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Will Pastor Bill go to Washington?

The founder of Broad Street Ministry is running for Congress, God bless ’em.

The Rev. Bill Golderer: “When there’s gridlock, there’s no discussion.”
The Rev. Bill Golderer: “When there’s gridlock, there’s no discussion.”Read moreCLEM MURRAY / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

WE'VE GOTTA start listening to each other, says Bill Golderer.

Republicans and Democrats. People on both sides of the gun issue. Bleeding hearts and NIMBYs. We have to stop the name-calling, ask sincere questions and listen to the answers with respect and curiosity. Only then will we find areas of common ground and end the ideological gridlock that's strangling America's spirit and breaking its heart.

It's not easy, but are we grown-ups or not? Besides, those on opposite sides of the issues we hold dear are not going anywhere. They're Americans, too. So we'd all better start trying to get along. Even with the crazies.

Oops, I just name-called. Holy cow, this is hard.

I say as much to Golderer, founding pastor of Broad Street Ministry who has just resigned to run as a Democrat for Congress in the 7th District (the seat now held by Republican Pat Meehan).

"Hey, people are fed up. When there's gridlock, there's no discussion. People see that Congress would rather shut down and hold us hostage than work with each other," says Golderer, 45, a Wayne, Delaware County, native who thought he'd grow up to be a pro golfer until his advocate's heart led him to Yale Divinity School. "What results for people, in terms of engagement with the political process, is disbelief and disgust.

"It makes me furious. My two kids seem to get along better, and they're only 7 and 10. They fight, but for the good of the family they're willing to listen to each other and figure it out."

Golderer thinks it's time to bring this old-fashioned form of listening to Congress, a dysfunctional playpen of paranoid, tantrum-throwing babies (sorry -I name-called again) whose public-approval rating in a Gallup poll dropped to 11 percent last month.

I'd call Golderer naive except I've seen him in action the past few years at Broad Street Ministry - the big church with the red doors across from the Kimmel Center on the Avenue of the Arts.

And I am bowled over by how he has transformed the public's conversation and actions regarding Philly's hungry and homeless by building unexpected partnerships between two factions that have often been at odds with each other: advocates for the homeless and advocates for the city's hotel and tourism operators.

Broad Street Ministry is a Christian community whose "hospitality collaborative" serves 90,000 free meals a year to 7,000 homeless men and women in the church's huge sanctuary. They're welcomed six times a week as guests and eat sit-down meals at real tables, with real tablecloths, plates, cups and utensils, served by waiters who refill plates until hunger is sated.

Volunteering at Broad Street Ministry are enthusiastic employees of the city's hospitality industry, which has had a painful relationship with the homeless. How do you square compassion for humans in dire need with the reality that tourists and business owners - whose support can make or break a city - are frightened off by all that anguish?

By serving them in ways that actually change their fortunes.

At Broad Street Ministry, no one is ever turned away. They're also supplied with clothing, with social services, with a place to pick up mail, with conversation and - critically - a sense of being a vital member of a welcoming community. Given that many of them haven't felt welcomed anywhere for years, that's huge.

When I visited, church members dined with the homeless guests. Honestly, I couldn't always tell who was living on the street and who wasn't; who was out of luck and who was born lucky.

In such a gracious environment of physical and emotional abundance, those in dire circumstances begin to feel hope. With that comes the possibility of change.

The dignified model created by Golderer is a far cry from the catch-as-catch-can feeding method by bighearted do-gooders on the Ben Franklin Parkway, where the weather is flaky, food is scarce and bathrooms are nonexistent.

"The real insight Bill has brought to bear is that the experience of the homeless is one of anxiety and scarcity," says Paul Levy, president and CEO of the Center City District. "He has created a model of care that reduces the uncertainty. It's a model that folks in the city want to replicate and foundations want to support."

Like the Maguire Foundation, which supports missions like Broad Street's. Megan Maguire Nicoletti, a Maguire family member, notes that Golderer is as comfortable among the poor he serves as he is among the well-to-do who call the Main Line home.

"That combination means he can empower the poor and bring understanding to those with means, which is a beautiful thing," she says. "He's diplomatic and empathetic. He neutralizes differences to bring out the goodness in people, and that's something that not everyone can do."

I'm thinking Golderer's skills would transfer easily to national discussions about seemingly intractable issues that are polarizing the country. And more leaders in Congress might be inspired to finally start acting like adults.

Or at least acting bigger than their fears. Because that's mostly what our I'm-right-so-you-have-to-be-wrong standoffs are all about: Abject terror that we won't get ours. That we'll be had. That we'll go down in flames. That those on the margins will never be understood by a Congress saturated with rich members whose median net worth - $2.8 million in the Senate, $843,507 in the House - dwarfs most Americans'. And that the poor will bleed us dry.

What's missing in Congress is a willingness to look at all of those fears, on both sides of the aisle. To respect what underlies them, to listen closely and to hang in there through painful discussions in which both sides confront truths and misperceptions about the things that make all of us uncomfortable: wealth and class, race and gender, rights and responsibilities, right and wrong.

"Bill has the courage to jump into the mess," says Brent Martin, former general manager of the Four Seasons Hotel, which greatly supported the Broad Street Ministry. "He has an ability to listen to other points of view and then to lead in ways that most people in politics don't."

Broad Street Ministry isn't Golderer's only downtown community. He's also a senior pastor at Arch Street Presbyterian Church, where he'll continue to preach during his campaign. And he's a soon-to-be restaurateur. With partners Steven Cook and Michael Solomonov (owners of Zahav, Federal Donuts, et al), he will soon open Rooster Soup Company at 1526 Sansom St. Its proceeds will fund Broad Street Ministry's hospitality programs.

"Bill is not just compassionate and understanding," says Jack Ferguson, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. "He's also a savvy leader who brings people together and gets them excited about making a difference."

It's been years since anyone has said that about Congress.


Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly