Lisa Sharon Harper feature: "Evangelicals of Color Fight Back Against the Religious Right"

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By Eliza Griswold

Written 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.

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.”

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Venneikia Williams