lost people close to me, it allowed me to be present in a very different way to families who were saying goodbye to grandma and grandpa. Or people who were getting ready to say goodbye to this world. And I cried every time. Particularly if someone looked a little bit like my dad. Or had the old same perfume my mom would wear. Or had similar books on the shelves. It was ripping the band aid off. You know, "Aw, this is terrible!" But I found that it allowed me to really be present and to love in a deeper way. And I think it made a big difference there. Similarly, people who have been hurt. And been wronged. Or have suffered. There's an opportunity there-if they remain soft-there's an opportunity there to have a deeper compassion. To really go in some amazing places. And to bring beauty from ashes. And to bring light from darkness. What a great question to end on. I'm so glad you brought that.


For more about Chaz, check out his articles, TedTalk , and Resolution 12, a campaign to encourage New Year's resolutions based on acts of service.

About the Author

Chris is a lover of all things soul-full (that's a lot of things!). He feels fortunate to have encountered the people and projects he has over his wandering journeys. Currently, located in Philadelphia, his work seems to lie at the intersection of education, psychology, and social change.


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