From Ferguson to New York to Germany, Lisa has been leading trainings and helping mobilize clergy and community leaders around shared values for the common good, with a focus on racial justice. Prior to joining Sojourners, Lisa was the founding executive director of New York Faith & Justice — an organization at the hub of a new ecumenical movement to end poverty in New York City. In that capacity, she helped establish Faith Leaders for Environmental Justice, a citywide collaborative effort of faith leaders committed to leveraging the power of their constituencies and their moral authority in partnership with communities bearing the weight of environmental injustice. She also organized faith leaders to speak out for immigration reform and organized the South Bronx Conversations for Change, a dialogue-to-change project between police and the community.
Harper’s faith-rooted approach to advocacy and organizing has activated people across the U.S. and around the world to address structural and political injustice as an outward demonstration of their personal faith.
Asked why she does what she does, Lisa Sharon Harper’s answer is clear: “So that the church might be worthy of the moniker ‘Bride of Christ’.” Through preaching, writing, training, network development, and public witness Ms. Harper engages the church in the work of justice and peacemaking. For example: Ms. Harper helped build the Evangelical Immigration Table from 2011-2013. She fasted for 21 days as a core faster with the 2013 immigration reform Fast for Families, trained and catalyzed evangelicals in St. Louis to engage the 2014 push for justice in Ferguson and did the same in Baltimore in 2015. Harper was recognized in 2015 as one of “50 Powerful Women Religious Leaders to Celebrate on International Women’s Day” by the Huffington Post.
She earned her master’s in human rights from Columbia University in New York City and is currently in the process of ordination in the Evangelical Covenant Church. She is also author of The Very Good Gospel and is president and founder of Freedom Road, L.L.C., a consulting group dedicated to shrinking the narrative gap.
Posts By This Author
We—the Church—Are Being Re-formed
EVERYWHERE I GO I’m having the same conversation: Young and old alike seem to be streaming out of the church. On Oct. 17, the Pew Research Center released an update on America’s changing religious landscape. According to Pew, “The share of U.S. adults who are white born-again or evangelical Protestants now stands at 16 percent, down from 19 percent a decade ago.” Christians are attending church at the same rate as a decade ago, but fewer people are identifying as Christian.
Church-attendance rates among affiliated Christians haven’t risen as the dispassionate have left. It seems passion for church is dimming even among the affiliated. In conversations across America, I hear the same mantra: “Church hurts too much.”
I get it.
I haven’t had a home church since December 2015. On that last Sunday, amid the river of hashtagged lives that has flowed across social media since Trayvon Martin’s murderer was set free in 2013, a pastor rose to the stage. White, male, and hip, he stood in the heart of empire—Washington, D.C.—and flipped through sacred texts written by brown, colonized, and serially enslaved people, landing on the book of Acts. He read a passage from the book that chronicles how the Holy Spirit moved through the earliest church to destroy hierarchies of human belonging imposed by empire. He read the passage and never came back to it. Later, hundreds of people swayed to three chords, inspired by the Bible’s teaching on how to overcome conflict at a workplace.
There Is Healing In the Water
OVER TWO MONTHS, I’ve been on three pilgrimages through stories of oppression in the U.S., water figuring prominently in each. Leaving the Whitney Plantation and rolling through nearby Louisiana bayous, I imagined African-descended men and women masking themselves in troubled waters from slave catchers. Rolling through the desert between San Antonio and McAllen, Texas, I imagined people of Spanish, African, Aztec, Mayan, and Incan origin scouring barren land in search of water, and flourishing.
Then I spent a week with my friend Ruth Anna Buffalo and her family and friends. Ruth is an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation and the first Native American Democratic woman elected to the North Dakota legislature. Early in our time together, Ruth shared the story of her tribe’s movement north, from present-day Standing Rock. The Mandan settled in the bottomlands of Elbowoods.
