Lisa Sharon Harper is the author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican or Democrat and Executive Director of NY Faith and Justice, an organization that began in June 2006 when four strangers from New York met at the Sojourners / Call to Renewal Pentecost Conference in Washington D.C. They left that meeting with a common vision inspired by one dangerous thought: “What if the body of Christ came together in all its diversity? And what if that diverse body spoke with one voice about one thing—poverty?” Within months, NY Faith and Justice was on its way to becoming a diverse movement of churches, organizations, and individuals, all united in their mission of addressing poverty through community dialogue, the reduction of violence, and environmental justice. Here, in Part I of this interview, Harper describes the important work that NY Faith and Justice is doing in New York City. Later, in Part II of the interview, Harper discusses her evangelical faith and the relationship between evangelicalism and politics, the economy, and social justice activism.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Our previous issue was on racial reconciliation and our current issue is on economics, and I’m very intrigued with how your work connects with those two issues. But first, tell me how you got started in this line of work, about your story, your history, and how you got to where you are today.
Lisa Sharon Harper (LSH): How long do you have? In short, I’m the executive director and co-founder of New York Faith and Justice. In late June 2006, I met three other people in Washington DC at the Pentacost Conference that’s led by Sojourners. We were thrown together in Congressman Charles Rangel’s office on the second to last day of the actual conference. We were trained that day in how to do lobbying. We went up to the Hill and were told to expect to be in there for fifteen minutes, and we ended up being in there for an hour, talking with the legislative director. We had such an amazing experience—we meshed so well—and the director asked us, “Why are you doing what you do? What brings you all the way from New York to DC? You’re not paid lobbyists; what brings you down here?” And I answered, “Matthew 25. We’re followers of Jesus—and Jesus himself identified with the poor. So. for us, what it looks like to identify with the poor is to be here talking with you about how your policies are affecting the impoverished people in your districts.”1 And he said something like, “Wow, Congressman Rangel quotes Matthew 25 to his staff all the time. What do you think that means? What is Matthew 25 all about?”
So we got into this amazing conversation with the legislative director for Congressman Rangel, who is the head of the Ways and Means Committee for Congress. So it was a pretty big deal to be talking with him about Matthew 25 and the allocation of resources for the poor. At lunch afterward, Peter Heltzel, who is a professor of theology specializing in the nexus between evangelical faith history and race, said, “You know, we should really keep doing something like this back in New York.”
We thought about it, and we asked ourselves, “Is there anyone else doing something like this back in New York City?” We all lived in uptown Manhattan and were all doing justice in different areas and had never met, and as we thought about it, no, there are lots of people doing amazing justice work in New York City, and lots of people doing amazing faith-based justice work, but we really couldn’t name an organization that brought evangelicals into that mix of faith-based work.
In New York City, the dividing line between liberal and conservative, liberal and evangelical, has been deep and wide. Ground zero for the split of the Protestant church was in New York City and South Jersey, basically, back in 1908 and 1909 with the writing of Walter Rauschenbusch’s book Christianity and the Social Crisis. That was the beginning of the liberal Christian arm of the church in the twentieth century, and in response to that, the fundamentalist movement rose up in ire and wrote The Five Fundamentals of the Faith.2 The high point of the fundamentalist revolt was centered in South Jersey—the fundamentalists staged a great walkout of Princeton Theological Seminary in 1929 and created Westminster Theological Seminary as a fundamentalist alternative.
So the division in the church was really, really stark when I moved back here in 2005. The church was largely right or left, with very little middle ground. So, we thought, “There really isn’t a bridge between these two arms of the church, and both factions deeply value compassionate ministries and justice, but they have their theological points of view that have kept them apart for over a century.” But we sensed that there were enough bridge people out there to begin standing together and holding hands and working on at least one thing together. That one thing is poverty.
We started meeting monthly and inviting our friends and associates to join us. Within six months, we had twelve people and a mission statement, which is to this day the guiding light for everything we do. It is our North Star: following Christ, uniting the church, and ending poverty in New York through spiritual formation, education, and direct advocacy. We say “New York,” not just New York City, because we believe God will expand our work to reach all of New York State.
