Real people: ‘Bridge builder’ focuses on youth, environment

If you go

2013 ISB Building Bridges Awards

6:30 p.m. Nov. 2

Atlanta Marriott Perimeter Center, 246 Perimeter Center Parkway

Tickets start at $150. Information: 404-377-8380;

With the skill of a master engineer, Gerald Durley has spent most of his life building bridges. He got an early start as a student at Tennessee State University in Nashville, where in the 1960s he led marches for civil rights. He went on to work with the Peace Corps in Africa and to earn two Masters’ degrees and a Ph.D. in psychology before embarking on a long career as a preacher, college president and promoter of peace around the globe.

“I’ve been very involved in breaking down barriers, particularly among Christians, Muslims and Jews,” said Durley, 71. “I’ve gone to countries around the world with imams, rabbis and ministers to stand with our Muslim brothers whose mosques were being bombed. I believe that if we get to know the person, we can respect the differences in our theological perspectives.”

On Nov. 2, Durley will be recognized for his bridge-building efforts by the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, a nonprofit educational organization that offers Muslim speakers to other groups looking to learn more about the culture. The Lifetime Achievement honor has taken the East Point resident by surprise.

“I had no idea about it,” said Durley. “I have just been doing things because they are the right things to do.”

The award is merited by Durley’s long resume of community building activities, highlighted by his recent work to establish better understanding among different religious groups. Last year, he retired from the Providence Missionary Baptist Church in southwest Atlanta, a post that introduced him to actress Jane Fonda who recruited him for the board of her nonprofit Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential. He served two terms as head of the Concerned Black Clergy, was dean of Clark Atlanta University and led the Morehouse School of Medicine. But the work that now takes up most of his time is a mission to rally young people to save the environment.

“Last week, I addressed 10,000 young people in Pittsburgh fighting to keep the environment clean, and the week before I was in Boston speaking to environmental educators,” said Durley. “I’m about to take a 10-city tour to historically black colleges and universities to get young people involved in environmental issues. My role is to contrast what we did in the civil rights movement with this movement for the environment. It’s a different day, a different time, but the intensity can be just the same.”

Despite his packed speaking schedule, Durley plans to be on hand at Speakers Bureau dinner to accept his award and share his vision.

“I have always encouraged people to get beyond their myopic vision of others and to understand and trust each other,” he said. “And if we do that, then we can communicate.”

Every other Wednesday, H.M. Cauley brings you positive stories from our community. To suggest a story idea, call 770-744-3042 or e-mail