The Rev. William Barber, center, flanked by the Rev. Liz Theoharis, left, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, right, speaks during a Poor People’s Campaign demonstration in Washington, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins
WASHINGTON (RNS) — As police escorted a demonstrator in a wheelchair away from the chanting throng descending on the Capitol Monday (Aug. 2), fellow protesters turned to watch the person go. The group paused for a moment, then altered their call.
They screamed in unison: “Thank you! We love you!”
The lone protester nodded, fist raised. The crowd erupted in applause.
It was a moment that played out again and again over the course of the afternoon. According to Capitol police, more than 200 faith-led demonstrators were arrested while praying, singing and protesting in the street, hoping to draw attention to voting rights and a slate of other issues participants argued impact the poor and low-wage workers.
The sprawling demonstration was organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, an advocacy group led by the Rev. William Barber II and the Rev. Liz Theoharis that tends to support left-leaning policies. Monday’s action on the Hill constituted one of the largest mass-arrest nonviolent protests at the Capitol in recent memory and attracted an array of prominent voices, including civil rights icon the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Luci Baines Johnson, the daughter of late President Lyndon B. Johnson.
At a rally near the Capitol immediately before the march, leaders laid out what they insisted were interconnected issues driving their protest, which centered on voting rights, immigration reform, a $15 an hour federal minimum wage and eliminating the Senate filibuster that has stymied passage of related federal legislation.
“Filibuster is a sin!” Barber declared. “Making essential workers work during a pandemic — and risk their lives to save this country — and then not give them a living wage is sin.”
The event also featured music. Singers led the crowd in belting: “Somebody’s hurting my brother, and it’s gone on far too long. And we won’t be silent anymore!” The singers changed the lyrics as the song progressed, inserting lines such as “Somebody’s stealing our wages!” and “Somebody’s blocking our voting rights!”
The song echoes the sweeping, evolving agenda articulated by a variety of faith leaders across the country in recent months, particularly those who operate within religious communities of color.
The Poor People’s Campaign took a leading role in propelling that agenda this summer in the wake of Republican-led efforts to pass state-level elections bills many activists decry as restrictive. Indeed, Monday’s march follows what organizers called a “season” of similar demonstrations organized by the PPC over the past two months in Washington, Arizona and most recently Texas, where activists mimicked the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The group walked 27 miles from Georgetown to Austin, Texas, in late July to oppose voting restrictions.
Texas pastor the Rev. Frederick Haynes III, who joined the Texas march and has vigorously opposed state elections bills, was among the speakers at the Washington rally.
Activists are arrested during a Poor People’s Campaign demonstration in Washington, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins
“President Biden, Democrats and Republicans, the culture will put it like this: If you come for us and we didn’t send for you, you don’t want this smoke,” said the Progressive National Baptist, whose denominational convention is happening this week. “You don’t want this smoke because we are fighting for the soul of this nation.”
The activists’ efforts have hit roadblocks with some Democrats at the national level, particularly Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona. Both opposed efforts to pass minimum wage increases and eliminate the filibuster this year — in Manchin’s case, despite a meeting with Barber and low-wage workers. The Poor People’s Campaign has since targeted bothlawmakers with protests.
Barber was quick to harangue members of both parties during the rally, accusing some Democrats of heaping praise on late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis but failing to support his vision for voting rights.
“Some Democrats told us: ‘If y’all organize, don’t connect wages to voting rights,'” Barber said. “I’m too old to play that.”
He added: “The same people suppressing the votes suppress your wages, won’t fix your utility grids, suppress your health care, cut public education, block living wages — you’ve got to make the connection.”
Barber also offered his own adaptation of the Scripture passage from Isaiah 10:1-3:
“Woe unto you hypocrites who pay attention to all of Robert’s Rules (of order), all the made up rules of the Senate and the House, but you filibuster justice. And filibuster mercy. And you filibuster faithfully.”
Barber was briefly joined at the rally by Sen. Raphael Warnock, himself a prominent Georgia pastor. However, Barber explained Warnock would not speak because the campaign generally does not let politicians address their protests. Warnock is a champion of the For the People Act, a federal voting rights legislation Barber and others praised but Manchin opposed.
