Evangelicals of Color Fight Back Against the Religious Right
December 26, 2018
On a recent Sunday before dawn, Lisa Sharon Harper, a prominent evangelical activist, boarded a train from Washington, D.C., to New York City. Harper is forty-nine, and African-American, with a serene and self-assured manner. Although she had moved to D.C. seven and a half years ago, to work as the director of mobilizing for a Christian social-justice organization called Sojourners, she still considered New York her home. She missed its edgy energy, and was worn down by the political battles in Washington, which pitted her more and more aggressively against her fellow-evangelicals. On this frigid morning, she was on her way to Metro Hope, her old church in East Harlem. She couldn’t find anything like it in Washington, D.C. “It’s the South,” she told me. Black and Latinx-run evangelical churches committed to justice were scarce, she noted. Metro Hope is led by her friend José Humphreys, an erudite forty-five-year-old Afro-Latino preacher who grew up in the projects on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Photograph by Chip Somodevilla / Getty
Harper wasn’t raised as an evangelical. Born in New York, she grew up in Philadelphia and, later, Cape May, New Jersey, where her mother, a nurse, moved in with her stepfather, a high-school principal, when Harper was eleven. One sultry evening in August, 1983, when she was fourteen, she attended a tent revival with a friend. During the altar call, when the fire-and-brimstone preacher invited people to come forward and be saved, Harper’s friend tapped her on the shoulder and asked if they could go together. “I kind of joke that I got into the Kingdom by proxy that day,” Harper told me. “But, I’ll tell you, I’ve never been the same.”
Harper is now the president of Freedom Road, a consulting group that she founded last year to train religious leaders on participating in social action. In August, 2014, eleven days after a police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, Harper travelled to Ferguson, Missouri, on behalf of Sojourners, to help evangelical leaders mobilize their followers to support protests against police brutality. Last month, she travelled to Brazil to consult with fellow evangelicals of color, working against President-elect Jair Bolsonaro
, a far-right politician who is often compared to Donald Trump
for his authoritarianism and misogynistic comments. (In an interview in 2014, Bolsonaro said that a fellow-legislator “doesn’t deserve to be raped” because “she’s very ugly.” This year, in the Brazilian election, he won an estimated seventy per cent of the evangelical vote.)
In the United States, evangelicalism has long been allied with political conservatism. But under Trump’s Presidency right-wing political rhetoric has become more openly racist and xenophobic. In evangelical circles, hostility toward people of color is often couched in nostalgia for the simpler days of nineteen-fifties America. “Sociologically, the principal difference between white and black evangelicals is that we believe that oppression exists,” Harper said, citing a nationwide study of Christians from 2000 called Divided by Faith. “A lot of white evangelicals don’t believe in systemic oppression, except lately, under Trump, when they’ve cast themselves as its victim.” To Harper, the 2016 election revealed the degree to which white evangelicals were “captive” to white supremacy. “They’re more white than Christian,” Harper said, echoing the words of her former boss at Sojourners, Jim Wallis, a white evangelical leader and part of a progressive push against racism within the church. At the same time, people of color are the fastest-growing demographic within evangelicalism. “Two things are contributing to this,” Robert Jones, the head of the Public Religion Research Institute and the author of “The End of White Christian America
,” told me. “The first is demographic: the absolute number of whites in America is declining. But the decline is really turbocharged by young white evangelicals leaving the church.”
The growing number of evangelicals of color have begun pushing in earnest for more of a political voice in the church. In 2015, Michelle Higgins, a black evangelical leader from Ferguson, stood up at a conference in front of thousands of young Christians and called out white evangelicals for caring so much about abortion and so little about the young black men being killed by police officers. “She punched a hole in the universe when she talked,” Harper told me. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, the call for social justice within evangelicalism continued to grow. At Sojourners, Harper was involved in a public campaign called Evangelicals Against Trump, and has since taken an active role in leading the #MeToo movement in the evangelical community by helping to spearhead a campaign called Silence Is Not Spiritual. Although there’s scant evidence to suggest that the pushback Harper helps to lead is enough to threaten white-evangelical support for Trump, her ability, alongside many others, to mobilize evangelical African-American and Latinx voters may become a factor in the 2020 election.
Just after 11
a.m., Harper slipped into Metro Hope, which holds services in an unfinished gallery space inside the National Black Theatre, in East Harlem. When she entered, the congregants had started singing their first hymn. (An infant was lying in her father’s arms wearing pink noise-cancelling headphones as protection against the exuberant singing.) There were about a hundred congregants—a diverse group of working-class families and professionals, some of whom had quit their jobs since joining the church to start social-justice initiatives. A Nigerian woman named Evon Benson-Idahosa, who had left a career as a corporate lawyer to start a nonprofit group that fights the trafficking of girls in Nigeria, was leading the music.
