An American's Story
Walking the Talk:

A Progressive Populist Pastor


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 minutes!"

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 a bit."

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 anywhere else!".

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, considering."

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.

Magic Wand

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."

'Christian' Coalition

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 family values?"

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 Indianapolis.

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