The Rev. Rev. Liz Theoharis, center left, and the Rev. William Barber lead a Poor People’s Campaign demonstration march in Washington, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins
Among the clergy milling about the crowd — which also included many red-shirted members of the labor union Unite Here! — were the Rev. Patrick Messer, a United Church of Christ pastor who just left a church in Nebraska, and the Rev. Deana Oliva, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Kentucky.
Asked what spurred them to be part of the protest, Oliva was aghast at the thought of not participating — “Where else would we be?” — and Messer pointed to Jesus.
“I’m here because in Jesus’ first sermon he said the spirit is upon me to bring good news to the poor, and to bring deliverance to the captive,” Messer said. “We’re here to bring a $15 minimum wage to all workers, restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and pass all the provisions of the For the People Act and end the filibuster.”
The daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson — who signed the Voting Rights Act into law — also addressed the crowd at the event. Luci Baines Johnson noted she could not speak for her father, but insisted he would have wanted her to be with activists “in the fight for social justice and voting rights.” After voicing support for the For the People Act and the John Lewis Act, another voting rights bill, she invoked Scripture while calling for bipartisanship.
“In the 1960s, Democrats and Republicans stood up together for social justice,” she said. “It was the right thing then, and it’s the right thing now. Now more than ever before, we need to — in the words of Isaiah — come and reason together to get a more just America for everybody.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson also addressed the crowd, bemoaning what he called a nation “in crisis” and voicing a willingness to go to jail for the cause.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, center, speaks during a Poor People’s Campaign demonstration in Washington, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins
He led the group in a call-and-response chant: “I am! Somebody! I may be poor! But I am! Somebody! I may be unemployed! But I am! Somebody! I may not have health care! But I am! Somebody! Respect me! Protect me! Elect me! I am! God’s child!”
Others who delivered either speeches or prayers at the event included prominent Muslim American activist Linda Sarsour, National Council of Churches President Jim Winkler, Simple Way founder Shane Claiborne, activist and former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe Wendsler Nosie and several low-wage workers or people impacted by poverty.
After the speeches, the activists massed into a column and marched toward the Capitol, with clergy walking alongside low-wage workers and those impacted by poverty. Tensions briefly flared with police when they insisted demonstrators stay on the sidewalk for one stretch of their march. Protesters initially refused, walking past police before a wave of new officers arrived and corralled the group off the street.
Demonstrators took to the street a short time later after processing past the Supreme Court toward the Hart Senate building. One column of protesters stayed on the sidewalk, but a separate group — including Barber, Theoharis, Jackson and what appeared to be Messer and Oliva — positioned themselves in the middle of the road, refusing to move. Some briefly requested entry to the Hart building at Barber’s urging, but police rebuffed them, and they returned to the street.
As demonstrators sang and chanted (“What do we want? Voting rights! When do we want them? Now!”), officers began arresting those in the road one by one, carefully leading them away. Cheers rose up as Theoharis, Barber and Jackson were arrested, and they were followed by hundreds more: clergy of multiple faiths, low-wage workers, young activists and elderly people in walkers or wheelchairs were all among those arrested.
When each one arrived at the area where other arrestees were waiting to be processed, shouts and applause rang out.
It remains to be seen how lawmakers will react to the growing protest movement. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio was spotted walking quickly past the protest. When demonstrators shouted for the end of the filibuster, he quickly replied, “I agree with you,” a reference to his public willingness to end the filibuster if Republicans continue to use it to block liberal legislation.
The mixture of religious and labor demonstrators appeared to be clear in their cause on Monday and dedicated to convincing Congress to support it. They sang many songs, but one favorite seemed to be aimed directly at lawmakers: It simply asked, over and over, “Which side are you on?”
WASHINGTON (RNS) — Earlier this month, the White House announced a “month of action” to help ensure 70% of U.S. adults are at least partially vaccinated by July 4. Officials have since outlined a flurry of faith-based partnerships, hoping to leverage the clout and know-how of faith groups to aid in immunizing the public against COVID-19.
