Leaders Speak: Lisa Sharon Harper
FaithStreet sat down with Lisa Sharon Harper, founding member and Executive Director of New York Faith & Justice. We discussed how social justice work is in the evangelical Christian’s DNA, how Lisa has seen the church in NYC become more united in the last 5 years and why interfaith work is the work of the Gospel.
**Can you tell us a little bit about how New York Faith & Justice got its start? **
New York Faith & Justice (NYFJ) began 5 years ago this week. It was started by four strangers who met in Charles Rangel’s D.C. office. We were, all from uptown Manhattan, and we were all doing social justice work in one area of the Kingdom of God or another. We had no overlap, until this Sojourners conference, where we found ourselves in the Congressman’s office. It was “Lobby Day”, and we were trained on how to talk to your senator. The training was so good I can still remember it.
We talked to Rangel’s budget director about our goals. He said, “You’re not lobbyists, why’re you here?” We talked to him about Matthew 25. He said, “Wow. Charles Rangel quotes that to his staff all the time. What do you think Matthew 25 means?”I said, “I think it means that if I call myself a follower of Jesus then I also have to identify with the poor, so the way we’re doing that is that we’re here to tell you about how your policies affect the poor people in the neighborhoods you govern.” So we talked about the impacts of those policies on gentrification of Harlem, distribution of resources, police-community relations in Harlem, the need to raise the minimum wage because many workers are having to work 3-4 jobs.
After our conversation with Rangel’s budget director, the four of us were really struck by how well we worked together, even though we’d never met before the conference. So, over lunch, Peter Heltzel had the audicity to say, “We should do this back in New York.” He’s a big, white guy from Mississippi, with a heart of gold, and he’s deeply invested in racial reconciliation. We decided “Yeah! Let’s meet one month from now and bring some friends.” We did, and then we met over the course of 6 months and asked God, “Who might you be calling us to become, and what might you be calling us to do?”So what was the next step?
We agreed if we don’t have a mission statement in the next 6 months, we’re out and if we do, we’re in like Flynn. So met once a month over the next six months and in December 2006 six months later we had a mission retreat that birthed a mission statement: Following Christ, Uniting Church the Church and ending poverty in New York, through spiritual formation, education and direct advocacy. I would add one more piece today, community organizing, but the community we organize is the church. These last 5 years developed organically based on relationships. Sean Bell was shot one month before we had our mission statement retreat. Derrick Boykin marched on 5th Avenue with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. He was shaking and incensed and said, “Why are there only black people here? There have to be some faithful white people, Asian people and Latinos in this city?”
I was going to the River Vineyard Church, a mostly white and Asian church, at that time. There was a sense of paralysis there, because the white evangelical church and the Asian evangelical church rarely overlap with the historical black church. They’re in their own silos. So the folks in my church, the River Church, had no way of entering in. They weren’t invited in. And the folks in the black church were like, “Why aren’t the white evangelicals folks here?” Neither group had an real sense of idea of how thick the walls were that separated them. New Yorkers tend to think of themselves as post-racial. This situation pulled the curtain back to reveal the thick racial divide.So, Derrick and I thought, we can help build that bridge. On January 17, 2007 NYFJ engaged its first two actions, simultaneously: 1. We convened a prayer vigil at All Angels church that brought together white and Asian evangelicals to pray against violence in our city, 2. We convened a public forum about violence at Walker Memorial Baptist Churchin the South Bronx. Each event brought out about 100 people. We had some Walker Memorial Baptist folks come to All Angels church to speak at the prayer vigil about what its like to live in the South Bronx, a neighborhood where violence is normative and the relationship with the police is broken. People were deeply moved.
**One of NY Faith & Justice’s 3 main goals is to unite the church. How have you seen that unity happen in your 5+ years with NY Faith & Justice?**Our strategy has changed over the last few years. We asked, what of what we’re doing is not working, what is? Poverty is the mother of invention. So the downturn blessed us in that we had to streamline our efforts. We initially saw our mission statement in silos. We saw each arm as different and we had different activities for each arm. What we realized with the downturn is we didn’t have the capacity to do all three. So we decided to focus on ending poverty in a way that follows Christ and unites the Church. We realized one the most effective ways to unite disparate groups is through common work on common interests.
So we formed steering committees around different interests and invited different parts of the church to different steering committees. So we formed a steering committee to launch Jim Wallis’s book “Rediscovering Values.” In the same room we had folks like Rev. Gary Wiley from Trinity Grace Church and then Rev. Bob Coleman from Riverside church and organizations like Bread for the World and an organization like CEJ (Coalition for Educational Justice). Through finding a common interest that people can gather around and moving forward, that’s what unites the Church. Also, another example, at the Fair Food, Faith, and Health Disparities Summit we had Metro Hope Church, Catholic representation, Trinity Grace, Judson Memorial Church and the Riverside Church and churches from New Jersey and Queens and Brooklyn and representatives from Department of Health and Hunter College and various other advocacy agencies. We had a diverse group working together toward the common goals of people having the right to access to healthy food in their neighborhoods. So our strategy for uniting the church is really wrapped up in our work for to ending poverty.
