Hillary Clinton: From politician to preacher?

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Rev. Dr. Bill Shillady with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

If anyone knows how to reimagine herself, it’s Hillary Rodham Clinton.  She went from first lady, to senator, to secretary of state.  She took a run at POTUS, twice.  But preacher?

When she first mentioned to the Rev. Dr. Bill Shillady, a friend of 15 years, that she would like to be in the pulpit, he recalled thinking she was kidding.  Throughout the 2016 campaign, he had sent her daily devotionals, knowing that she leaned heavily on the faith lessons of her United Methodist traditions to withstand the grueling race.  Still, he didn’t picture her preaching — even though she insisted to him, “I’m serious.”

That brief exchange happened during a photo shoot in the spring for Shillady’s new book, a compilation  of 365 of the dispatches, for which Clinton wrote the foreword.  The subject of sermonizing got lost in the commotion that day, only to resurface late last week in an email back-and-forth that changed his mind. Clinton, he said afterward, will be looking to “guest preach” in the future.

“She can share a remarkable story,” he said, “about a deep-seated faith that helped her get through the defeat of the election.” And, he added, she has an expansive knowledge of the Bible.

Clinton, who could not be reached for comment, recounted in the book’s foreword how “Rev. Bill wrote to me the day after Election Day – one of the hardest days of my life. His words were a lifeline to me then – something to hold onto while I recaptured my footing.”

He had chosen an Easter theme.  For Christians, “Friday is the day that it all falls apart and all hope is lost. We all have Fridays,” he advised her. “… Our hope is that Sunday is coming, but it might well be hell for a while.”

Shillady, 60, a son of Reading and graduate of Lebanon Valley College, had forged a bond with Clinton after the two met at a 9/11 memorial service in Central Park in 2002.  When he learned of her plan to make a second run for the presidency, he began sending an inspirational message each day, amounting to more than 600 between April 16, 2015, and Dec. 31, 2016. From those he culled Strong for a Moment Like This: The Daily Devotions of Hillary Rodham Clinton,  to be published Tuesday.

The messages, grouped into themed chapters with titles such as “Accept the Call” and “Overcome Fear,” reflect resonant moments — among them, Clinton’s acceptance of the nomination in Philadelphia, the shooting of nine members of the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., and her loss to Donald Trump on Nov. 8.

At first, Shillady was the sole author, tapping away on his laptop in the 4 a.m. darkness of his home office in New York, where he is executive director of the United Methodist City Society, a social service agency.  Eventually, he enlisted more than 100 Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist pastors to contribute. Joining them was a private Facebook group of young United Methodist Church women clergy and congregation leaders. They had been searching for a way to support Clinton not as a political candidate but as a fellow Methodist working toward equality for all women, said the Rev. Dr. Emily A. Peck-McClain, a visiting professor of Christian formation and young adult ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. They created the hashtag #WePraywithHer.

One of those women was the Rev. Julia Singleton, 30, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Brookhaven. Included in the book are two of her messages, about confronting obstacles such as sexism when called to a mission, and about handling fear during challenging times. She said she welcomes the prospect of Clinton stepping into the pulpit and speaking more directly about her faith. “She could inspire disaffected millennials who are [liberal] but believe the church is not,” Singleton said. “The progressive Christian voice isn’t often heard in the U.S.”

Formerly the pastor of Park Avenue United Methodist Church in New York, Shillady borrowed the devotional-a-day concept from Joshua DuBois, who was executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships during the Obama administration and became the president’s spiritual adviser.  DuBois compiled his morning messages in the 2013 book The President’s Devotional: The Daily Readings That Inspired President Obama.

Before his alliance with Clinton took root, Shillady already was a spiritual fixture on the streets of New York.  He began standing on the sidewalk outside his church on the day terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center. Clad in his ministerial robes, he prayed and talked with people shaken by the attack. What he calls his “street ministry” continued long after the towers fell.

None of that would surprise the ladies of Holy Cross United Methodist Church in Reading who decades earlier predicted that the young Shillady would wind up in the clergy. “I remember my Sunday school teacher saying, ‘Little Billy, you should be a minister,’ ” he said.

He felt the calling as a youngster, and by high school was involved in the Jesus Movement, a countercultural, youth-led evangelical crusade that urged Christianity’s return to its biblical origins. He earned a bachelor’s degree in religion and economics/business administration from Lebanon Valley College,  a master of divinity degree from Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., and a doctorate of ministry from Drew Theological School in Madison, N.J.

After graduating from Duke, he spent a year as associate pastor at Haws Avenue United Methodist Church in Norristown but left to settle in New York with his then-new wife, Judith. In 1998, he was named pastor at the Park Avenue church.

Shillady and Clinton met for a second time in 2002 when she and daughter Chelsea attended morning worship there.  The politician and the minister soon became friends. He co-officiated at Chelsea’s wedding to Marc Mezvinsky in 2010, and officiated at the 2011 memorial service for Hillary’s mother, Dorothy Rodham.

On Easter 2015, Clinton told Shillady she was going to run.

“I told her I’d like to send her a daily thought or devotional or inspiration,” he said, adding that she welcomed the idea.

The faith-centered side of Clinton often goes unrecognized, he said, and that is partly her doing, a result of her reluctance to open up. But she has spoken at Methodist gatherings and shared her upbringing in the church. “I know in my heart of hearts, from my conversations with her and the way she lives out her faith, that she is definitely a disciple of Christ,” he said.

During lunch two weeks ago, he said, Clinton told him that she had “come out of the woods,” figuratively and literally, referring to her contemplative postelection walks. He described her as “more relaxed” and primed for the next phase of her life. At the time, he didn’t know that it might include preaching.

He said he doubts Clinton will seek ordination, but said the United Methodist tradition, with its long history of laypeople delivering sermons from the pulpit, can accommodate her. She has something to say about defeat, disappointment, and hope for the future, he said, and “it will bear fruit when she preaches.”