From 1949 to 1956, the U.S. Department of the Interior built the Garrison Dam and intentionally flooded the treaty-bound lands of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, along with more than 20 other tribes, to save white communities experiencing natural flooding downriver. They named the human-made reservoir Lake Sakakawea. Elbowoods—the land where Ruth’s family flourished—is now under the water. And whites have claimed the “lakefront” property.
The Modern-Day System of Leasing Immigrants
MY LATEST PILGRIMAGE took me and three fellow travelers across two states. As we wound along serpentine country roads in an SUV, the open fields and swamps that lined our path seemed haunted. “Come, listen,” tall, tall trees whispered. “We have a story to tell.”
From the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana to Jim Crow convict leasing in Sugar Land, Texas, to the Alamo—where a battle was fought to protect Texan slavery and Latinos were racialized—to our current-day militarized border lands, Southern soil has borne witness to a baseline of U.S. economic strategy: exploitation of immigrant labor.
‘This is the Cost of Our History’
TWO OF MY favorite television shows are Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Who Do You Think You Are? Both shows walk celebrities through the process of discovering their ancestors’ stories. I could watch them for hours (and sometimes have).
I love them, but I am also frustrated by them. Because the history of American families is American history, those families’ stories inevitably intersect with major U.S. events: the removal and genocide of Native Americans, slavery, the Salem witch trials, the suffrage movement, prohibition, the great migration, Jim Crow, the list goes on. Usually, these shows give about one minute for celebrities to process their ancestors’ roles in these monumental moments, then move on. Celebrities whose ancestors participated in American westward expansion are often celebrated as “pioneers” whose courage and grit helped forge America. Rarely are they guided to understand that their ancestors participated in the removal and genocide of Indigenous nations who stewarded the same land for tens of thousands of years before Europeans “pioneered” it.
Recently, I dug into the story of my third great-grandmother, Lea Ballard, who is the last adult enslaved person in our family. Her daughter, Martha, died while giving birth to my great-grandmother, Elizabeth.
To Be Black and Christian in Brazil
MORE THAN 50 black women and a handful of black men huddled in a narrow room of an unmarked church on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The women were adorned with natural hair and were happy to be together, but I noticed a seriousness about them. Many had traveled two hours or more via public transportation. This was not just a meeting: It was an event.
Our gathering formed in the shadow of Brazil’s recent election. Jair Bolsonaro won the Brazilian presidency, promising to target black women activists, LGBTQ people, and others and to bring in militarized security forces to squash violence in shantytown communities known as favelas. Seventy percent of evangelical Christians voted for Bolsonaro, giving him his win.
At our meeting, worship leaders led the women in singing songs about the God who promises a day when oppression will be lifted. One of the songs honored the brown, colonized girl named Maria, whose Magnificat promised these women’s liberation.
A year has passed since the assassination of 38-year-old black Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco. Franco, who challenged police brutality and extrajudicial killings, was shot while riding in the back seat of a car. Two hours before she was slain, she called for black women to engage in politics to bring about a just Brazil. The bullets that killed her were purchased in 2006 by federal police in the nation’s capital city of Brasilia.
Brazil’s Carnival has presented the country as a happy, diverse nation where black women can dance without shame or consequence. I didn’t know Brazil was the last nation in the world to abolish slavery and that 4.8 million Africans were shipped there over a span of nearly 400 years. I also didn’t know that after abolition in Brazil, the Portuguese elite begged Europeans to “whiten” their mostly African nation and “civilize” it. They promised 4 million Europeans seeds and free transportation to Brazil, while formerly enslaved Africans received nothing.
When Evangelicals Had Integrity
AS I FLIPPED the pages of Timothy L. Smith’s classic, Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War, a question came to mind: Why did 19th-century evangelicals bundle social concerns, such as slavery and suffrage, with issues that seemed more prudish, such as temperance?
