What ‘Harry Potter’ Taught Me About Working for Justice | Sojourners

What ‘Harry Potter’ Taught Me About Working for Justice

Image via Karen Roe/Flickr

“The world changes and we change with it.”

So says one of the characters in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — a new play by Jack Thorne, based on a story by Thorne, John Tiffany, and J.K. Rowling.

I was 11 years old when the first Harry Potter book was published — the same age as Harry Potter himself. As an avid fan, I attended countless midnight release parties for both the books and movies as I grew into adulthood. But this time, at 30, my Saturday night didn’t allow me time for a midnight book run. I was too busy packing to move to Washington, D.C., to pursue faith-based advocacy work and preparing for my last day at the church, where I’d served as a minister for the previous two years.

The world had changed and so had I, in the years since the Harry Potter book series officially ended in 2007. But in some ways my new reality was perfectly appropriate. After all, Harry Potter had everything to do with why I was busy that Saturday night — and why I became a minister and social justice activist.

I was initially a little resistant to the Harry Potter craze, mostly because I resented its mainstream popularity after enduring a childhood as the weird kid obsessed with fantasy books. By the time I finally read them (and immediately loved them), I was in 8th grade. The fourth book came out the day I returned from my first mission trip, and the fifth on the day I returned from my final one, to Honduras. The summer the sixth book was published, I was living in Guatemala and volunteering for a Presbyterian-funded environmental NGO. And the seventh and final book came out while I was serving as the youth ministry intern at my church, helping to chaperone a middle school youth conference in South Carolina.

This coincidence of timing between Harry Potter and my formative faith left the two inextricably intertwined in a way that profoundly impacted the path my life would ultimately take. Every summer I crave two things simultaneously: travel to Central America, and a new Harry Potter book.

At Hogwarts, Harry finds the sense of home and belonging for which he had always longed. I found that same sense of deep belonging in my church community, and never felt it more intensely than I did on those early mission trips. Eventually, my conviction that everyone should know such a feeling of home formed the core of my call to ministry. Meanwhile, even as I was learning what it meant to serve others, I was relishing in Harry’s quests to save those he loved, fight destructive evil, and be a part of something bigger than himself. Fighting for goodness and having faith in a better world became equated for me with adventure, purpose, and what it means to be Christian.

Of course, it wasn’t all ideals and fantasy adventure, for Harry or for my faith journey. In the later books, Harry comes to recognize the deep and lasting injustices in his world — for wizards with muggle (non-magical) heritage, werewolves, house elves, those facing economic insecurity, and other struggles — which his own privilege had prevented him from seeing. These books came out just as I was old enough to begin critically examining my own experiences and starting to understand the complexities of my world, as well as the ways God calls upon to respond.

I learned about protest and community organizing from Hermione Granger and her persistent commitment to house-elf liberation. And as Harry painfully encountered the human flaws of the adults and systems he counted on, I discovered the same among my own moral icons and within my own religion and church. Just like Harry and his friends, I learned to see people and this world as they truly are and hold tight to my faith and values as I join the hard, sometimes frightening work of building a better and more just world.

Ultimately I committed my life to the church, where I found faith and home, and to the work of goodness and justice for our world. Over time, I traded in my abstract ideals of virtue and heroism for tangible confrontations with privilege, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other realities of oppression, injustice, and evil. When the new Harry Potter play faced racist backlash last year for its casting of a black woman as Hermione, I realized that it, too, had traded in more vague, allegorical notions of justice for direct engagement in the tangible realities of racism and prejudice in our world.

When I finally settled in to read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child the day after I ended my recent ministry job, I found that — for all its flaws — it met me exactly where I needed it to, just like the books always had. In this new tale, Harry and his friends are older and facing the inherent realities of adulthood while their children chase adventure and idealism. Harry’s adolescent escapades have been traded in for the more mundane and grueling work of systemic change. He’s a little bored, a little uninspired, and a little wistful for the good old days. A decade or so into my own adulthood and a few difficult years into ministry, advocacy, and activism, I have also struggled a bit with the transition from childhood adventure to the mature, painstaking reality of real work of justice.

The world does indeed change, and so do we. But Harry reminds me, just as he always has, that there is always good to believe in. There will always be people fighting for it, and you’re never too old to join in.

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