An American's Story
Walking the Talk:
A Progressive Populist Pastor
By PHILLIP A. FARUGGIO
When Rev. Darren Cushman Wood of the East 1Oth United Methodist Church in
Indianapolis talks about social and economic justice, he not only talks
the talk but walks the walk.
He walks the picket lines. He counsels the poor. He conducts Sunday Service.
He reads progressive periodicals. Perhaps most importantly, Wood lives in
the community he serves, a racially mixed, blue-collar neighborhood on the
near east side. No private club memberships, golf on Tuesdays at some country
club, or cocktail receptions downtown. His life is his church and his community.
"I was born in Avon, Indiana, and grew up in a semi-rural environment.
My parents are blue-collar folks: My dad worked as a cable splicer for the
phone company, my mom a legal secretary. Four generations of my family lives
across the road from each other -- so the extended family has always been
important to me. A solid blue-collar Methodist and Democrat family -- it
seems like religion and political expression always went together for us."
After graduating from the University of Evansville, Darren attended the
Union Theological Seminary in New York. However, his calling to the ministry
occurred in high school. "I had a conversion experience at 16. John
Wesley, founder of Methodism, became my role model. I found myself ministering
to fellow high school students. I organized small Bible study programs at
school, and I preached my first sermon at 16. It was July, hot as blazes,
and I wore a three-piece suit. The sermon was eight minutes long and I covered
every major doctrine from the creation to the second coming in those eight
His parents, as proud as they were of Darren, hoped still that he would
become a lawyer instead of a minister. They saw ministry as being too wishy
washy. Darren's flair and energy seemed too dynamic for the Methodist Church.
Darren, however, was on a mission. He spent his four years at Evansville
working part time as a youth director in Fairlawn United Methodist Church.
This is where the "pastor" in him developed and took hold.
"At college I also became very active in the Nicaraguan situation,
and with the nuclear freeze movement. Being a leftist activist in Indiana
during the early '80's was not really in vogue -- that shaped my character
While attending Union Theological Seminary, Darren found New York City an
enlightening experience. He had the all-too-common heart-breaking love affair,
ran out of money, and sank into a spiritual funk. "I always hoped of
graduating college and leaving Indiana forever -- beginning anew in New
York. Yet, what I discovered was during times -- it was my family and friends
back home who were there for me, every time! My roots were in Indiana, not
In New York Darren also got his first taste of labor activism. "It
was the late 1980s, and New York City was full of labor unrest and disputes.
I became active in the Pittston Coal strike, organizing fellow seminary
students to do leafleting and picketing. I was arrested for an act of civil
disobedience as well."
After meeting his present wife at seminary, Darren spent one year in Atlanta
running a children's center at a Methodist homeless shelter. He finally
finished Union, married and moved to Greensboro, Indiana. There he served
as pastor for two small Methodist churches. Again he became active in labor-related
issues. "In 1991 a small manufacturing plant closed down, affecting
some of my parishioners. I went to the plant, and helped organize a dislocated
workers group. I saw how corporate greed operates first hand. The plant
was opened for six to nine months, then closed down to create a 'sweetheart
deal' for a buyout. The place closed and was vacated in one week. The company
never even paid the health insurance policy for the workers. They took money
out of each workers paycheck, yet never made payment to the insurance company.
The dislocated workers group was able to get their health coverage, plus
one week's severance pay for all the workers. It seems like a minor accomplishment,
but you're dealing, in this case, with a non-union shop -- so it was a lot,
This was Darren's first introduction to the AFL-CIO. He met labor leaders
statewide, and developed a relationship with labor. Many times he was asked
to speak on various issues, and to lead groups in prayer for various labor
concerns. "Lets face it," he said, "there aren't many ministers
in central Indiana who are activists on labor issues."
In 1993, Darren was appointed to the 1Oth Street church. He immediately
began to make changes and long-range planning. He opened the East 10th Street
Childrens Youth Center, providing after school care and learning projects.
The church works with the Bonner Community Center across the street, helping
the people of the neighborhood. He also opened a soup kitchen in December
for those in need.
In addition to soup, the kitchen offers legal aid, job counseling and a
way to organize poor people. For instance, when welfare "reforms"
reduced funding for the health center across the street, causing it to turn
away more than 150 sick people a month, he organized a letter-writing campaign,
enlisting those who stopped by at the soup kitchen. Those letters helped
persuade the Legislature to put $10 million in the state budget for health
care during the next two years -- which is not enough, Wood says, but it's
more than would have been budgeted otherwise.
Darren has fought to keep liquor stores and check cashing facilities, which
attract transients from opening up nearby and getting pay phones used by
drug dealers removed as well.
In 1995, producers for America's Workforce, a labor radio show, heard
Wood speak at a city rally. They offered him his own spot on the show, which
was heard on stations in Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon and
Oklahoma. For a year and a half he addressed progressive populist issues
that concern most Americans, not just organized labor and his five-minute
spot focused on issues concerning the domestic economy and political concerns,
plus human rights issues abroad. As he is in person, Wood was candid, blunt
and pulls no punches. Recently, his local obligations caused him to curtail
the weekly radio show.
