How faith led Hillary Clinton ‘out of the woods’
For 635 days, the Rev. Bill Shillady woke at 4 a.m. to send an email to Hillary Clinton. He began in April 2015, when Clinton announced her candidacy for president, and ended in December 2016, as she dealt with a devastating defeat.
A United Methodist minister, Shillady met Clinton, a lifelong Methodist, in 2002, when Shillady pastored a church in New York City. Over the years, a spiritual kinship formed between the pastor and politician, and as Clinton began her second run for the White House, Shillady offered to send her daily devotionals based on the day’s news.
Sometimes they were snippets of Scripture with encouraging mini-sermons. Other days’ devotions included poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning or insights from the late Catholic writer Henri Nouwen that sought to put political troubles into proper perspective. Eventually, Shillady recruited a team of writers, including dozens of women who formed a “We Pray with Her,” group.
Clinton mentioned the digital devotions several times during the campaign, saying they helped keep her “centered.” That was especially true, she told Shillady, in the days and weeks after the presidential election, while she reeled from her unexpected loss.
Shillady collected the devotions in a book, called “Strong for a Moment Like This,” which will publish on August 15. The minister talked to CNN this week about the email he sent Clinton the morning after the election, how faith is leading her “out of the woods” and why he expects to soon see the former politician in the pulpit.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I remember talking to you on Election Day, and you sounded pretty optimistic. What were those 24 hours like for you?
My writing team sent (Clinton) a message about every half-hour during the day, and everything seemed fine. They had asked me to open the Javits Center program (where Clinton’s victory rally was to be held) with a prayer, and as the night went on, it was like a funeral wake. The Javits Center just got quieter and quieter. I went home to bed, and then I got up to write the hardest devotional I had to write. I didn’t get much sleep that night.
Had you planned what you would write if Clinton lost the election?
About a week before the election, I wrote to my writing team and said, “Friends we need to think about devotionals that celebrate victory or help us deal with defeat.” The devotional itself took me a little longer to write because I remember crying as I would write.
Your Nov. 9 devotional compares Hillary Clinton’s loss to Good Friday. That’s pretty intense.
I woke up that morning (on November 9) and it felt like maybe what the Apostles experienced on Good Friday. Their leader, master and savior was dead and gone and they didn’t know what to do. And I thought of this phrase from the Rev. Tony Compolo: Good Friday was tough, but Sunday was coming.
Read Shillady’s November 9 email to Hillary Clinton
In that metaphor, what does “Sunday” represent for Hillary Clinton’s career, for her life?
“Sunday” is now for her. She’s the most relaxed I’ve ever seen her, having fun with her grandchildren. I think she’ll continue to speak out on issues that are important to her on women and gender and children’s health. “Sunday” is not another election for her. She’s moving on with her life.
So you don’t think she’ll run for president again?
I don’t think she would run again. I don’t have any knowledge other than my personal speculation, but she’s fine where she is. She’s told me that a number of times. She certainly was heartbroken, but her faith helped her move through that darkness.
Can you speak a bit more about that? What spiritual practices helped her deal with her defeat?
She knows the Bible remarkably well, and I think she knows what passages to turn to when she needs inspiration or solace. She reads her Scripture every day. That, for her, is a practice of spiritual discipline. She told me that my email was the first she opened every day and and it helped keep her grounded and centered.
Since the election, she’s also spent time walking in the woods and having time to think and pray. Now she says she’s coming out of the woods.
And where will that lead her? To the pulpit, maybe?
We were having a photo shoot for the book and chatting about preaching and she said, “Bill, I think I’d like to preach.” In United Methodism, there’s a tradition of having laypeople preach from the pulpit, and I think she’s going to look at occasionally doing that and sharing the good news without it being a politically charged environment.
Some pundits say that Clinton lost, in part, because she didn’t share more about her faith. Do you think that’s true?
I think it’s partially true, but she did speak a lot about her faith at various townhalls and rallies and when meeting people on the street. But it was not reported, and it wasn’t what her critics wanted to look at. She talked about her faith every time she was asked about it, but within the Methodist culture, we aren’t people who wear our religion our on sleeves.
Clinton seemed most comfortable talking about spirituality, and connecting it to her politics, in black churches. Why do you think that might be?
Maybe she didn’t have to be as guarded there, because there weren’t as many critics. She is very comfortable in the pulpit. It’s something that comes naturally to her, and she knows the Bible. That’s why I think she’d make a great preacher.
When you talked to Clinton after the election, what did you say?
It was the Saturday after the election and we spent some time talking on the phone. She expressed how brokenhearted she was and how worried for the nation and what the future holds for people. But what was surprising to me is that she spent most of the call expressing gratitude to all the writers who were part of my team. She went on and on about how important the devotions had been to her, especially those we sent to her on November 9, 10 and 11. For her, it was a reminder that faith would get her through the difficult times.
How about yourself? Was your faith challenged by the election results?
It wasn’t a challenge to my faith in terms of believing or not believing in God. I’m a bit of a process theologian, which means that, as life goes along, I believe in an all-loving God who may not always be in control, rather than an all-powerful God who is not loving. But I was definitely depressed for a few months after the election.
What pulled you out of that depression?
I guess editing the book of devotionals. As I began to think about how the book would come together, it pulled me back from that darkness. The devotionals are inspiring. There’s a hopeful sense that a better future is coming, and I had to live into that.