And almost immediately, within one month of creating the mission statement, we had our first action, which was focused on poverty-related violence. Right around that time, Sean Bell was shot fifty times by police, the night before his wedding in Queens. Then there were four other police shootings in communities of color within that next month. And the last one happened, the same week that we discerned our mission statement. Derrick Boykin, an Associate Minister of Walker Memorial Baptist Church, which is located a half block from one of the shootings, was also a part of our core group. He called me after participating in a protest march led by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and said, “Lisa, we can’t say we’re about ending poverty and not deal with these issues that are critical for people who live in poverty.” Derrick was referring to the tense relationship between the police and the community. There is a long-standing history of abuse and lack of trust there. Now, if the relationship breaks down between the community and the people charged to protect them, then the community’s sense of safety breaks down.
Our first action was a dual action. We held a prayer vigil against violence on the Upper Westside of Manhattan. Mostly white and Asian people attended that gathering. They had very little intersection with this issue, but they came to pray and to learn. At the same time, we held a public forum about violence across the river in the South Bronx. The prayer vigil prayed for the public forum while it was happening. At the forum, Derrick and I worked with other community leaders to discern the top causes of violence in our neighborhoods. We discerned that there was little sense of community, that it was really every person for themselves because no one could trust the very people who were supposed to keep them safe. Now, if you’re going to bring in businesses, which bring in jobs, you need to have a sense of safety And if the relationship between the police and the community is tense, and there’s no trust there, then the first line of defense against poverty has been broken.
From that point on, we’ve been focused on poverty-related violence, especially working to build the relationship between the police and the community in the South Bronx area. Ten people walked forward at the conclusion of the South Bronx public forum and became the core team for the Conversations for Change Initiative. It’s amazing to see how it has grown and how new partners have come on board. We received a $10,000 grant from The Case Foundation last year to do the pilot conversation, which we did with about fifteen police officers and about thirty community members over about five weeks—that was phenomenal. And the number one recommendation from everybody there was that we need to do this and make it wider, which is why we’re doing a larger one this fall.
In February 2009, we’re going to be launching a community-wide Conversation for Change over the period of about six weeks where we’ll have facilitated small group discussions between the police and the community, using a curriculum developed by Everyday Democracy. Our purpose is to democratize the decision-making process, to give the everyday Joe or Tamika in the neighborhood the ability to speak into the policies that are governing their lives. The first few sessions are about getting to know who’s in the room, then it’s about discerning the issues, then it’s figuring out our roles in meeting these needs, and then it’s developing strategies for addressing issues in the communities. And finally, at the very end, we will come back together in a large group setting for an Action Forum. The Action Forum will collect the information from all of the small groups that have been meeting and forms task forces around the common strategies and themes so that the work can move forward from there.
Nine months after the public forum and prayer vigil, Boykin invited a community organizer named Chris Johnson to an early Conversations for Change pilot circle. At the time, Chris was the lead environmental justice organizer for a group called New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. Chris came and said, “This is fabulous! Now I want to talk to you about environmental justice.”
His focus was faith communities: he really wanted to see faith communities help move issues of environmental justice forward in New York City. He discerned that, first of all, faith communities are already organized communities with a clear leadership structure and with resources already at their disposal. Second, probably more than anyone else, faith communities have the moral legitimacy to stand up to politicians and say, “This is not right.”
After talking about environmental justice with Chris, we made environmental justice our second major priority. We were a part of a group of organizations that came forward toward the end of 2007 and said, “You know what, we want to begin to hold breakfasts for pastors in every borough to educate them about the issues of environmental justice that are going on in their neighborhoods. We want to give them tools to leverage their power, leverage their influence, on behalf of the people who are suffering under these injustices, who are sitting in their pews.” So we started in the Bronx, and we had about thirty-five faith leaders and environmental justice advocates show up. They shared their stories and it just blew my mind. It really did.
