Kamala Harris Set To Bring Baptist Faith, Hindu Roots to Historic Role | Sojourners

Kamala Harris Set To Bring Baptist Faith, Hindu Roots to Historic Role

Kamala Harris is positioned to become the first woman, first Black person, and first Indian American person to be elected vice president of the United States. And with these historic firsts, vice president-elect Harris also brings a mix of her Black Baptist faith and Hindu heritage. On Saturday, Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump after winning Pennsylvania and crossing the 270 vote threshold needed to secure the Electoral College.

On Aug. 19, as she accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president of the United States, Harris quoted 2 Corinthians 5:7 expressing her commitment “[t]o the Word that teaches me to walk by faith, and not by sight. And to a vision passed on through generations of Americans ... of our nation as a Beloved Community — where all are welcome, no matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we love.”

Rev. Dr. Amos C. Brown, longtime pastor of Third Baptist Church of San Francisco and civil rights leader, told Sojourners that Harris is a member of his church who has attended for years. According to Brown, Harris embodies James 2:26 — “faith without works is dead.”

“That’s what we need in America. Just understand that what America needs to be authentic, she already embodies it," Brown said, adding that Harris was "a person of character, courage, compassion, and critical thinking.”

Harris was raised in a multifaith family: Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was a Hindu from Chennai, India; her father, Donald Harris, was a Black Baptist from Jamaica. During her childhood, Harris was raised with exposure to both faith traditions.

In an email interview with Religion News Service, Harris shared that, on Sundays during her childhood, her downstairs neighbor, Regina Shelton, often took Harris and her sister, Maya, to the 23rd Avenue Church of God in Oakland, Calif.

At the church, which had Pentecostal roots, Harris and her sister sang in the children’s choir.

“My earliest memories of the teachings of the Bible were of a loving God, a God who asked us to ‘speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves’ and to ‘defend the rights of the poor and needy,’” vice president-elect Harris wrote in her memoir, The Truths We Hold.

“This is where I learned that ‘faith’ is a verb; I believe we must live our faith and show faith in action,” she wrote.

Harris was also immersed in the faith tradition of her mother’s heritage. As a child, Harris took trips to India, where she visited Hindu temples with her relatives.

According to the New York Times, Gopalan “introduced her daughters to Hindu mythology ... and took them to a nearby Hindu temple where [Gopalan] occasionally sang.”

For Harris, the tradition apparently stuck. Years later during her 2010 race for California attorney general, “Harris called her aunt Sarala Gopalan in Chennai and asked her to break coconuts for good luck at a Hindu temple overlooking the beach at Besant Nagar where she used to walk with her grandfather,” the New York Times reported.

“The aunt lined up 108 coconuts — an auspicious number in Hinduism — to be smashed.”

Harris won the election. When she was sworn into the Senate in 2017, she did so using “a long-kept family Bible,” according to KPBS.

As an elected official, Harris has cited her faith as a motivator for pursuing social justice.

In her email interview with Religion News Service, Harris wrote that she traces her belief in the importance of public service back to learning the parable of the good Samaritan and other biblical teachings about looking out for our neighbors, “and understanding that our neighbors aren’t just those who live in our ZIP code, but include the stranger, too.”

“Over the course of my career, I’ve always tried to be an advocate for the voiceless and vulnerable, whether it was survivors of sexual assault or California homeowners defrauded by big banks. And some of the leaders I’ve always looked up to most, from Constance Baker Motley to Thurgood Marshall to Ella Baker, have understood that you often need a deep faith to see what can be unburdened by what has been,” Harris wrote.

Harris added that, as vice president, she and president-elect Joe Biden “will not only partner with faith-based organizations and faith communities, we will safeguard them ... When Joe and I are in the White House, we will help protect these communities by providing increased security grants to religious communities, establishing a Faith Based Law Enforcement program in the Department of Justice, and strengthening prosecution of hate crimes.”

On the campaign trail, Harris repeated this message. During her August campaign in Iowa, Harris addressed congregants at Sunday services at the Corinthian Baptist Church in Des Moines. In October, Harris spoke at a Sunday service at Triumph Church in Southfield, Mich.

From her podium inside the church, Harris’ message was projected outside for parishioners to see in a drive-in setting.

“We need to always feel the grace of God and to be at church,” Harris told the crowd. “Don’t we all especially need church right now?”

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the chapter of scripture referenced in the book of James.

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