To help explain the role of faith groups in the national vaccine push, Religion News Service spoke with Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian who also serves as director of the National Institutes of Health. Collins discussed the program, as well as his faith and how he views the intersection of religion and science. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is the government is looking to religious groups for help in vaccination efforts?
It’s nice to be able to have this conversation. As a scientist and a person of faith, this is right in my sweet spot.
People of faith have issues (with vaccines), and every person has some different set they’re concerned about. When getting an answer from a guy like me, a scientist who works for the government, maybe they say, “Well, maybe he has a reason to want us to do this.” But if your pastor says, “I’ve looked at this information and I want what’s best for my congregation. I don’t want to see more people die from this terrible illness that’s taken almost 600,000 American lives. So I’ve educated myself, and I’d like you to know, from me, the benefits and risks. Can we talk about it?” — that gets people’s attention.
While vaccine hesitancy or anti-vaccine sentiment is not unique to any faith group, a recent poll found white evangelicals have a higher-than-average rate of vaccine refusals. But the same poll also found many of them said they could be persuaded by faith-based overtures. Have you seen evidence these overtures are moving the needle?
Yes, although it’s hard to collect really solid data to say how many people changed their minds because they heard from a faith leader. I could give you lots of anecdotes — although the plural of anecdotes is still not data.
I do think it is not a stretch to say, for all of us who’ve prayed for deliverance from COVID-19, the vaccines are an answer to that prayer. That is very much consistent with the way God often responds to our needs — by working through human capabilities that we’ve been given as a gift by the Creator. Why wouldn’t you want to take that gift and not just look at it, but open it up and then roll up your sleeve?
You noted federal government officials aren’t always the most effective messengers to some communities. But as an evangelical Christian, what about your faith compels you to want to embark on this vaccine push?
When you look at what we know about the time Jesus spent on this earth, it is interesting — read through the four Gospels — how many instances where he is involved in healing. If we are called to be followers, as I am, then shouldn’t we also find opportunities to provide healing as well?
If anybody asks you, “Has it been that bad?” Well, gosh, we’ve lost almost 4 million lives on the planet, and almost 600,000 right here in the United States of America. It’s not over, and if we don’t get the vaccinations up to a high enough level, we may see in the fall and the winter a resurgence — particularly in areas where vaccines were least adopted. Then here we are all over again with people in ICUs, people dying that didn’t have to. As believers, is that something we can look away from? I don’t think so.
Many religious communities of color have not only been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, but also suffer from access issues when it comes to vaccines. Have you seen dividends from efforts by the White House and others to partner with faith groups to help combat those access issues?
Absolutely. That has included some churches that have volunteered to be sites for immunization — right in their fellowship hall. That’s a great thing to do. In this national month of action, we have done additional outreach to those communities that haven’t felt necessarily like they had access, making it possible to get immunized in the barbershop or in the beauty salon, or providing child care for people who might otherwise have trouble figuring out “How am I going to get a shot when I have these two little kids with me that are going to need my attention every second?”
The federal government’s partnership with faith groups in this vaccine push seems unusually robust. What is it about faith communities that makes them particularly beneficial when it comes to vaccination?
As the director of the National Institutes of Health for the last 12 years, we have had partnerships with faith communities for things like hypertension screening, diabetes management and asthma management, but nothing quite like this.
It has been an inspiring occasion, I have to say, to have the opportunity to work side by side with leaders of the faith community to try to get this healing information in front of people. And I hope when we get through COVID-19, which we will, that we won’t lose that.
As a medical expert and a person of faith, what do you think gets left out of disputes between faith groups and the medical community during this pandemic?
One of my goals as a person of faith and a scientist is trying to get people to see the wonderful complementarity and the harmony of scientific and spiritual worldviews.
But I think a lot of people in faith communities haven’t found that to be the case, and maybe have even heard things from the pulpit like “You can’t really trust those scientists because they’re all atheists.” Well, here’s one who’s not, and I’m not alone: About 40% of working scientists are believers in a God who answers prayer. There’s a lot of us out there.