Probably the most important work he does (other than being pastor for his
church) is NESCO, the Near East Side Community
Organization. He is vice president of this umbrella group, which encompasses
all the local block clubs and various neighborhood associations of the near
east side. "Our goal is to strengthen the community through activist
measures." They include:
-- more youth organizations;
-- a tenant/landlord association;
-- better policing for drug-related crime
-- better street lighting;
-- better zoning measures;
-- better sanitation cleaning of the neighborhoods.
Wood also recently joined the board of the National Interfaith Committee
for Worker Justice, which helps to bring labor and religious organizations
together for social and economic justice issues.
Why does Rev. Wood consider himself a progressive populist as opposed to
being a Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Socialist or Conservative? And what
is a progressive populist?
"I'm a populist, a progressive populist due to my faith in Jesus Christ.
Jesus calls the Christian to engage in not only acts of mercy, but acts
of justice. Not only to alleviate the immediate suffering, but to get at
the root causes of suffering. To challenge the powers of evil and oppression.
Populism means working with common, ordinary people to overcome oppression.
A progressive populist sees a role for private property and business to
operate. Socialism has an optimistic faith in the role of big government.
Capitalism has an optimistic faith in the role of big business/corporations.
A progressive populist, in my opinion, denies both as being too big, too
bureaucratic and too unjust. The populism of people like Pat Buchanan and
other reactionaries is nothing but political rhetoric and reliance upon
super-rich private business interests. They are the other end of the scale
from big government socialists.
"Progressive thinking is for more grass-roots democracy, beginning
at very local focal points. The power is in the hands of the communities
to decide policy, and the people have a more egalitarian chance to participate.
Progressive populism means elected officials seek out constituents to forge
policy for them.
"One example of true progressive populism is the use of the citizens
initiated referendum, which by the way is not yet possible here in Indiana.
This is where the voters can decide on many policy decisions which affect
the majority of citizens. Progressives see the widening gap in income between
rich and working people as the center spoke in the great wheel of injustice.
As that remains, or continues to widen, the less fortunate will never have
their problems addressed."
He still hopes that the Democrats will come around to their progressive
populist roots if progressives and organized labor keep nudging them.
I asked Darren, if he obtained a magic wand, how would life be different
in Indiana. "Let me break it down, since its my magic wand, to different
categories, and briefly suggest:
"Economically -- there would be a liveable wage of minimum $10 per
hour, as apposed to a minimum wage which keeps people in poverty. It should
be illegal for a person to work full-time and still be in poverty. It's
ludicrous and offers no real incentive to leave government welfare.
"I would have a society where there would be more employee-owned businesses,
with true diversified profit sharing. More community-owned and run credit
unions and housing partnerships, giving people access to opening small businesses
and owning their own homes.
"Health Care -- simple. Universal health care for all. A system similar
to what our retired citizens have, with every working person and business
contributing according to means. Sort of like a single-payer system, eliminating
private insurance companies. What I'm suggesting is taking the profits out
of health insurance.
"Socially -- the lives of our children would be in better shape. Public
education, like Indianapolis Public Schools, would be better funded. Public
ownership of sports teams would alleviate the system of high ticket prices,
high salaries, high profits and tax breaks for owners.
"Taxation -- companies and corporations would pay their fair share,
not what is occurring right here in downtown. The wealthy would pay more
and the workers less, thus closing the income gap a bit. Property taxes
are not progressive, when home owners pay more than developers. If corporations
paid at same rate as in the 1950s we'd have no federal deficit. A progressive
flat tax should be investigated for possible merit.
"Politically -- as I stated before, the community has more town meetings
to help forge policies. These policies would then be carried out by elected
officials. There should really be a separation between politics and big
business. Getting at the power of corporate America, alleviating the stranglehold
it has on America, is foremost. Lincoln said we are a government of the
people by the people and for the people. Its evolved, or regressed actually,
into a government of Big Business, by Big Business and for Big Business."
I wondered how he, as a Christian pastor, felt about the whole Christian
Coalition political movement.
"The religious right in this country wants to talk about family values,
but they don't discuss how most Christian families can live without a decent,
liveable wage. Economic rights that can sustain a family and alleviate stresses
which breakdown the moral fiber of a family, these are never discussed.
When you won't address fair wages, good health coverage and more time off
for families to grow closer, then how can you say family values? It becomes
just cheap rhetoric. I remember what John Wesley said, more or less, that
wealth can inevitably get in the way as to our relationship with God. Consequently,
we become less sensitive to those who are suffering. Now aren't those truer
The Rev. Darren Cushman Wood speaks with the wisdom of a man 20 or 30 years
older than his own 33 years. His parishioners love him, the community respects
and needs him, and many bureaucrats listen to him. Would he ever consider
running for political office? "Right now I have two young children
home and a wife who is becoming a minister. I just have so much on my plate.
If, down the road, knowing I could still serve my church properly, I would
consider such an endeavor."
The opinion of this writer is, whenever Darren decides to run for local
office, he would surely win. After all, he has reason, and compassion and
probably God in his corner. That's quite a team to defeat.
Philip A. Farruggio is a businessman and a freelance writer based in
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