According to historian Ken Burns, by the year 1830 American men consumed seven gallons of alcohol per year, three times more than they consume today. In an era when white women had few legal rights, the scourge of alcohol-related domestic violence gave rise to an evangelical-led grassroots movement that called for temperance and prohibition. It wasn’t a “prudish” venture at all, but rather a progressive reform movement aimed at protecting women from violence and abuse.
The same evangelical women and male allies who pushed for temperance also stepped forward on the front lines of the fights for abolition and women’s suffrage. They had witnessed the fruit of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Group’s fight to end the transatlantic slave trade through England’s 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. That monumental victory led the U.S. Congress to pass a similar act the same year. This should have led to abolition, but instead led to the explosion of the U.S. chattel slave economy, a result of the rise of the cotton gin, the establishment of the second Middle Passage from the upper South to the Deep South, and the entrenchment of the barbaric practice of “breeding” free labor. Though the government had outlawed the importation of slaves from Africa, it did not abolish its slave-based economy, but rather expanded it.
An Open Letter to White Evangelicals
IN 1983, I walked down an aisle at a Sunday evening church camp meeting in Cape May, N.J., and bent my brown knees at the altar. I had spent a year learning the basics of our faith. I had done walk-a-thons and sing-a-thons as part of a small youth group in a local Wesleyan church. I had sat through countless altar calls at Christian concerts. But now I was ready to surrender to Jesus. It was glorious when it happened: Surrendering to a relationship with him was an act of freeing myself from fear. I trusted Jesus with my life.
Freedom from fear means freedom to love—to love like the Good Samaritan loved—without limits and concern for self. This kind of love is witness. It requires belief that Jesus’ way is, indeed, the way, that Jesus’ words are the truth and will lead to good life. To love someone of another ethnicity, for example, as extravagantly as the Samaritan loved, one must believe that Jesus has got our back when we follow his lead.
Conservative Court-Packing Isn't About Abortion—It's About Culture
From ‘war on poverty’ to ‘war on drugs’
SCOTUS: Evangelicals Are Pledging to Pause the Culture Wars
We don’t often think of our current-day allegiances existing within decades, even centuries, of struggle. Sometimes they do. With the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, President Donald Trump has pushed our nation to an existential point of decision about who we are and who we will be for at least the next two to three generations.
The Theory of the Shrunken Heart
THERE IS A short film embedded in the wall just to the left of the welcome desk in the lobby of the Equal Justice Initiative’s new Legacy Museum, which opened to the public on April 26. The first time I visited the museum, I stood in a crowd watching the video and tried to comprehend the story. An African-American girl clung to her father’s neck as he carried her, walking slowly toward white men standing in a field. The setting? The Antebellum South.
That film left me weeping—near wailing—right there in the lobby.
A few weeks later, I returned with participants on a weeklong pilgrimage through the history of the control of African bodies on U.S. soil. The journey—offered for continuing education and graduate credit through Greenville University—began in Montgomery, Ala., at the Legacy Museum. Each of the participants watched the video. One woman was so overwhelmed with grief that she had to leave the museum.
The Legacy Museum and the accompanying National Memorial for Peace and Justice shine light on details that have been hidden from us. They help us understand the humanity of the oppressed and the cruelty of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and present-day police brutality.
Shop 'til They Drop
TWO WEEKS BEFORE Christmas last year, I stood with 50 other national faith leaders on the banks of the Alabama River in Montgomery, Ala., trying to imagine what it must have been like to stand on that land in 1850, at the height of the black chattel slave trade.
We were embarking on a one-day pilgrimage convened by Sojourners and hosted by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). We were there to understand one thing: the nature of the confinement and control of black bodies in the U.S. from chattel slavery through Jim Crow to mass incarceration.
Congress banned the import of enslaved people in 1808, but it did not ban the slave industry. Slave traders turned inward. Men, women, and children of African descent were sold in the Upper South; chained together with shackles around their feet, wrists, waists, and necks; and marched—often without shoes—over hundreds of miles into the Deep South for sale to farm owners desperate to meet the explosive global demand for cotton after the invention of the cotton gin.