Maybe this is another occasion to try to get a broader understanding about how science and faith are wonderfully complementary. Science is great at answering questions that might start with “how?,” and faith is really good at answering questions that start with “why?” Don’t you, as a person on this planet for a brief glimpse of time, want to be able to ask and maybe get answers to both those types of questions?
Have you seen some of that distrust slip away?
I have, yeah. Going back more than 20 years ago, it did seem like there was a lot of tension for me as an evangelical. There were times where I wasn’t sure I was welcome in the church, and then I’d go to the lab, and I wasn’t sure I was feeling welcomed there either. I wrote a book about this called “The Language of God” back in 2005, trying to put forward arguments about how science and faith really are different ways of looking at God’s creation. It got a lot more attention than I expected.
I think out of that, and a number of other efforts … I do see there has been a shift here, more of a willingness to consider what the harmony is instead of what the battle is.
Are you optimistic the U.S., with the help of faith communities, can meet this July Fourth deadline to partially vaccinate 70% of the adult population?
I am optimistic, but it’s going to be a stretch. It’s going to take the full efforts of lots and lots of people — and especially faith communities — to get us there over what is just another three weeks.
The number of immunizations happening each day is just barely on that pathway, and it actually looks as if some of those immunization levels are dropping instead of going up. We need everybody to line up behind this goal, recognizing this isn’t about pleasing Joe Biden, because a lot of evangelicals are not that interested in pleasing Joe Biden. This is about saving lives.
Faith groups are celebrating Virginia’s decision to ban the death penalty, a move considered to be a victory for religious opposition to capital punishment.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed the ban — the first of any Southern state and the 23rd overall — into law on Wednesday (March 24), declaring it “the moral thing to do.”
“Over our 400-year history, Virginia has executed more people than any other state,” Northam said. “The death penalty system is fundamentally flawed — it is inequitable, ineffective, and it has no place in this Commonwealth or this country. Virginia has come within days of executing innocent people, and Black defendants have been disproportionately sentenced to death.”
The Rev. LaKeisha Cook, a lead organizer at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, also spoke at the signing ceremony.
“Today I stand here representing many people of faith all throughout the commonwealth of Virginia,” Cook said. “Virginia Interfaith was very, very happy to join officially in this fight for abolition. Today we turn the page in the history books of this great commonwealth as we celebrate the end of the death penalty.”
Cook pointed to the activism of the state’s “amazing faith community,” such as those who held prayer vigils at sites of lynchings in January to highlight the historical link between early racist killings and the modern death penalty, or the nearly 430 faith leaders who signed on to a letter opposing the death penalty in February.
Cook noted the advocacy of the Virginia Catholic Conference, which also voiced support for the ban on Wednesday. Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of the Diocese of Arlington and Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Richmond released a statement citing Pope Francis, whose 2020 encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” included the line: “The firm rejection of the death penalty shows to what extent it is possible to recognize the inalienable dignity of every human being and to accept that he or she has a place in this universe.”
“Through our Virginia Catholic Conference, we supported this historic legislation as it progressed through the General Assembly because all human life is sacred,” read the statement from Burbidge and Knestout. “We are grateful to those who worked to make this a reality.”
Catholics in the U.S. have long opposed capital punishment, and Francis voiced support for abolishing the practice during his 2015 address to Congress.
But the pontiff made things even more explicit in 2018 when he changed the church’s catechism to declare the death penalty “inadmissible” and insist that the church will work “with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
The Virginia bishops were joined in their celebration by Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
“Virginia will become the twenty-third state to abolish the death penalty, and I urge all other states and the federal government to do the same,” Coakley said in a statement.
He praised the work of advocates such as the Catholic Mobilizing Network before adding: “We are reminded that God created and loves every person, and we can respond to this love with reverence for the dignity of every human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled, or desperate that life may seem.”
Opposition to the death penalty has grown over the past few decades and is common in several faith communities. A 2018 Public Religion Research Institute survey found that 55% of Americans preferred life in prison without parole instead of capital punishment for people convicted of murder, compared with 44% who preferred the death penalty. Majorities of Black Protestants (80%), non-Christian religious groups (57%) and white Catholics (54%) also favored life in prison.
