Congressman Tony Hall, the plain-spoken Democrat from Dayton, Ohio, is not flashy. There is no mane of flowing white hair, no sonorous voice uttering benign inanities, no wall of toothy photos with the powerful and chic. There are a few snapshots displayed in his waiting room beside a citation from a mayors' prayer breakfast and a tiny TV. One shows Hall ladling a serving of beans into a bowl for a child, apparently in Africa. Another shows him standing next to a camel, and both of them face the camera head-on for their portrait. The resemblance between the two is striking: sandy-brown hair, appraising eyes, and a cautious smile. For both man and beast, the wide-set eyes dip down at the outward corners, suggesting sobriety, perhaps a tinge of melancholy. Neither one is likely to be persuaded to buy a bridge; neither is likely to try to sell you one.

Tony Hall is not a typical denizen of Capitol Hill. Compared to the other shining lights, he presents a modest display: practical, industrious, and determined. Hall brings to mind the turtle, that single-minded, thick-shelled creature who, as the saying goes, gets nowhere without sticking his neck out. Stylish he's not, but that was never an essential component of success.

Yet this unpretentious man could represent a model for a new way of doing politics, offering hope to Christians weary of the clumsy fit offered by current partisan alignments. For some Christians, the Democratic party has put itself beyond the pale due to its support of abortion and and its lack of support for a traditional sexual morality. But the Republican party is on shaky ground as well. So-called country club Republicans were deserted in the last two presidential elections as Christians suspected them of merely pandering to a Christian agenda while their real interests were strictly economic.

What's more, while most Christians agreed that the welfare system was dysfunctional and in need of an overhaul, many were jarred by some Republican rhetoric that focused on resentment over waste and a relish for kicking freeloaders off the wagon. This antiwelfare rhetoric seemed incompatible with a Christian interest in compassionate welfare reform or with biblical commands to defend and care for the poor. This conviction is so much a part of the faith that churchgoers are the nation's highest contributors of volunteer time.

So, where to turn? Why not to a pro-life, pro-family, born-again, poverty-fighting Democrat?

"Tony Hall is the perfect example of what we want," says Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action. "He supports the family, opposes abortion and gay marriage, but combines that with a conviction that the poor matter, as do racial justice and environmental concerns." Sider hopes for a realignment of loyalties, uniting Catholics, evangelicals, and black and Latino churches behind four significant issues: "pro-life, pro-poor, pro-family, and pro-racial justice."

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Hall's appeal is that his positions cut across party lines, and that may be what Christians need most. Such a combination only looks unlikely when the assumptions are set by prevailing political stereotypes; and stereotype-busting is most likely to be accomplished by a guileless individual like Hall.

Campaigning for Christ
Hall's inner directedness clearly comes from his Christian faith. On a warm and rainy day in his comfortable office on Capitol Hill, Hall recalled the event that precipitated him into a faith he had not sought. He rocks back in his chair as a gust sends the scent of wet streets and city bustle through the open window. He is in shirtsleeves, with a loosened tie; an untouched, iceless glass of cola sits on his desk.

The event that began to awaken him spiritually was a prayer breakfast back in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, in 1980. Hall had been invited to attend but didn't particularly want to go. Chuck Colson would be the featured speaker, and Hall recalls thinking, What can Chuck Colson tell me? But he reasoned that it would be a good place to be seen and to shake voters' hands, and so worth a morning's time.

What he heard that day, he says, "stunned" him. What brought Hall up short that morning was not so much the content of Colson's speech ("I know it had a lot to do with God") as the witness of his life; what got through to him, Hall recalls, was "his sincerity. Here was a guy who'd had wonderful success, been a counselor to the President, and he was saying that it wasn't enough. I knew that was true. I had success and was doing well, but I began to think, Is this it? Is it just my ambitions, my selfishness? Is that all there is?"

"I remember that day," Chuck Colson says. "It was an enormous crowd. You always wonder if an event like that does any good, if it really changes lives; so to see Tony is a real thrill." In his estimation, "Tony is a real evangelical gem, the perfect profile of a committed Christian. He's not afraid to go against his party when that's where his faith leads him," for example, in defending the unborn, just as Christians opposed the slave trade two hundred years ago.

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Where Hall admired Colson's sincerity, Colson perceives the same in Hall. "I know how he lives his life, and he's the same guy off stage as on stage. I've been around politics since I was 26, and that's the highest compliment I could give. I rejoice that Tony is my brother."

Does Colson think Hall provides the kind of pattern Christian politicians should follow? Could they succeed by uniting around issues as focused by Hall? "Yes, on both counts," says Colson.