“But walking was too slow and expensive to meet the high demand,” said Bryan Stevenson, founding executive director of EJI, to the faith leaders standing at the mouth of Montgomery’s Commerce Street. Stevenson explained that sales multiplied as transport methods improved. By the 1840s, the Commerce Street port housed a steamboat dock and a train station. Rather than marching 20 people over hundreds of miles, traders could transport hundreds of en-slaved people at a time—quicker and less expensive. Slavery was industry. Even in these early iterations, maximizing profit and lowering the bottom line were of chief concern.
According to a 2013 EJI report, “Slavery in America: The Montgomery Slave Trade,” Montgomery’s Commerce Street became one of the most easily accessible points of trade in Alabama by 1860. Slave traders would unload humans from ships and trains at the top of Commerce Street and auction them three blocks away at Court Square. Auctioneers coaxed farm owners to push bids higher until the auctioneer cried “Sold!” Mothers were separated from sons and daughters. Sisters were separated from brothers. And husbands were separated from wives. Humans were forced to fill days with bone-breaking labor, heartache, and absolute acquiescence to the domination of overseers and masters—until death freed them from the clutch of American commerce.
How Shall I Make Expiation?
FAMINE CRACKED the earth, causing children’s bellies to swell. Mouths opened wide, babies’ heads hung limp over their mothers’ arms. For three years no rain fell. Well water became a distant memory for the people of Israel.
David asked God why suffering was overcoming his people. God said: “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.”
Saul was the previous king who tried to wipe out the Gibeonites during his reign—even though Israel had sworn to spare them. What comes next in 2 Samuel 21:1-14 takes my breath away. David calls the Gibeonites to the court and speaks with them directly. He asks them: “What shall I do for you? How shall I make expiation, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” (verse 3).
America’s 45th president will be held responsible for the decisions made during his administration. But also the physical health of our land and people will reflect the measure to which President-elect Trump faces and corrects his own sins as well as those that past presidents have perpetrated against our citizens and our global neighbors.
David asks the Gibeonites: “What do you say that I should do for you?” Could we imagine our next president calling together a conference of African-American leaders or Native American leaders or Latinx leaders and asking them: “What do you say that we should do for you?” Can you imagine putting that level of power in the hands of the oppressed—power to set the framework for repair?
Trump vs. Jesus
I HAIL FROM a theological tradition that places the highest value on epistemology, the study of how we think about God, yet tends to invest little energy on ethics, the study of how we are called to interact in the world.
Likewise, many in my theological tradition place ultimate value on one’s capacity for faith in particular sets of beliefs—and tend to demonstrate hostility toward historical, anthropological, philosophical, and scientific methods to shape those beliefs, unless those methods happen to support the tradition’s faith-born premises. Think: climate-change denial. This article of faith is partially rooted in profound belief in a particular reading of Genesis 1:26 and human dominion. It is not rooted in science.
Perhaps this reveals one reason why so much of the white evangelical community saw no red flags when Donald Trump refused to show his tax returns. They believed in him. They did not need to see evidence.
Perhaps this is the reason it does not faze many white evangelicals that Trump trafficked in fake news, conspiracy theory, and innuendo to win the presidency and continues the practices in the aftermath. Trump’s relationship to fact may mirror their own. It almost seems as if life in this world and the hard facts that govern life have nothing to do with anything. I’m thinking of the fold-over tracts or Facebook posts that fly through evangelical circles during every presidential election cycle. They claim the Democratic candidate is the Antichrist and warn of the horrors if she or he is elected. It doesn’t matter if the Democrat or the Republican promises to protect the poor. All that matters is which one assures the voter’s stature in the afterlife. And who wants to go to hell because they voted for the Antichrist? Not me.
Find the Cost of Freedom
THEY CAME TO the front and waited to speak with me. They were weeping.