Of those polled, only two groups expressed majority preference for the death penalty: white evangelicals (62%) and white mainline Protestants (54%).
Virginia Catholics were echoed by other stalwart faith-rooted opponents of the death penalty this week, such as Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne. He championed the ban when versions of it first passed both chambers of the state legislature in February, and he called on the federal government to do the same.
“President (Joe) Biden is poised to do the same thing Virginia just did: reckon with the mistakes of our past and use that past to help us envision a better future — one without the death penalty,” Claiborne wrote.
Biden, a Catholic, proposed eliminating the federal death penalty in 2019 during his campaign for president, but he has yet to take sweeping action regarding the promise — which would require support from the Supreme Court or Congress — since beginning his term.
Former President Donald Trump was widely criticized by faith leaders for his administration’s 2020 decision to renew the use of the death penalty in federal cases for the first time since 2003. Among various protests, more than 1,000 faith leaders signed a letter that summer demanding Trump and then-Attorney General William Barr end the practice.
Biden has already heard from fellow Catholics on the issue: During the first Mass he attended as president, the priest delivered a homily blasting the Trump administration’s renewed use of the death penalty and referring to the former commander in chief as an “execution president.”
When White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked during a press briefing on Monday whether Biden would support the Supreme Court if it reinstated the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, she noted that Biden has “grave concerns about whether capital punishment … is consistent with the values that are fundamental to our sense of justice and fairness,” but referred specific questions about the case to the Department of Justice.
It may be the first time the multiple Grammy-winning rapper has run for office, but it’s hardly his first foray into presidential politics. West made headlines in 2005 when he criticized then-President George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina by declaring that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” a moment Bush himself later categorized as a low point of his presidency. Although West performed at one of President Barack Obama’s inaugural balls, Obama was caught on a hot mic criticizing the performer and calling him a “jackass,” sparking low-grade tensions between the two. And more recently, West has garnered widespread attention for his persistent support of President Donald Trump.
West is also no stranger to matters of faith: In addition to releasing the religion-themed album “Jesus Is King” in October 2019, West staged several “Sunday Services” throughout the country last year that featured gospel hymns alongside rap music.
“I love Jesus Christ. I love Christianity,” West said last year.
But in his interview with Forbes, West — who said that he has never voted before, and has yet to take any formal steps to get his name on ballots come November — hinted that his fledgling presidential run may be his most overt fusion of faith and politics yet, with religion impacting everything from his decision to run to his views on vaccines.
Like many candidates before him, West believes God played a role in his decision to run for president.
Asked about his presidential run, West told Forbes that “God just gave me the clarity and said it’s time.”
Such a claim is not unusual among presidential candidates. In 2012, Republican presidential hopefuls Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry all reportedly suggested God called on them to seek the highest office in the land.
West also said he believes God “appoints” the president, a view shared by many conservative Christian supporters of Trump, such as Paula White, the special adviser to the White House’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative at the Office of Public Liaison.
“Let’s see if the appointing is at 2020 or if it’s 2024 — because God appoints the president,” West told Forbes. “If I win in 2020 then it was God’s appointment. If I win in 2024 then that was God’s appointment.”
Kanye West speaks during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House with President Donald Trump, in Washington, Oct. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
West no longer supports Trump but said he approves of the president’s interactions with religion and is calling for “God in all schools.”
West has been a public supporter of Trump but told Forbes he no longer backs the president, saying, “It looks like one big mess to me.” West also called on both Trump and his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, to “bow out,” saying, “It’s God’s country, we are doing everything in service to God, nobody but God no more. I am in service of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ, and I put everything I get on the line to serve God.”
However, West did praise Trump’s faith affiliations when explaining why he supported the president in the first place: “Trump is the closest president we’ve had in years to allowing God to still be part of the conversation.”
West also reflected a view regarding prayer in schools that is popular among conservative Christians, insisting God be brought back into classrooms.