The experience at the prayer breakfast when Colson spoke kicked off a year-long spiritual search for Hall, during which he rose early Sundays to visit churches all over Washington, while his wife, Janet, asked anxiously if anything was wrong. Eventually Hall attended a small gathering where he heard Campus Crusade's Bill Bright speak, and all the pieces fell into place. "It was exactly what I was looking for and, boom! I went for it."

But his turtlelike determination led him to tackle the task of spreading the faith in blunt and less-than-effective ways. "Every night for six months I would say to my wife, 'Now, did you receive Jesus tonight?' " He pauses to chuckle. "Well, you know how far that went: not very far. She would get mad and really give it to me."

He did not do any better with evangelizing his friends. "Friends would say, 'What's new?' and I'd say, 'You're not gonna believe this. You gotta believe in Jesus.' The eyeballs would go up to the ceiling and they'd go, 'Oh, no.' My wife would be kicking me under the table. 'You're not gonna have any friends!' " she'd admonish him.

The curious thing about
Hall's persona is the lack of
what most experts would say
is essential to public appeal:


Hall says that this was the first lesson he learned after his conversion: you can't shove God down people's throats. When Janet came to faith a year after her husband, it was not due to his badgering but due to the witness of his life. "I was changing toward her, toward the children, and toward life overall." Growing in Christ had given Hall a consistent, centered witness; he was acquiring the quality of persuasive sincerity that had first impressed him in Chuck Colson and had launched his search for God.

Scored for taking a stand
While personal integrity and consistency are central to Hall, they cause him to cross political expectations regularly. "I believe the way Democrats do about helping hurting people; to me, they are more of a compassionate party." Yet he sometimes votes against his party, particularly if the issue is abortion or homosexuality.

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"Congressional Scorecard" figures put out by groups that track voting patterns reveal a perplexing profile: Hall gets a 100 percent positive rating from the National Right to Life Committee, and a zero from the National Rifle Association ("Mr. Hall voted against us every time," an NRA spokesman says.) He rates only a 23 percent approval from the Christian Coalition, mostly due to his reluctance to support the welfare-reform bill, which, he concluded somewhat reluctantly, was too flawed.

"I have lots of respect for Tony," says Brian Lopina of the Christian Coalition. "He is one of the most principled people on Capitol Hill, and his personal commitment to hunger, his travels and fasting for that issue, bear witness to that. I wish he'd vote with us more often."

Hall's pro-life stand has been a mark of distinction, but it was not easy changing his position on that issue. He had begun as a pro-choice advocate and had always been infuriated by pro-lifers who would yell at him without taking the time to understand his position. Although he now admits that he did not really have a coherent basis for his position, "I always felt uneasy, though I didn't know why I was uneasy," he says. But as he began to spend time reading Scripture every morning, he realized, "All these years I was wrong. It was the Spirit through the Word saying, 'You've got to change.' "

He told his supporters the blunt truth: that he had become a believer, had changed his stance on the issue, and would henceforth have to vote his conscience. As a result, he lost a lot of support; he still sometimes encounters people in his district who refuse to speak to him. But because he was honest and forthright about his change and the reasons for it, people soon gave up trying to reverse his stand.

Hall has become the leader of a stalwart group of about 40 pro-life Democrats in the House of Representatives. On July 12, 1996, the front page of the Washington Post trumpeted his success at persuading the Democratic platform committee to include a "conscience clause" recognizing the pro-life stand of some party members. At the Democratic National Convention a month later, Hall spoke in reference to the new clause and reminded the party: "We will be judged on how we treat the 'least of these' among us. So we renew our pledge to be a voice for the voiceless."

In the same speech, Hall touched on another of his constant themes: help for the poor. "More than 2,500 verses in the Bible address the pain of the hurting and afflicted," he reminded his hearers. In light of this, he praised the Democratic fight for food stamps and school lunches, and the local Democratic party of Dayton, Ohio, for opening its building as a homeless shelter.

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Putting hunger on the table
Hall's interest in hunger goes back before his political career, beginning with a stint in Thailand soon after he graduated from college (his resume notes that he is fluent in Thai). During two years teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer, Hall saw a level of poverty beyond anything he had encountered in the U.S. He was able to turn his concern into action soon after arriving in Congress by promoting legislation that increased foreign aid to the needy and domestic funds to children's nutrition.

Clippings from the course of a 20-year career show Hall traversing the world to expose and challenge hunger: Ethiopia, Haiti, Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, Panama, and most recently North Korea. He has fought to bring humanitarian aid to Kurdish refugees and immunizations to Bosnian children. He has not been afraid to move beyond hunger relief to broader human-rights concerns and to be bold in his criticism when the powerful block attempts at aid. "Everybody in the world agrees that Sudan is a basket case," he said during the 1991 famine, "and that [Premier Omar] Bashir is an animal and a criminal."