That said, we’re moving into a new phase of focusing on training. We recognize that there are a few arms of the Church that have deep understanding and history of the kind of advocacy we’re doing. Those being the Catholic church, the historic black church and the mainline church. Then, there are other arms of the church that had that history but it ended with the turn of the 20th century. The evangelical church, the Pentecostal church, the Charismatic church. So our greatest challenge is in translating the values and practices of the social justice, systemic justice and racial justice movements rooted in Catholic, the mainline and historically black church history into practices that evangelicals can understand. After all, our roots sprang from the soil of justice—the abolitionist movement and other social justice movements of the 19th century. Our challenge is to offer evangelicals a way to live up to our DNA.
**What do you mean by “our DNA”?**Because evangelical Christianity is an activist faith, our faith has to be shown in our lives, so we know that evangelicals have been reawakened to the value of justice in the past 5-7 years. But there are very few, if any, avenues in the City that are designed intently to help evangelicals enter into the work that the 3 groups I mentioned have been doing for a century, the work of the Gospel.
**What are the possibilities and limitations of interfaith work?**I came from a deeply evangelical parachurch organization, and I was very skeptical of interfaith organizations when I started out in New York.
But one of my big mentors in life has been Michael Mata and he said something to me that really shaped my understanding of interfaith engagement. I asked him, “How do you go into a space where people don’t know Jesus and not water down your faith?” He said, “Lisa, you bring all of who you are to the table and you encourage all of who they are to be brought to the table.” On a bus trip through Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, I asked Miroslav Volf, the author of Exclusion & Embrace, “How do you do interfaith work?” He said “I have an interfaith group of theologians and we get together every year and study each others’ sacred texts. If you don’t respect the other and the reality that they have a mind, that they’ve made a decision as thinking people and that their thoughts and feelings are worth listening to, then how are they going to listen to you, how are they going to respect what you have to say?”
I think that ultimately it’s about the Beloved Community and being a beloved community – if our community is characterized by fear of the other than we will seek to exclude them in the work that we do, but if our community is characterized by love then we won’t exclude. Just look at the life of Jesus, he didn’t exclude …not the pharisees, not the tax collectors, not the Samaritan woman or the Roman centurion…Christ was hanging out on the fringes.
So how do****es that relate to your Christian faith?
So what does that say about my evangelical faith? What do I think about my non-christian friends relationship with Jesus? I think they would do well to have a relationship with Jesus. But I think they may have a relationship that started in part because of their relationship with me. One of my Muslim friends recently had a book launch and he said he “sounded like me”, like an evangelical, right in front of all of his Muslim friends. Maybe it’s a matter of just loving people. When you think of people being made in the image of God it blows some of our fundamentalist categories out of the water. The Hebrew word for “image” in Genesis 1:26 is Tselem. It means Representative figure. According to the text, my Muslim friend, my Buddhist friend, my Mainline Liberal friend, they are all representatives figures of God just as much as my evangelical friend is. We can and should be able to respect the personhood of and learn from everybody because everybody is made in the image of God. The idea of the Imago Dei has had this effect that we’re talking about on evangelicals’ worldview. And where it hasn’t, it should.
**What’s discouraging about working in the City?**I’m a hard person to discourage just by nature, but what’s most challenging – for NYFJ – is that many funders don’t have a category for what we’re doing. We’re not direct service so we’re not giving out bowls of soup or sandwiches or clothing. And we’re not a direct advocacy agency, like Bread for the World. There are more funders to give to those kind of organizations. We’re not a church so we’re not church planting. We’re not a mission agency, so we’re not converting folks in the traditional sense. What we are is a bridge. So we’re bringing people together so they can do work. So the biggest challenge we have is communicating that to funders – and we have communicated that and received funding from many individuals, institutions and governments. So some get it, but some is not enough to fund a movement.
And a side challenge that it feeds into is that because we’re such an unknown entity and New York is a place where jockeying for funding is real, I think people were very protective of their funding streams. That has been our biggest challenge, and we are in the process of beginning to articulate the unique contribution we make for a new brand of donor, a new stream of donors that want to give to this kind of work that strengthens the capacity of faith communities to utilize the strength of their faith in the world of organizing and advocacy. What gives you hope for the City?
The biggest joy has been the people – so you know in the Fellowship of the Ring where they flash the pictures of the people in the credits, when I saw it I wept because what you see is the Beloved Community – with each picture you see a person, but also a journey, a struggle a character, the Tselem of God. When I think about what I’m going to miss the most…It’s that community. It’s people like Gary Wiley – I will never forget him getting arrested for the first time, lifelong Republican, who stood on the line and got arrested in solidarity with immigrants crushed by our broken immigration system.
Like Orlando Crespo (Intervarsity’s National Director of Latino Ministries) who got on the line and got arrested. He took a chance.It’s Derrick Boykin after being at that Sean Bell march and only seeing black people and saying that wasn’t right.
Its Onleilove Alston who managed a lot of our house meetings in the early years.Peter Heltzel, Annie Rawlings, Sarah Said, who is a dear partner with me in almost everything NYFJ has done.
Charles Calloway, and his beret, he’s my co-chair and a deacon at his church in Harlem and an Environmental Justice leader.That’s what I’m gonna miss, it’s the Beloved Community here.
So now my job is to help others do likewise all through the nation. To equip beloved communities in 50 states, 50 cities over the next 5 years. That’s my goal.
FaithStreet wishes Lisa all the best as she joins Sojourners in Washington DC!