“Reinstate in God’s state, in God’s country, the fear and love of God in all schools and organizations and you chill the fear and love of everything else. So that was a plan by the Devil — to have our kids committing suicide at an all-time high by removing God, to have murders in Chicago at an all-time high because the human beings working for the Devil removed God and prayer from the schools. That means more drugs, more murders, more suicide.”
His running mate is a “biblical life coach.”
West’s running mate is reportedly Michelle Tidball, who describes herself as a “biblical life coach.” She lives in Cody, Wyoming — near where West owns a ranch — and runs Abundant Ministries, which features an online Bible study program. On her website’s biography page, she declares “I pursue God! … Being raised in the church I loved God, encountered Him, but wanted to know more.”
West believes prayer is needed to solve the coronavirus crisis, but he says vaccines may be connected to “the mark of the beast.”
When asked about a coronavirus cure during the Forbes interview, West responded by saying: “We pray. We pray for the freedom. It’s all about God. We need to stop doing things that make God mad.”
Regarding vaccines, West said he is “extremely cautious” about inoculations to protect against the novel coronavirus. He seemed to connect vaccines to “the mark of the beast,” a reference to one of two beasts in the biblical book of Revelation that many Christians believe are associated with the end times. He then referenced what appeared to be a debunked conspiracy theory that Bill Gates and others want to put microchips in people to track their movements.
West went on to suggest that such efforts could bar people from ascending to heaven.
“They want to put chips inside of us, they want to do all kinds of things, to make it where we can’t cross the gates of heaven,” West said. “I’m sorry when I say they, the humans that have the Devil inside them. And the sad thing is that, the saddest thing is that we all won’t make it to heaven, that there’ll be some of us that do not make it. Next question.”
Kanye West performs with Kid Cudi at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 20, 2019, in Indio, California. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
West says his faith informs his opposition to abortion and the death penalty.
When it comes to abortion rights and capital punishment, West takes a stance that would put him at odds with both major parties — but perfectly in line with his faith, he said.
On abortion, West says he is “pro-life because I’m following the word of the Bible.” It’s a common belief: While not universal, faith-based opposition to abortion is widespread, especially among conservative Christians who attend events such as the massive March for Life gathering that occurs in Washington, D.C., every year.
West also cited his faith when discussing capital punishment, saying: “Thou shalt not kill. I’m against the death penalty.”
That puts him in line with rising opposition to the death penalty, especially among Democrats. However, according to a 2019 Gallup poll, a majority of Republicans still support the death penalty. More than half (58%) opted for the death penalty rather than life in prison (38%), whereas Democrats overwhelmingly backed life sentences (79%) instead of the death penalty (19%).
In addition, the sentiment echoes one of West’s most recent tracks — the faith-themed “Wash Us in the Blood,” released in late June. The song features an interlude from fellow rapper Travis Scott in which he declares “Execution, thirty states / Thirty states still execute / Thou shall not kill, I shall not spill, Nextels at the rendezvous.”
As for tax policies, West told Forbes he needed to do more research on the subject, but would speak with “the strongest experts that serve God and come back with the best solution.”
West suggested prayer and piety can help heal racial divisions.
When asked about racism and the recent demonstrations in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, West reportedly broke into rhyme, saying, “Well, God has already started the healing/This conversation alone is healing and revealing/We all need to start praying and kneeling … ”
He added: “When a rhyme comes together I’m going to complete it, not inside the lines created by organizations that we know as our reality.”
Musician Kanye West headlined a “Sunday Service” performance on a specially made hilltop stage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019, in Indio, California. Video screenshot
The Rev. Alvin Herring speaks during a demonstration calling for increased funding for public schools, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
For the Rev. Alvin Herring, executive director of the congregation-based organizing network Faith in Action, wearing a clerical collar is about more than appearances. It prepares him for the task of making social change.
“I consider this my uniform,” Herring said, gesturing toward his white-collar as he addressed the crowd at the Vote Common Good summit in Des Moines, Iowa, earlier this month. “When I’m ready to go to work or go to war, I put this on.”