The day before, I sat in the front seat of a packed car. Five beautiful black women, including one of the women now in tears, rolled toward Marion, Ind.—the site of the last public lynching in the North.
On the sweltering summer night of Aug. 7, 1930, three African-American teenagers—Thomas Shipp, Abram Smith, and James Cameron—sat huddled in their jail cells in Marion. Thousands of white men, women, and children gathered outside the jailhouse, screaming and jeering—demanding blood. The three were charged with the ultimate sin against whiteness—killing a white man and raping a white woman. They were dragged from the jailhouse, beaten, and strung up on a low-hanging tree branch a block away on the courthouse square, in the center of town. For some reason, Cameron was spared. The other two were not.
The town photographer captured the moment: The mob congregated like lions around mangled prey. Lips licked, satisfied grins splayed across the faces of young women and old women, young men and old men. Floral dresses, white shirts with buckled pants, and hats atop straight-backed heads covered bursting egos as they reveled in victory. One man pointed to their ritual sacrifice, and that moment became an iconic illustration of American lynching.
Rights Worth Defending
THIS SPRING I sat with former President Jimmy Carter and 150 others to talk about human rights.
Women and men from Pakistan, Iran, Israel, Palestine, DR Congo, Indonesia, South Africa, Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Russia, Ukraine, the U.S., and other nations attended the Carter Center’s #FreedomfromFear Human Rights Defenders Forum in Atlanta in the midst of a year marked by increased attacks on human rights and on the people who defend them.
Yuri Dzhibladze, president of the Moscow-based Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, shared what he had learned about authoritarian leaders by defending human rights in Putin’s Russia. “For authoritarian leaders to take power,” Dzhibladze said, “they must propagate the belief that they are the protectors of their countries. They must cast multiple actors as imminent threats.”
Donald Trump’s campaign declaration rang in my ears: “I alone can fix it,” Trump said at the GOP national convention. Inside the Beltway those words sounded insane, but, according to Dzhibladze, Trump was simply reading from the authoritarian leaders’ handbook 101. “In authoritarian regimes,” Dzhibladze said, “propaganda dehumanizes scapegoats. Meanwhile, devious enemies are always plotting against us.”
The Battle Against Black Freedom Wasn't Nonviolent
IN JUNE 1964, 54 years ago this month, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner were asked by leaders of the Congress of Racial Equality to investigate the burning of a black church that had doubled as a Freedom School in Neshoba County, Miss.
More than 1,000 people, including college students, boarded buses bound for Mississippi that year. Over the preceding four years, these young people had witnessed a Southern sea change, from school desegregation to the integration of lunch counters, buses, bus depots, and movie theaters. They witnessed the Children’s March in Birmingham—hoses, dogs, terror faced down by black children who did not run. They stood their ground and they filled jails and they sang about overcoming. These previously silenced and subjugated people were now using the only thing they had—their bodies—to break through. And they had broken through.
Nashville, Greenville, Mont-gomery, Birmingham ... Now, it was Mississippi’s turn. James Meredith had served as the tip of the spear in 1962 when he registered for courses at Ole Miss. Mississippians lost their minds. The ensuing riot required 31,000 National Guards to quell it and left two dead and hundreds wounded. Meredith did register—and was graduated—but Medgar Evers, field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi, was assassinated the following year, in his driveway.
It Didn't Start with Trump
A WHITE EVANGELICAL leader recently asked me how white supremacy shaped Republicanism. The truth is this: Belief in the supremacy of whiteness has shaped both parties and all facets of life in the United States.
The Grand Old Party wasn’t always synonymous with bold-faced bigotry. In fact, it wasn’t even synonymous with the South. The party of Lincoln was crafted in the North in 1854 to counter the expansion of Southern slavocracy into new territories.