After the hymn, Humphreys, the pastor, wearing a sports jacket and calico horn-rimmed glasses, drew on his new book, “Seeing Jesus in East Harlem
,” to deliver a sermon about Jesus’ incarnation on earth. “One of the most powerful statements we will see in the Word of God, and perhaps the most overlooked, is the fact that Jesus walked,” he said, and added, “We said that before Kanye,” a reference to Kanye West’s single “Jesus Walks,” from 2004. For Humphreys, the incarnation is the belief that God inhabited a body and lived in a Zip Code, within a cultural and ethnic context. Humphreys noted that incarnation is especially difficult for those in brown bodies like his. Issues of racial injustice, such as systemic poverty and continued segregation in housing and education, plagued many members of the congregation. Their skin color sometimes led even other people of color to make assumptions. “They may even ask you funny questions, like, ‘How much time did you do?’ ” he said.
From her folding chair in the third row, Harper clapped vigorously. When Humphreys hit a particularly inspired line of his sermon, she nodded with fierce encouragement. Harper has known Humphreys for ten years and said she was proud of his development as a preacher. “He has done his homework,” she told me. He’d found a way to answer Jesus’ call to minister to “the least of these” by addressing the concerns of his community in East Harlem. “Evangelicalism has been hijacked by the religious right.” Harper said. “We come from the arm of the church that is so toxic, we understand it and we can offer a solution.” After church, I sat with Humphreys and Harper at a chic Italian restaurant nearby—a harbinger of gentrification. Over a brunch of feta-and-spinach omelettes, they explained that the evangelical movement in America had always been rooted in a larger call to justice. During the religious revivals that swept Europe and the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, being born again involved a newfound commitment to fighting societal ills, like slavery, poverty, and labor exploitation. “Evangelicalism at its roots was a faith that was vehemently jealous for the human dignity of all people,” Harper told me. But, in the nineteen-twenties, a group of Christians who called themselves fundamentalists began to worry about the rise of science and secularism in the modern world, and began rejecting secular concerns in favor of strict readings of the Bible and an emphasis on a personal relationship with God. “These older ways of thinking are clearly not just a matter of historical interest,” Frances Fitzgerald notes in her book “The Evangelicals
.” “Perhaps half of evangelicals continue to reject Darwinian evolution and to claim . . . that the Bible is infallible in matters of geography, science, and history as well as in those of faith and practice.”
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In the nineteen-fifties, Billy Graham reclaimed and popularized evangelicalism. His crusades drew tens of thousands of people. In opposition to the fundamentalists, Graham invited his followers to engage in the world, and he challenged some of the long-standing racism within the church, and America itself, by preaching alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. Still, as Harper and others argue, racism persisted among evangelicals and fuelled the rise of the religious right. In the seventies, Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist who co-founded the Heritage Foundation and coined the term “Moral Majority,” was searching for a way to organize evangelicals around a political issue. “Weyrich, by his own account, had been trying out different issues, hoping one might pique evangelical interest: pornography, prayer in schools, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, even abortion,” the historian Randall Balmer wrote in a Politico
piece on the history of the religious right. Eventually, Weyrich hit on school desegregation. Bob Jones University, a traditionally all-white evangelical university in Greenville, South Carolina, had recently lost its tax-exempt status for trying to exclude students of color. Religious leaders, including the televangelist Jerry Falwell, rallied behind the university, and Weyrich helped to mobilize conservatives to his cause. In 1983, the case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled against Bob Jones. But the ruling galvanized members of the religious right, who came to see themselves as embattled soldiers in a fight for religious freedom.
Although, more recently, the evangelical push for conservatives to dominate secular politics has been cast as a fight over abortion, Harper sees this as a form of whitewashing. Earlier battles over segregation, she explained, had been more important in motivating conservative Christianity’s bid for political power. “The religious right was motivated far, far before Roe v. Wade,” she told me. “The evangelical culture wars began with Brown v. Board of Education.” This July, before accusations of violence against women threatened the ascendency of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Harper launched “A Call to Pause,” a public plea to her fellow-evangelicals to oppose any conservative Justice to the Court; she feared that a conservative Court would not prove reliable in safeguarding the interests of people of color. “ ‘A Call to Pause’ was born out of gut-level fear for my family two generations from now,” she told me.