In 1984 Hall succeeded in a significant goal, seeing the establishment of the House Select Committee on Hunger. This committee was established as a focal point for hunger concerns after Hall noted that more than a third of the House's standing committees had some jurisdiction over the issue. Hall served as chairman of the committee, and in that capacity he visited Ethiopia during the terrible famine of the early eighties. There he saw 25 children die in one morning, an experience he found devastating—and radicalizing.

While his interest in relieving poverty overseas was rising, some back home were questioning it. He realized that hunger programs could not neglect problems on American soil, and he began trying to unify people on the issue. In 1985 he organized a 40-hour fast, for which volunteers solicited sponsors who would make per-hour donations. Thousands participated in the fast, which netted $350,000 for hunger relief in the U.S. and abroad.

Hall chaired the Committee on Hunger until it was abolished by Congress in early 1993 as a budget-cutting move. This dramatic event elicited an even more dramatic response. In April 1993, Hall fasted for three weeks as a response to dissolution of the committee. It was not a hunger strike; there were no demands attached to this action. It was a fast of prayer.

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"It was very clear from the first staff meeting when he was considering the fast what the political ramifications would be," says past Hall staffer, friend, and neighbor Max Finberg. "Tony realized that this would be the end of his political career. He would be seen as a religious kook. But he felt he had to step out and do what God was calling him to do."

Hall's fast brought plenty of ink, demonstrating as it did a more deep-rooted commitment to convictions than usually appears on Capitol Hill. It also brought results. Congress established both the Hunger Caucus and the Congressional Hunger Center to continue the work Hall thought so vital. Finberg is now the director of the Mickey Leland Hunger Fellows Program at the Congressional Hunger Center and is pleased still to be working under a person he deeply admires.

"I'm biased because I think he's the greatest guy out there," Finberg says. "He is the embodiment of the gospel in the political realm. People could coalesce around this agenda."

Champion of breakfasts—and human rights
The curious thing about Hall's persona is the lack of what most experts would say is essential to public appeal: in appearance and personal presence, he is thoroughly ordinary, breaking the rules that require rhetorical poise and tv hair to succeed. "It's mindboggling how humble he is," Finberg continues. "He knows he's not charismatic, he's not the greatest public speaker, not the smartest member of Congress. But it doesn't matter. When he talks from the heart, you can't help but be touched, and that happens all over the world."

Hall may not be charismatic, but he has an elfin humor and a way with words and images that linger in the mind. When he saw a solitary flake fall out of a cafeteria-serving-size Wheaties box, he wrote General Mills a playfully challenging letter about those who go without breakfast every day. The corporation immediately dispatched seven tons of cereal to a Red Cross food bank in Ohio, then followed up with more. They topped off the incident in style, putting out a special Wheaties box with a photo of Hall on the front. He stands pictured with his fists in the air, wearing a white button-down shirt and striped tie, under the heading "Breakfast of Champions." A news story at the time hailed Hall in return as the "champion of breakfasts."

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Similar creativity marks other examples of Hall's hunger activism. He hosted a "Dumpster Luncheon" to show his colleagues how much edible food is thrown away by stores and suppliers every day in Washington. He persuaded Ohio farmers to allow volunteers to gather left-behind produce from their fields, citing the admonition in Leviticus, "Do not reap to the very edges of your field . …Leave them for the poor and alien" (19:9-10, NIV). (A copy of Millet's The Gleaners appropriately adorns his office wall.)

Convictions like these contribute to voting decisions that undermine Hall's standing with some conservatives. The bills he voted "wrong" on, in the estimation of the Christian Coalition, are those having to do with taxes, welfare, and funding. He likes to quote Mark Shields to the effect that, no matter how much he searches the Scriptures, he just can't find what Jesus said about the capital gains tax. With many issues, Hall says, it's just not possible to state definitively, "This is the Christian position."

Hall ended up voting against the welfare-reform bill passed in March of 1995. It was not an easy decision; he describes the bill as a 1,000-page document that had much he could support, but too much he could not. In his opinion, the bottom line was that "it would throw 1.1 million children into poverty, and 2.6 million people overall." This cost, he decided, was too high. He voted against it knowing that it had won much popular support. "I know I will hear from my constituents about this in the election."

Hall is not afraid to go
against his party when that's

Hall's interest in hunger and poverty conforms naturally with an interest in human rights around the globe. In 1983 he founded the Congressional Friends of Human Rights Monitors, which includes in its membership a fourth to a third of both House and Senate. In those cases where human-rights workers are threatened or attacked overseas, the size of this group enables it to send a swift letter of protest, indicating the United States' support for local human-rights workers.