As the only surviving party from the nation’s founding, Democrats—based in the South—were keepers of the status quo, maintaining the health of the nation’s nascent systems and structures. The two parties morphed into the two sides of the Civil War: the Union (Lincoln’s Republicans) and the Confederacy (Southern Democrats).
Lincoln’s GOP won and spent the first several post-war years reordering the landscape of power in the U.S.: They outlawed the 246-year-old American economic engine known as slavery, removed race as a determining factor of citizenship, and expanded the right to vote to all male citizens, regardless of race. Formerly enslaved Africans in the U.S. flourished. An estimated 2,000 were elected to public offices across the country—as high as lieutenant governor—and several won seats in the U.S. Senate. But their streak ended when federal troops were pulled out of the South.
Over the next couple of decades, Southern Democrats mounted a legal, social, and political civil war to re-establish white male supremacy in the South. Peonage laws filled former plantations with convict-leased workers by lowering bars of criminality and focusing enforcement on communities of color. Between 1877 and 1950, more than 4,000 black bodies swung from trees across the South while white mobs rioted, massacring black men, women, and children with impunity in states across the Midwest and Upper Midwest.
Then there was a shift.
Gentrification Isn't the Problem
TO LOOK AT HIM, you know he’s lived a hard life. With ridges creasing his 27-year-old face, my cousin Shack looked me in the eye during a family gathering and helped me understand how hopeless he feels. The people in his Newark, N.J. neighborhood are being pushed out of their community. The Whole Foods and condos that are moving in are raising the costs of rent and food. The neighborhood’s old guard can’t keep up. This is the case in almost every city across the country. In my own neighborhood—Petworth in Washington, D.C.—I have watched condos rise around me and Starbucks and small bistros move in over the last six years. When I moved here in 2011, taxi drivers and community veterans told me that, until recently, they considered Petworth one of the most dangerous and impoverished neighborhoods in D.C. Gutted by the violent uprising in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the adjacent neighborhood Columbia Heights lay abandoned by city services and industry, and given over to poverty and violence, for more than three decades. When the city decided to develop Columbia Heights, it was only a matter of time before they would do the same to Petworth. “But gentrification is not the problem,” Shack said. “Poverty is the problem.” I heard those words and I wanted to push back. The anti-poverty advocate in me wanted to say, “Get with the program, cuz. Gentrification is the devil.” But Shack had a point, a good one. Obviously, repair and development of the neighborhood isn’t the problem—it’s the displacement of often-poorer people by more affluent people that usually goes with it. These neighborhoods should have been repaired and developed decades ago according to the desires of their homeowners and residents.
How Christians Helped Build the Confederacy
“THIS TIFFANY stained glass window was donated by parishioners in honor of Jefferson Davis,” said our guide, Barbara Holley. Holley is a member of the “history and reconciliation initiative” at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Va. St. Paul’s, located across the street from the Virginia general assembly and around the corner from the Confederate White House, was called “the Cathedral of the Confederacy” for a reason. Fragments of stained glass honor Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee. Both men gleaned inspiration, comfort, and resources for their cause here. Their pews are marked with commemorative plaques.
Forget 'Once Upon a Time'
“ONCE UPON A TIME ...” We like that. Four words signal to our colonized brains: “It’s story time!” We’re gonna go on an adventure! We’re gonna meet mice and pumpkins and fairy godmothers and wicked stepmothers and oppressed blonde women wearing baby-blue peasant wear and neat white aprons. And we’re gonna fall in loooooove. Ahhhh ...
July 2003. Rolling across the northern South, I follow a story, from tourist trap to tourist trap along the Cherokee Trail of Tears. “Watch the metanarrative,” says Randy Woodley, our guide on the journey. What do the museums, the plays, the tourist shops want Americans to believe about themselves? “God guided us West.” “It was destiny.” “Those featherheaded people became our friends.” Or: “They were dead before we got here.” Or: “They just left. Sure, they were ‘removed,’ but we had a hoedown for the ones who hid in the hills and stayed.”