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Issue 026

An Open Letter to the Community around this year's theme.

Issue 026: Wholeheartedness – “Reflections on Fellowship” by Bart Campolo

As Street Psalms enters its 25th year of forming grassroots leaders in vulnerable communities, we are inviting friends of our work to reflect with us on their own sense of vocation and call. This month Bart Campolo reflects on our guiding question:

When did your sense of vocation become real to you and what does it mean for you to show up wholeheartedly in your call when confronted with disappointment, failure, despair, and your own half-heartedness?

For the British social psychologist Liam Hudson, IQ as a measurement for achievement is a lot like height in basketball; past a certain threshold, it doesn’t much matter. While nearly every player in the NBA Hall of Fame is at least 6 feet tall, the best players on most teams are seldom the tallest, and the basketball player widely considered the greatest of all time — Michael Jordan — measured just six foot six inches tall.

According to Hudson, the super-success threshold for IQ is around 120. While geniuses like Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal sported IQs well over 150, Richard Feynman, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics, widely considered one of the greatest physicists of all time, did just fine at 120, while plenty of people with much higher IQs accomplish next to nothing.

I first read about Hudson’s research in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers, which also examines the relationship between Nobel Prize winners and the colleges they graduated from. Most people expect the world’s finest scientists to hold diplomas from the world’s most elite universities, but it turns out that where a scientist goes to school doesn’t matter as much as one might think.

A list of the last twenty-five Americans to win a Nobel Prize in Medicine not only includes graduates of prestigious institutions like Columbia, Harvard, and MIT, but also graduates of small, mid-range colleges like Hope, Holy Cross, Gettysburg, and Antioch. Harvard might have more intelligent students per capita, Gladwell allows, but plenty of lesser schools are good enough to educate a Nobel Prize winner.

The older I get, and the more I reflect on my own spiritual life, my countless interactions with fellow believers (including the founders of Street Psalms) as an evangelical Christian leader, and my post-deconversion work as a secular university chaplain, licensed professional therapist, and podcaster, the more I think Gladwell’s threshold theory applies to worldviews — and wholeheartedness — as well.

By way of explanation, let me share the story of my most recent in-person encounter with Street Psalms’ own Kris Rocke and Joel Van Dyke, just about a year ago in Tacoma. I was headed home to Cincinnati after giving a talk about forgiveness to a lovely little humanist congregation in Kirkland, but I decided to stay an extra night because Kris told me Joel was in town as well for a ministry planning meeting.

I’ve been close to Joel for 35 years now, first as his summer program boss, then as his colleague in The Philadelphia Project for Youth Ministry (which morphed into Making Urban Disciples and later morphed into Street Psalms), and later as the friend who performed his wedding to Marilyn. Indeed, it was Joel who first introduced me to Kris, with whom I immediately bonded over our shared valuation of G.K. Chesterton. So then, the chance to be together with both of them at once was too exciting to miss.

Even so, as I drove my rental car to Kris’s house that evening, I couldn’t help wondering if we three might relate differently now that I’m a card-carrying secular humanist. Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t worried that Joel and Kris would subtly keep their distance on the one hand, or pigheadedly try to change my mind on the other. After all, I’ve followed the evolution of Street Psalms closely enough to understand that even your most certain members are committed to an ethos of listening, learning from, and above all loving people, whether or not they’re officially on your team. Looking back, I realize that’s what I feared walking in the door: being considered, however lovingly, as no longer on the team.

That’s happened to me a lot since I lost my ability to believe in a supernatural God who holds the whole world in His hand. Despite the fact that neither my foundational values, which made the Christian community so attractive to me as a teenager and kept my heart hanging on long after my brain knew better, my commitment to vulnerable people and grassroots community building, or my passion for building genuinely loving relationships have significantly changed since I left the fold, too many Christians treat me like we’re on opposite sides of the great worldview divide.

As you can guess, that’s not how Kris and Joel treated me. Like most verbal processors, I’m not very good at remembering dialogue, let alone writing it down, but I can tell you this much: Joel and Kris both think I’m dead wrong about God in general, and about Jesus in particular, but as they asked questions and listened to me talk about my journey, my family, my unease about the direction of humanity, and my evidence-based efforts to encourage secular young people to make the most of their lives by building loving relationships, working to make things better for others, and cultivating wonder and gratitude for life itself, I gradually realized that they weren’t just tolerating my new worldview; they were embracing it. Not for themselves, of course, but for me and others like me, who need a different set of reasons to wholeheartedly devote themselves to the only way of life that ever has and ever will really make sense for us human beings.

That’s how I feel about Joel and Kris, of course, and that’s how I feel about all of you too. I can no longer subscribe to a Christian worldview, and, frankly, the longer I’m away from it the less sense it makes to me, but after watching your worldwide community from afar over these past 25 years, I can’t and don’t even want to deny the fact that it’s clearly way above the only truth threshold that matters: It routinely inspires you to wholeheartedly devote yourselves to keep trying to love one another, to love your neighbors, and in some cases even to love your enemies.

Maybe yours is the Harvard of worldviews, and mine, ironically enough, is lowly Holy Cross, or maybe it’s the other way around, but whichever is which, sitting there in Tacoma, listening to Joel and Kris return the favor by telling stories about the beautiful things you’re trying to do in your local communities, it seemed to me that both worldviews must be good enough.

Here’s the thing, though: People like us generally don’t forget our callings or backslide into self-destructive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors because our worldviews aren’t good enough, or because we stop caring about the people we’ve been trying to help. No, the place most of us fall apart is where our deep love and devotion to those things comes face to face with our not-so-deep love and devotion to ourselves.

In the midst of failures, disappointments, heartaches, and at least the shadows of doubts, when we feel alone and afraid that we can’t possibly live out all of our own values after all, we’re not nearly wholehearted enough about forgiving, encouraging, and practically taking care of ourselves. On this day, that particular kind of wholeheartedness is my humanist prayer for each and every one of you Street Psalmists.

Sitting with Joel and Kris that night in Tacoma, I was relieved and proud to discover that the circle of our fellowship remains unbroken. None of us is or will be the Michael Jordan of ministry, but we’ve proven plenty tall enough, plenty smart enough, plenty educated enough, and plenty agreed enough to keep standing together, wholehearted on the side of love, even after one of us changed his mind about why that’s the only thing that matters.

Bart Campolo, based in Cincinnati, is a counselor, secular community builder, and podcaster. Originally from suburban Philadelphia, he holds a BA in Religious Studies from Brown University and an MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Xavier University. Formerly an evangelical Christian dedicated to urban ministry, Bart spent almost three decades as an inner-city minister, founding Mission Year, before leavingChristianity. In 2014, he became USC’s inaugural humanist chaplain, and it was from there that he launched both his podcast and his counseling practice, which now reach people around the world.. As a licensed counselor in Cincinnati since 2017, Bart is committed to inspiring and equipping people to make the most of their lives by actively pursuing goodness and meaning in an openly secular way.