Lisa Sharon Harper

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

‘This is the Cost of Our History’

by Lisa Sharon Harper 03-22-2019
I dug into my family’s past, and now it haunts me.

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

by Lisa Sharon Harper 01-23-2019
The lessons of slain Brazilian civil rights leader Marielle Franco cannot be forgotten.

Marielle Franco. UOL Notícias

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

by Lisa Sharon Harper 11-20-2018
This past year exposed assaults on the rules of law, public ethics, and moral decency.

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

by Lisa Sharon Harper 10-24-2018
At best, many of you have been silent.

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

by Lisa Sharon Harper 09-25-2018
If the Right really cares about abortion, they should reduce poverty.
AFTER JUSTICE ANTHONY KENNEDY announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, I was gripped with grief for my nieces, nephews, and their children and for the unborn. Why? Because as an African-American evangelical woman, I knew that a more firmly conservative Supreme Court would likely continue to roll back civil rights protections, making African Americans and other people of color more vulnerable, physically and economically.
At the same time, even though ending abortion has been proclaimed as a key goal by the conservative movement, their strategy to do so is poised to fail because it ignores the link between poverty and abortion in our country, both of which are also affected by access to equal rights and opportunity for all. And, truth be told, because ending abortion was never their real goal.
Conservatives have argued that to reduce or end abortion in the United States, the country must outlaw it. The strategy has been to tip the balance of the Supreme Court so that politically conservative judges are the majority. When in power, so the plan goes, conservative justices will overturn the 1973 landmark case Roe v. Wade and the U.S. will outlaw and therefore be rid of abortion. But that strategy was crafted by conservatives intent on exploiting differences of belief in U.S. society regarding “hot-button” issues—including abortion, guns, separation of church and state, LGBTQ+ rights, and censorship—to achieve po-litical goals much broader than ethical concern about abortion.
As Randall Balmer explains in his seminal analysis of the Religious Right, Thy Kingdom Come, early 1980s evangelical leaders such as Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker, in partnership with political strategists including Paul Weyrich, aimed to leverage evangelical faith communities to build the conservative political movement, with the goal of pushing back against the gains of the civil rights era through a weakened federal government, few taxes (at least for the better off), and an expansive military. After a failed attempt to prohibit interracial marriage and protect segregation in the case of Bob Jones University v. United States, they shifted tactics. They turned their attention to abortion.
From ‘war on poverty’ to ‘war on drugs’
Something else shifted in the 1970s and ’80s. President Richard Nixon declared a so-called war on drugs in 1971 and trans-ferred resources from President Johnson’s “war on poverty” to federal drug control agencies. In 2016, Dan Baum wrote in Harper’s about a 1994 interview he did with top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman in which Ehrlichman confessed that the policy was not really about containing drugs. It was aimed at undercutting Nixon’s key “enemies,” African-American people and anti-Vietnam War protesters.

SCOTUS: Evangelicals Are Pledging to Pause the Culture Wars

by Lisa Sharon Harper 07-25-2018

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court is seen as the court nears the end of its term. June 11, 2018. REUTERS/Erin Schaff/File Photo

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

by Lisa Sharon Harper 07-02-2018
“For centuries, white people have shrunken their own hearts.”

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.

Trump vs. Jesus

by Lisa Sharon Harper 04-25-2018
Has the Trump presidency revealed a truth about evangelical America that we have not wanted to see?

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

by Lisa Sharon Harper 04-25-2018
'I never saw the image of God in myself before.'
Everett Historical /

Everett Historical /

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

by Lisa Sharon Harper 04-25-2018
It is not a far step from the tyranny of money to the tyranny of despots.

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.”