Who Is Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg? A Devoted Man of Faith | Sojourners

The Harlem Sunday School Teacher Who Led Trump’s Indictment

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg poses for a portrait in New York City, N.Y., April 15, 2021. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Editor’s note: One day after this piece was published, former President Donald Trump was indicted by a grand jury in New York.

Manhattan’s District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, is best known these days for leading the probe of whether former president Donald Trump and his company broke state laws in 2016 to buy Stormy Daniels’ silence about an alleged affair.

But at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, one of the most significant institutions serving Black New Yorkers, Bragg is known as a devoted man of faith and longtime member. His pastor Rev. Raschaad Hoggard recently preached: “You don’t have to like Trump, but you have to love him!” Bragg said with a chuckle during a February interview in his downtown office. His deputy director of communications shook her head, saying, “Nope!”

If Trump is indicted by a grand jury in New York, it will be the first time for a former president. On March 18, Trump called on his supporters to resist Bragg, who is considering charges of falsifying business records after the Trump Organization allegedly reimbursed Trump’s attorney for paying Daniels, a porn actress.

Several Republican lawmakers claim the investigation is politically motivated and are now considering legislation against politically motivated investigations while forming their own probe of Bragg, a Harvard-educated former federal prosecutor and Manhattan’s first Black district attorney.

In Bragg’s first year in office, he has faced national criticism for declining to proceed with an earlier case against Trump, and for downgrading over half of felonies to misdemeanors amid higher crime than pre-2020 levels.

Bragg said his outlook on diversion practices, exit ramps that move people away from jails to facilities for substance abuse and mental health treatment, comes from his mulling over Matthew 25:35-40 in which Jesus speaks to his followers: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat … I was in prison and you came to visit me … whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did for me.”

“Our kind of fundamental duties to others are in this interaction,” Bragg said.

Throughout difficult periods in Bragg’s tenure so far, the Abyssinian congregation has rallied around him. During Black history month in February, a ministry at the church awarded Bragg a plaque celebrating him as a “trailblazer” and “vanguard” in the community and church. He received the honor to a standing ovation that filled the sanctuary.

“Let’s celebrate our member, our brother, our friend, encourage him!” said Rev. Hoggard.

Hoggard has led the congregation since the passing of Rev. Calvin Butts III at age 73 in October 2022. Butts was one of New York’s most respected religious figures and a longtime leader in the African American community. Butts was known for putting his gospel preaching into practice outside the church.

Bragg, 49, often speaks of his first direct encounter with the law — when he was a ninth grader, during the war on drugs amid the 1980s crack epidemic, the New York Police Department held him at gunpoint about a block away from Abyssinian. He turned to Butts and a local council member who helped him file a formal civil complaint. The experience helped him realize the importance of faith leaders in communities.

But Bragg isn’t just encouraged by faith leaders in the community, he is one. On any given Sunday morning he can be found teaching a high school Sunday school class in the basement of Abyssinian where he once served as president of the church youth council.

“It’s the best hour of the week,” Bragg said. “I like the church basement… you’re not going to do anything you shouldn’t do there, but it’s also sort of informal, you know, it’s not like being in church church.”

His involvement at church seems to have helped him better connect with different religious leaders across the city to talk about their concerns with public safety and reforms to the criminal legal system.

“Criminal justice is an area of Left, Right, and particularly through a religious prism, consensus,” Bragg said.

He mentions the conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch donating to causes to ease reentry into the workplace after prison and Trump’s bipartisan First Step Act meant to reduce the federal prison population.

“Restoration, you know, service, human dignity … all the faith traditions I’m familiar with are addressing those,” he said.

Along with combating gun violence and addressing mental health and substance abuse issues, one of Bragg’s priorities, he said, has been partnering with houses of worship to build relationships. Bragg has been particularly committed to building these relationships in communities with higher reentry from incarceration and lower trust in the legal system. When people return home from prison, they often encounter churches hosting food pantries and job placement programs.

Bragg said his conversations with faith leaders result in constructive dialogue, not polarizing political arguments often highlighted in the media.

“I’m always open for feedback,” he said.

Bragg said he tries to be present in communities so that they see his office as a resource too.

“Because of my personal and professional experiences, both having been a prosecutor and also having represented people who were subjected to, you know, police misconduct, I do see as a significant part of my role to be out in communities that have historically… had less trust in the institution that I lead and to be restoring trust and addressing those issues,” Bragg said.

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