Pastoring in Partisan Times
By Fred Koenig
“They are my people. It’s where I came from,” Sample said. Sample grew up in Mississippi. His father had a fifth-grade education. His mother completed school through the 10th grade. His dad worked various jobs. His mother worked 20 years in a factory at quality control for minimum wage. Sample answered phones and worked in the office of a taxi cab business until he was old enough to drive, then he drove for a couple of years. He worked in the oil fields to put himself through college.
In 1968 he was protesting at a rally for George Wallace, and as he was handing out fliers he felt a strong kinship to the Wallace supporters he was trying to sway: They were his people. How was it they were on opposite sides of the political divide around Wallace? He then made himself a student, and a teacher, on studies of class in America. “Research was good therapy to help me understand things going on within myself,” he said.
It’s now 50 years later, and he’s still working on it. Sample has written more than a dozen books, with half of them primarily focused on issues of class. His latest comes out this month and is entitled “Working Class Rage.” The book is not just a collection of anecdotes from Sample’s experience. He sought out the best anthropological work he could find relating to the topic.
“No Democrats will be happy with my book, but Republicans won’t, either,” he said.
Sample does not expect partisans from either side of the isle to be fans of his latest book, which he started writing before the 2016 election.
“The Democratic party has been ignoring the working class, and that is where they had got their power in the past,” he said.
Sample owns that his personal views are to the left and says anyone who knows him know that. But he rejects the labels of liberal or progressive, saying they don’t carry a clear meaning that he aligns with. He finds plenty of fault across the board.
Sample describes his personal politics as being for the common good and says that is something any good citizen should have at heart. At the end of the day, Sample is still a theologian, and he concludes his thoughts on working class theologically. In the writings of the Apostle Paul, as he likens the church to family, Sample believes the church needs to speak in the family rhetoric to cross divisions of class. He has heard too many disparaging remarks about the working class, especially since the 2016 election.
“We can love our country as a gift from God, but we must be desperately on guard not to worship it,” Sample said, noting that the scriptures hold the role of country in tension, with the prophet Isaiah referring to importance of country as “dust on the scale,” but in Revelation nations are represented in the final parade.
To bring about change, Sample would like to see campaign finance reform, politically gerrymandered districts corrected and voter restriction practices stopped. He doesn’t see any of these positions as partisan, believing that whatever party happens to be in power uses these practices in attempt to suppress the opposing party.
Missouri Bishop Robert Farr has expressed that it is important for the future of the Church for churches to figure out how to cross the class divide. Sample believes most United Methodist Churches should be able to do that. Even if the core leaders are upper-middle class, many of them are only a generation away from being working class.
“We’ve got a lot of good people in the United Methodist Church,” Sample said. “We deserve a better faith than what we have.”
Sample holds a B.A. degree from Millsaps College, an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology, a Ph.D. from the Boston University Graduate School and a D.D. from Coe College. Many in Missouri know him from Saint Paul School of Theology, where he taught courses for 32 years. At age 83, he is currently pastor of Trinity UMC in Kansas City.