Specifically, Herring, a pastor from California, says he and his organization are gearing up for work and war — metaphorically speaking — ahead of the 2020 election. Through partnerships with groups such as VCG and a series of organizing initiatives, Herring and Faith in Action — one of the largest faith-based liberal-leaning groups in the country — are hoping to prove that people of faith can make an impact come Election Day.
Or, as Herring later told Religion News Service: “The progressive community has to get it straight: Faith matters.”
Faith in Action, previously known as PICO National Network, is hardly new to the art of national organizing. The multifaith, multiracial group boasts 45 member organizations spread across 200 cities and towns in 25 states. Each organization claims the membership of multiple worship communities of various sizes dedicated to advocating for certain policies and legislation.
The group tries to avoid political labels, but Herring acknowledged in an interview with RNS that the positions his group advocates for often lean away from the current Republican Party.
“Our everyday work is about fighting for immigrant justice,” he said. “Our everyday work is about returning to citizens the right to vote and the right of personhood. … Our everyday work is with young people who are saddled under the significant and heavy weight of education debt and a lack of economic mobility.”
Faith in Action has mustered robust campaigns in the past. Recent efforts include rallying faith groups behind prison reform in California and equitable funding for public education in Pennsylvania. They often tie their campaigns to bigger elections: According to Herring, Faith in Action teams contacted roughly 800,000 voters ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
But this year they’re hoping to ramp up efforts to maximize their impact. For example, Faith in Action is now pushing to have 1 million conversations with voters before November.
The group has also forged partnerships with national-level organizations that Herring described as being part of an “ecosystem” of change. This includes the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — where Herring previously worked as the director for racial equity and community engagement — which in turn partners with the NAACP, Urban League, UnidosUS, National Congress of American Indians, Demos, Advancement Project, Race Forward and the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum.
A Faith in Action spokesperson described the partnership as designed to “promote racial equity, advance racial healing and ensure that all children, families and communities have genuine opportunities to reach their full potential.”
Faith in Action also has a separate relationship with VCG, a new group led by progressive evangelical Christians that helps train Democratic candidates to engage with faith and offers outreach to liberal-leaning religious voters. The two organizations have entered into a formal memorandum of understanding, allowing VCG to benefit from Faith in Action’s network of worship communities.
VCG executive director Doug Pagitt told the crowd in Des Moines that Faith in Action will bolster his organization’s ongoing bus tour across the country.
“Oftentimes, when we go into a state or a city, we will tie into that (Faith in Action) network,” Pagitt said. “It’s a great gift.”
But Herring argued the real goal is to effect local politics. Instead of focusing solely on the presidential election, he said, Faith in Action plans to target sheriff’s races across the country — particularly in the South — because the position is “one of the most powerful” when it comes to impacting the lives of marginalized communities. They hope their member communities will push for candidates who will institute more liberal approaches to policing, incarceration and gun violence.
Faith in Action is also launching a “Setting the Captives Free” initiative — a reference to the Book of Exodus — that strives to push back against policies such as voter ID laws that Herring argued disproportionately disenfranchise people of color.
Organizers plan to discuss these and other issues at Faith in Action’s National Faith Forum Feb. 12-14. According to the event flier, leaders will gather in Las Vegas to discuss strategy, unveil a “People’s Platform” and dialogue with 2020 candidates and their policy staffs.
It’s unclear how well Faith in Action’s approach will work. Despite its size, the group’s hyperlocalized structure can make progress difficult to track, and Herring did not offer many specifics as to how the campaigns will be implemented at the local level.
But he said he is confident the efforts will have some impact on the lives of everyday Americans, a shift he hopes will send a message to more secular-minded liberals.
“I would say one other thing to the progressive community: It will have to come off the fence,” he told RNS. “It can’t have a deep aversion for faith on the right and a lack of commitment for faith in other places. It’s not enough to decry those who stand with an administration that is literally trying to suck the lives out of everyday working people, and yet say nothing about those hardworking men and women of faith who are every day in the streets, every day in the soup kitchens, every day in clothes pantries, every day in the voting booth — voting their faith principles and their faith guidelines.”