THE BLOG
03/06/2014 03:27 pm ET Updated May 06, 2014

Imagine All the People Together As One

Remember the old compounding principle, which tells us that if a 20 year old smartly invests $10,000 today in stocks, real estate and the like, he could end up retiring with over $2 million? Likewise, if we wisely invest in the leaders of tomorrow today, we could reap rich spiritual benefits in the years to come. As a seminary president, it's my business to help support and promote such religious leaders and, equally as important, to recognize the public's hunger for "the real thing."

This is especially critical in an election year, when leaders of faith and moral courage are challenged to keep public debates focused on our nation's moral compass and to prevent straying toward personal political gain. To do that, we need to celebrate leaders of faith and moral courage who are capable of grabbing the attention of our multitasking populace. This is especially important if they can captivate and motivate our youth.

Today, one-fifth of the U.S. public -- and a third of adults under 30 -- are religiously unaffiliated, according to polling by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Pew refers to them as "nones" because they check "none" when asked about religious affiliation. Yet, at the same time, a whopping 68 percent say they believe in God. Our idealistic youth understand that churches, synagogues, temples and other institutions do good things and help society and those in greatest need. But increasingly, those young people resist walking through our doors. Many of these millennials are concerned with diversity, equality and justice, just as I am, and I'm certain we can build a better future for all if we work together.

What we give to young people -- the power of religious community as well as achingly beautiful traditions and language -- they'll give back by infusing us with their boundless energy and fresh idealism. And if we can look at our institutions through their eyes, we might be moved to shake things up and either retire a few weary old standards or reimagine them in light of their ideas.

What I'm searching for are better ways to seize the attention of millennials. My hope is that by promoting the deserving "bright spots" in our burgeoning multifaith movement for justice -- the leaders I've worked with and walked alongside -- they'll captivate our youth, as they've captivated me. This is especially important at a time when so many of the loudest religious voices continue to promote ideas contrary to the values of inclusion, equality and fairness.

My personal short list of bright spots includes Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl, the daughter of a Korean Buddhist immigrant and an American Jew, who will soon take her place as the head of Manhattan's historic Central Synagogue. She is the first Asian-American rabbi and cantor as well as the first woman to be ordained both rabbi and cantor. She carries difference within her very identity, can take us to heaven with her song, move our hearts and minds with her words and compel us to act with justice and mercy. I can't wait to see how she uses her "bully pulpit" when she's leading an entire flock.

Consider, too, the Rev. Dr. William Barber, prophet of North Carolina's Moral Monday movement, whose very presence and words echo with moral authority, making even the most seasoned activists vibrate with the passion they first felt in Civil Rights or ACT UP marches. Just think what can happen if the citizens engagement promoted by Moral Monday protests sweeps the country? Surely, somebody needs to be calling us all out when the U.S. has the highest poverty rate of any developed nation in the world with the exception of Romania.

I'm also excited about Amos Disasa (@amosdisasa), an Ethiopian-born African-American leading a fast-growing church in Columbia, S.C., dubbed the "Downtown Church." Amos' open-arms policy is summed up on the church's website: "We welcome all people from all places, wherever they are on their life journey." As one enthusiastic member puts it, "I love Downtown Church because there are no rules, people are authentic, and we meet people where they are. And I can wear whatever I want." I can't imagine any young person failing to respond to that!

Late last year, as we mourned the loss of Nelson Mandela, I remember wondering which of the young activists among us today will evolve into the leaders of tomorrow -- the next Mandela, the next Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the next Dorothy Day. Mandela was not a professional religious leader, but he was recognized as a leader of moral courage, perhaps without peer, whose sacrifice and suffering helped to redeem and change not only a whole nation, but people throughout the world. Like Pope Francis, he had that almost indefinable and instantly recognizable "It" factor.

In my book of reckoning, that means character, authenticity and integrity. None of the leaders I mentioned are perfect, but each offers a powerful presence -- a glimpse that life is most meaningful when lived on behalf of others for a cause greater than oneself. At Auburn, we delight in being part of the journey of today's leaders of faith and moral courage from all corners of the country, equipping them to stride with confidence into the public arena to weigh in on the most pressing issues of the day. These "bright spots" already among us have the potential to frame the coming debates -- while helping fulfill millennials' deep desire for authentic leaders.