If you ask the question, “How many garbage dumps and garbage treatment plants are in Manhattan?” you’d come up with an empty hand. The number would be zero. But Manhattan accounts for 40 percent of all the garbage produced in all five boroughs of New York City. That means that almost half of the garbage produced in the city is produced by one borough—Manhattan. Yet it has no garbage treatment plants. And there we were talking with people in the South Bronx, and they have forty garbage treatment plants in the South Bronx alone, not even the whole Bronx, but the South Bronx, which is the poorest congressional district in the nation. And this is right across the bridge. This is injustice; this is not right. And the reason for that, the reason they have forty, is that Manhattan dumps its garbage on the South Bronx and other places, too, in Queens and over in Jersey City among others. At the time, there was a big fight in the city about where the next garbage treatment plant would be built. People of faith stood up, in part because of the organizing that Johnson and others did, and we joined in and said, “We’re not going to keep this going. Not on our watch.” And we demanded that the next treatment plant be in Manhattan in order to begin to level things out. Then in July 2008, they voted—they finally let it come to a vote—and the next garbage treatment plant will be in Manhattan.
We had the next environmental justice breakfast in Manhattan, and about sixty faith leaders attended. It was phenomenal! It was truly diverse, in terms of ethnicity, gender, and liturgical tradition. Everyone was there. Get this—we had Campus Crusade for Christ in the room and Riverside Church in the same room. Riverside Church is like the beacon church for the liberal church, and Campus Crusade for Christ is about as evangelical as you can possibly get. And they were both there. And it was interfaith as well. At the end, when I asked the group, “So do you want to become something? Do you want to start something to leverage our influence in partnership with communities suffering under the weight of environmental injustice?” It was the Pentecostal Latino pastor in the back that began the applause and said, “Finally! Finally!” And the applause then spread throughout the room, and everyone shouted, “Yeah!”
That was April 2008, so we’re pretty young, we really are. Since then, we’ve developed three working groups: two from last year, and one will be added this year. One of the two that were in operation last year was a food justice group. We identified the reality that in our city there are about five major neighborhoods that are food deserts; it is nearly impossible to find healthy food within walking distance. There are fast food restaurants everywhere, so these neighborhoods have anywhere from a 60 to 80 percent obesity rate. You can imagine the diseases that come with that: diabetes is extremely high, as are heart disease and cancer. And this is the same population with very little to no health care. So our food justice working group has been working in partnership with the Borough President’s office of Manhattan in a steering committee that’s helping to formulate a food charter for New York City. It will guide the vision for a just and sustainable food system for New York City. Now we’re in the process of pressing for standards to be developed in other programs that the city is rolling out; we’re aiming to create more access to healthy food in communities like Harlem, the South Bronx, Southeast Queens, and Central Brooklyn.
Another working group that we have is the climate justice group, which is really focused on energy conservation and which looks at issues that are on the national scene right now, like climate change legislation. We’ve been pressing for just a simple cap or a carbon tax. Under the cap and trade system, usually when emissions get traded they are traded into areas that are impoverished and lack the political power to fight back. So, impoverished areas, usually areas of color, end up bearing the brunt of the cap and trade policy.
And then the third group, which will really be bringing us back to our roots and how we began in the first place, is going back to the issue of toxic dumping. We’re forming a working group to focus on toxic agents in schools. In some instances, the city is trying to build new schools on top of toxic dumps or areas that are known to have toxins in the ground. We are organizing faith leaders to say, “Not on our watch.”
Those are the three ways that we are most active in environmental justice—by organizing faith leaders from across the five boroughs to stand together in public forums and declare with one voice that the poor must be protected. Our goal is to eliminate poverty. One of our main strategies is to address the issues of environmental injustice. They are connected to other key issues like health care, education, transportation, and housing. All of these things are connected to the environment people live in. So, really, we’ve targeted environmental injustice as a strategic area of focus: if we address this, then we really do begin to make an impact in several issues that create poverty all at one time.
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1. Matthew 25:34-40 says, “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
2. Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York, NY: The Macmillian Company, 1913) and Joseph Walter Hayes, Five Fundamentals of the Christian Faith (New York, NY: Elliot Stock, 1924).
Books by Lisa Sharon Harper and Mark Russell