As Harper and Humphreys saw it, the fundamentalist emphasis on individualism had allowed many white believers to distance themselves from the needs of their community. By contrast, they told me, black evangelicals can’t avoid the oppression within their communities. “One of the strengths of the black church has always been there wasn’t this false dichotomy between personal piety and civic engagement,” Humphreys said. Since the nineteen-forties, black evangelicals had been actively fighting for equality within the church. In the sixties, John M. Perkins, Harper’s mentor, was an early voice in the Black Evangelical Movement, which emphasized both spiritual development and social change, focussing on education, literacy, and voting rights in the Jim Crow South. In 1973, Perkins was one of the first signatories to the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Concern, a commitment to reject the growing influence of racism, militarism, gender roles, and economic materialism in Christian communities. Although to many ears now this sounds uncontroversial, at the time it faced significant opposition. Perkins, who is eighty-eight, told me by phone that he believes in “a need for Biblical, not racial, reconciliation,” which centers on Jesus’ message of love for all people. “Race is a construct superimposed on both people and scripture to justify repression,” he said.
For Harper, the theology and practice of evangelicals of color provide a reminder of the strong social concerns of early evangelical movements. Thirteen years ago, Harper had led a pilgrimage that took her across ten states in four weeks, tracing the Cherokee Trail of Tears along with the history of slavery. She wondered what her slave ancestors would make of a religious movement that emphasized personal salvation and was unconcerned with justice on earth. Could she go up to them and say that Jesus had died for their sins and now they were saved? “No,” she told me. “Any concept of salvation that doesn’t deal with earthly and state-sanctioned slavery isn’t good news.” Since then, she has focussed more strongly on integrating social justice in her understanding of salvation. “The whole Bible and evangelical faith, along with Protestant faith and Catholic faith, has all been interpreted through the lens of empire,” she told me. “All of it. All of it has been interpreted through the lens of Caesar. And Caesar killed Jesus. And Jesus was an indigenous, brown, colonized man.”
Humphreys sees mass incarceration as one of his community’s greatest challenges, and is frustrated by the lack of attention it receives from white evangelicals. One morning, I went with him to Exodus Transitional Communities, a Christian organization in East Harlem that helps people rebuild their lives after prison. We climbed the stairs to Exodus’s second-floor office, past a mural of a red phoenix, where I met Julio Medina, the fifty-eight-year-old director of the group and a Metro Hope attendant. Medina had been raised in the Catholic Church; he had sold drugs as a young man and used his earnings to pay for his sibling’s tuition at Catholic school. In 1984, he’d gone to prison and served twelve years on drug-related offenses. He had found evangelicalism in prison, and it had changed him. When he got out, he founded Exodus to help other former prisoners. The group’s name refers to the long spiritual journey that many inmates face when they leave prison. The group provides job training, as well as practical mentorship in everything from using an A.T.M. card to turning on a computer. “I might go to Hell,” Medina told me. “But maybe these good things I’ve done will lower the fire—provide a little A.C.”
At the office, I met Darrell Bennett, one of the program’s teachers. Bennet had graduated from Harvard Law School in 2010, but, four years later, had been convicted on one count of viewing images of minors engaged in sex. Bennett was raised in the church, but his faith deepened in prison. “I read the Bible like a law-school textbook,” he told me. When he got out, in January, 2018, he took the organization’s week-long program. Six weeks later, he was teaching the course himself. Bennett was working with Humphreys on taking his story and those of other former inmates into churches around the city. “We’ve gotta change the narrative,” Humphreys told me, “and start looking at folks that come out of prison as image-bearers created in the image of God.”
That afternoon, two dozen men, several in denim jackets, others in business suits, began to arrive for lunch. To celebrate the holidays, Exodus was serving a large turkey. “We can’t preach the good news to the poor without feeding the poor,” Medina told me. We filed upstairs to a crammed conference room, and bowed our heads as Bennett led everyone in prayer before we ate. “Lord, we thank you for releasing us from bondage,” he began. “Resurrect dead relationships, dead hopes, dead dreams. Deliver. Set free. Restore. Restore the years the locust ate.” In the merry chaos of that room, I saw another kind of evangelical landscape—no less devout for its absence of Trump voters, but where the pressing daily struggles were a world away from the culture wars. Earlier, Lisa Sharon Harper had put it this way: “Trump voters say we’re at war for the lives of the unborn. What if we’re not at war? What if we’re just human beings trying to figure out how to live together?”
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