The latest letter notes the pressing nature of these abuses; on February 5, 1997, five members of the UN Human Rights team were murdered near Cyangugu, Rwanda. In the last few years, the group considered cases in Algeria, Colombia, Croatia, Guatemala, India, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, the Palestinian Authority, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan.

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An arena of human-rights abuses that is currently gaining more attention is the persecution and martyrdom of Christians in other lands. Hall has toured several Middle Eastern countries with Reps. Chris Smith of New Jersey and Frank Wolf of Virginia, and the trio has demanded action from the Clinton administration, while continuing to help bring the issue to public awareness. Hall has twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize someone who tends a flock in a persecuted land, Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo of East Timor.

A bipartisan friendship
Thinking about the issues that animate him the most—hunger and human rights—reminds Hall of the activity that holds it all together: prayer. For years he has convened a group that meets at 7:00 Wednesday mornings in a Washington public library. The group is open to the public and is attended by clergy and politicians, homemakers and homeless people. The purpose of the group is to pray for the leadership of the country and the city, "like it says in Timothy," Hall says. "This is the capital city. There is so much strength and power and potential here that if it could ever become what it ought to be, that would really be something."

Hall also draws strength from his friendship with Rep. Frank Wolf, the Virginia Republican who has become a close friend. They meet on Tuesday afternoons and have made some trips together, an experience that Hall finds particularly fruitful. "One of the best ways you can learn is to travel together, like Paul and Silas and Timothy did. There's something about people traveling together, studying the Scriptures, and talking to people about Christ," he says. "Not only do they grow, but the power goes with them. Like Paul says, they go in the Spirit and power."

Wolf thinks highly of his friend. "Tony is the conscience of Congress," he says. "Everyone on both sides listens to him, and he's someone I look to for leadership. These trips he goes on, like to North Korea, they're not junkets. They're very tough. Tony stays with it." Such a close friendship across the aisle is not typical of Congress.

As Hall returns to the ideals that drive him, he runs once again into the dilemma that dogs him. "People want leaders to make moral decisions and say what they think is right and wrong. It doesn't mean they agree with them, but they respect people who have a direction."

Yet, because he is "solid on the issues" that he can find in Scripture—he cites abortion, pornography, guns, homosexuality, and the poor—but not so predictable on the tax and welfare issues he doesn't find there, people aren't always willing to give him respect merely for having a direction. "I have people say, 'He can't be a Christian, look at how he votes.' "

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For the first time in this conversation, Hall shows evident emotion, rocking forward in his chair and speaking emphatically. "How can they say that? Why would they say that? It's so frustrating. It's so judgmental, and it just absolutely drives me nuts.

"The Scripture says that they will know you are my disciples by the love that you have for one another," he goes on. "Most people would walk into a room full of Christians and listen to them argue and fight, and say, 'These people don't like each other very much.' "

For those who say, "You can't be a Democrat and be a Christian," Hall has a playful comeback: "When Jesus came into Jerusalem, he came on a donkey, not an elephant."

A loss of his own
Part of Hall's work within the Democratic party is to insist on recognition and fair treatment for pro-lifers. That's the work he was doing when the front-page story came out in July 1996 in the Washington Post concerning his successful case for adding a "conscience clause" amendment to the party platform. What not everyone reading the newspaper story knew was that day was significant to Hall for more reasons than that victory. It was the day his son died.

Matthew Hall, 15, had been fighting leukemia for four years when he finally succumbed on that hot summer day. His dad rushed to Capitol Hill to do an hour's indispensable work, then back to the hospital. Recalling his son's life, and death, now moves Hall to lower his head.

"I kept asking, 'Why does this have to happen to such a perfect kid?' Because he was just the most wonderful young man in the world. He suffered greatly, and my wife and I and our daughter suffered greatly and still grieve." But, Hall says, he never felt abandoned, perhaps due to the outpouring of prayer on the family's behalf by Christians, even strangers, across the country. "Through all that time God's grace surrounded us. I felt like I was walking around in a bubble, he was so close. He never left us, or my son."

Not too long ago a group of Christian teens asked Hall what advice he would give them as they prepared for the future. "I told them the story of my son dying, and how difficult it was. I told them that ten years ago I would have had a pat answer for them, almost bordering on arrogance." Hall's voice is husky now. "I learned from my son just to love God and to love others. To take it day by day, and do some good. And that's the direction I try to go."

It's a direction the world may not understand. It doesn't fit the categories. That won't stop Tony Hall.

Frederica Mathewes-Green, a commentator on National Public Radio, is the author of Facing East: a Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy, published by Harper San Francisco.

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