ELMHURST – Although Rev. Al Sharpton's reputation for invoking upset preceded him when he spoke at Elmhurst College this week, the crowd showed nothing but support for the activist.
"He has been defined as a trouble maker, rabble-rouser, agitator and an irritant, but that is first and foremost exactly what he is," said Elmhurst College Trustee Lamell McMorris while introducing the reverend.
Sharpton spoke at the fourth annual Niebuhr Forum on Religion in Public Life. The New York-native accepted the college's invitation partly because of the forum's name.
"I was the only kid in the hood in Brooklyn that would quote Reinhold Niebuhr," Sharpton said of the American theologian and Elmhurst College alumnus.
Sharpton explained that as a person of faith he is required to take action when he sees injustice in society. He called on all people of faith to raise moral questions about society, not just in their personal lives.
"That's Niebuhr's challenge, and it is as much a challenge today as it was decades ago when he wrote it," Sharpton said.
He referenced the shooting in Chicago's Cornell Square Park last week that left 13 people wounded, the recent Navy Yard shooting in D.C. and a bill in Congress that would cut the nation's food stamp program by $40 billion dollars over the next 10 years as calls to action.
"It seems kind of strange to me that you would become pious, faith-based, religious, practicing devout[ness] all to exercise it in the after life and do nothing here,"
Sharpton challenged the audience members to live for more than just their own benefit or their family's sake.
"When you divorce the man or woman from the society, which was Niebuhr's point, then you can become self-righteous and part of a collective wickedness, and see no contradiction," Sharpton said.
Following his speech, Sharpton received little criticism, but many questions on how to enact change.
Sharpton maintained that currently civil rights are discussed on the political field, but still need a ground-level movement.
"I think people wanted to stop fighting so much, that they gave up prematurely," he said of the strength of 1960s activism compared to today.
One audience member asked if MSNBC limited how much Sharpton could talk about religion on his show PoliticsNation and referenced a recent commercial where the reverend leaves out the phrase "under God," while saying the Pledge of Allegiance.
"The network doesn't force me to do anything," said Sharpton. "No one could."
He did not blame the network for how the commercial came out after the editing process. He also defended his show's place on MSNBC, a news network, saying his show is transparently opinion.
Elmhurst College freshman Taylor Lay came to the lecture with an open mind about the civil rights activist.
"I wanted to have my own opinion about him so that's why I came," Lay said.
Others attended because they were already fans of Sharpton. Callen Williams, also a freshman at Elmhurst College, arrived at the lecture with a childhood filled with memories of listening to Sharpton on the radio with his father in New York.
Williams asked Sharpton about the challenges he faced on his journey from Brooklyn to his position as a television and radio host today.
"You never know what you really believe until no one believes it but you, and you still remain committed to it," Sharpton said.