Remembering Mayor Tom Menino, urban theologian

Let us prayRemembering Mayor Tom Menino, urban theologian

Boston’s Mayor Tom Menino, now of blessed memory, was a religiously complex man. He grappled publicly with his tradition even as he was informed by it. He was a devout Roman Catholic who occasionally argued loudly and publicly with the leadership of his church. As the Washington Post recounted, “A Catholic in heavily Catholic Boston, Mr. Menino also drew the ire of traditionalists in the church for his support of same-sex marriage and abortion rights.”  His faith, like his public leadership, was gritty and practical. In 2005, at the Catholic Charities Christmas Dinner, Mayor Menino said, “what moves me about being a Christian is what Jesus taught us about being religious. He did not give priority to piety. He didn’t make holiness the big thing. And he did not tell us to go around talking up God, either.” There are many reasons to give thanks for Mayor Menino’s long and tenacious leadership in Boston. I want to reflect on Mayor Menino as a person of faith.

Vision of the beloved community

Though not always perfect or the fullness of what many hoped, Mayor Menino held strong to a vision of a unified Boston. In the days after the Boston Marathon bombing and despite a broken leg, Mayor Menino checked himself out of the hospital and attended our interfaith service. Shaky but defiant, he clung to the lectern and declared, “We are one Boston. No adversity, no challenge, nothing can tear down the resilience in the heart of this city and its people.”

In quieter days, Menino was a steady witness for a Boston where all residents thrived, clearly inspired by the vision of Matthew 25: 31-46. Again from his 2005 Catholic Charities speech, Menino said “What Jesus said, and what he showed with his life, was that the way to follow him was to take care of people. He told us in the Gospel of Matthew — the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the sick, and yes, the imprisoned.” He added, ‘How much clearer could the Lord have made it?”

In breaking with the teachings of his Roman Catholic tradition, the Mayor framed his support of same-sex marriage in terms of his commitment to social justice and unity. Menino said, “As mayor, you represent all the people, not just some of them. The gay community is part of the city, and I want to make sure the city works for them, just as it does for everyone else.”

Over his long service, Menino reached out to disparate communities in our city. The Boston Globe recalled, “reaching beyond his solid base, Mr. Menino courted disparate constituencies that other candidates ignored or paid too little heed, such as African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and conservatives in East Boston.” In a city of neighborhoods continually divided by race and class, Menino worked hard to build connections between us. In January 1994 at Faneuil Hall as part of his first State of the City address, Menino said, “If, 100 years from now, they look back at my election, I hope what they see is the beginning of a century of inclusive politics. Throughout my whole career I have tried to be an open door to people left out of the mainstream. As mayor, I intend to continue that.” Lord knows we have not yet achieved the vision of full unity in our city, but Mayor Menino laid a solid foundation for reconciliation in Boston.

Public Person of Faith (who laid off the political ‘God-Talk’)

Mayor Menino’s most public reflection on his own faith came at a controversial keynote address in 2005 at the Catholic Charities Christmas dinner. The Mayor said, “Tonight is a rare public event outside of my parish church in which it is appropriate for me to say quite simply — I believe in Jesus Christ,” from prepared text of his comments. But most often, Menino spoke of collective and civic values without explicitly theological language. To shepherd a religiously and culturally diverse city, Menino needed to inspire with a common language. Menino’s Christian faith was particular but his political speech was intentionally inclusive for a wider constituency.

Model of ecumenical and inter-religious flexibility

Mayor Menino was clear in his identity as a Roman Catholic Christian, but open to prayer and visitation with other Christians and other faiths. As Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston said, “It was not uncommon for the Mayor to attend several church services on a given day, at our Catholic parishes and the churches and worship sites of our ecumenical and interfaith brethren with whom he had very close and supportive relationships.” Mayor Menino was formed by Roman Catholic liturgy and traditions, and yet he learned the patterns and practices of Boston’s Black churches, Hispanic charismatic congregations, mainline Protestants parishes, Orthodox Christians churches, Vietnamese Buddhist cultural centers, Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques. He visited with us. He worshipped with us. He learned to be a guest in unfamiliar religious settings.  During Menino’s time as mayor, both the New England Holocaust Memorial and the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center were built.

A Pastor among the Flock

Like most good clergy, Mayor Menino knew to show up in a time of crisis; More impressive was his commitment to the grieving after the news trucks drove away. Yvonne Abraham wrote, “His greatness was in the follow-through, in countless quiet acts of kindness and shows of support, offered long after most of the city had moved on. ” Kim Odom, the mother of murdered 13 yr old Steven Odom, recalled Menino’s pastoral tenacity; “When she did not go to him for help, Menino went to her.” To be the beloved community, we must bear witness to the grief and suffering among us. Mayor Menino said, “It goes on and on and on. Odoms. All those folks. But I just did what I was supposed to do. Not to be melodramatic, but if you’re mayor, you should be there.”

Many commentators have noted the wildly impressive fact that Mayor Menino had personally met ~60% of Boston residents (not counting school children!). Menino knew that to change the city he needed to interact with the people directly, hear their cries and complaints. Would all our religious leaders shake so many hands! He attended “almost every wake, school play and retail ribbon-cutting he could find time for.” One of the first verbs in the the Boston Globe story of his passing is “shepherd.” Mayor Menino ‘shepherded’ Boston for decades, admittedly sometimes using his shepherd’s crook with a bit too much force. And yet, Menino was indeed a shepherd among the people, not governing from a distant remove. Pope Francis counseled pastors to “be shepherds with the smell of sheep.” As our Mayor and Shepherd, Menino was in our midst, constantly.

Mayor Menino, Urban Theologian

In popular theology, visions of heaven are full of baby angels, snow-white clouds, and rolling meadows. This may be comforting to some, but it’s scripturally inaccurate. The vision of heaven in the Book of Revelation is decidedly urban. The “new heaven and the new earth” of Revelation 21 is, in fact, a holy city. As a Bostonian, I take great comfort in this vision. God promises to dwell among the people in the city. Tears shall be wiped away. Death shall be no more. God does not flee the city for peace, but instead brings peace to the city. Tom Menino was a sinner and saint, like all of us. He was a pastor among his flock. He was dedicated to a heavenly vision of the city of Boston. I will be forever grateful for his commitment to unity in the city, pastoral care for the forgotten, and a peace among all God’s children. We did not get to the heavenly vision of Boston in his lifetime, but I pray his vision will guide all of us for the work ahead.

Published by RevEverett

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ here in Boston. I serve as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Cycliss, seamstress, my book is "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." NJ by birth, MA by choice. Opinions are my own. Love abounds.

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1 Comment

  1. What a great commemoration of someone who loved ALL of Boston. I first met Tommy as a volunteer at our neighborhood drop-off recycling in 1990, when he was still our district councilor, and I last saw him in his office in City Hall during his final year in office.

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