14 Faith Leaders to Watch in 2014

CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative takes a look at some of the faith voices poised to make a difference in the year ahead.

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Vice President Joe Biden chats with Eliseo Medina, Secretary-Treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, at the Fast for Families protest of immigration reform. (Flickr/Fast4Families)
Vice President Joe Biden chats with Eliseo Medina, Secretary-Treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, at the Fast for Families protest of immigration reform. (Flickr/Fast4Families)

Last year was an exciting time for faith-based movements for social justice, with religious leaders and organizations making headlines for spearheading robust local and national campaigns around issues such as gun violence, economic inequality, and immigration, among many others.

The efforts of faith-based advocates were formidable, calling thousands of people across the country to action and attracting the attention of President Barack Obama. From fasts for immigration reform to vigils for gun-violence victims, people of faith brought a powerful moral voice to our nation’s most pressing problems. Their efforts faced fierce opposition from well-funded and well-organized conservative opponents who fought back by blocking votes in Congress for universal background checks for gun purchases and thwarting efforts to pass immigration reform.

But faith advocates have pressed on, pursuing the vision of a just and merciful society. Their inspiring work reminds us that victories for social and economic justice do not come easily. We know from history that faith-based advocacy was essential in virtually every American struggle for justice, and we also know that faith leaders will keep up the good fight in 2014. Looking ahead to this year’s major policy debates, the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative has created a list of 14 justice-seeking faith leaders to watch.

1. Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, is an ordained Disciples of Christ minister and core leader of the Moral Mondays movement. Barber grabbed headlines in North Carolina and across the country in 2013 for his role in organizing “Moral Mondays,” a protest movement dedicated to resisting the regressive efforts of the Tar Heel state’s hyper-conservative legislature. Beginning with only a handful of committed protestors huddled outside the state capitol on a dreary day in April, Barber used a combination of charisma, spiritual authority, and strategic know-how to expand the small gathering into a massive movement. In just 18 weeks, Moral Monday protests had swelled to huge rallies with thousands of attendees and more than 900 arrests for civil disobedience. The faith-led movement is also impressive for the diverse coalition Barber and others have assembled: Protestors and speakers harken from all walks of life; those arrested included pastors, college students, and Native North Carolinians in their 90s—all united in resistance against harsh extremist state laws.

Moral Mondays have built national momentum. Barber and others hosted a massive “Moral March” in early February, and offshoot versions of the movement have cropped up in Georgia and South Carolina. Barber has also appeared on major TV networks to discuss the plight of the needy, spoken at national rallies for immigration reform, preached to Fast for Families participants, and written on the need for broader access to quality health care. With the mid-term elections coming up in November, look for Barber to continue to be a leading faith voice in North Carolina and across the nation.

2. Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, or IWJ, has been a champion of workers’ rights for decades. Bobo, the author of books on both faith-based organizing and wage theft, has made a career of bringing faith groups together around economic justice issues. Bobo’s work with IWJ has included advocating for a range of policy issues such as paid sick days and protecting workers’ right to organize. Her organization also initiated Faith Advocates for Jobs in 2010, an interfaith network of congregations that works to support the unemployed and bring an end to the jobs crisis. In addition, IWJ maintains Worker Centers in states across the country, where interfaith worker advocates help low-wage, nonunion workers organize for better wages, benefits, and workplace dignity. And just this past year, Bobo and IWJ played a crucial role in ongoing efforts to better the lives and working conditions of Walmart workers by partnering local faith groups with community organizations to organize hundreds of protests to bring attention to the serious issues facing employees.

The long-standing efforts of IWJ and others are paying off, as the conversation around economic inequality has gained traction in the past year. President Obama has pledged to make the issue a top priority for the remainder of his term, as he pushes for a higher federal minimum wage, long-term unemployment benefits, and comprehensive immigration reform. Bobo and IWJ appear primed to play a key role in the ongoing fight to protect the dignity of the American worker this year and beyond.

3. The “Fast for Families” participants mobilize on behalf of immigration reform legislation. Of the various faith-led protests for immigration reform in 2013, few garnered as much attention as the “Fast for Families” campaign. Organized as a partnership between labor groups, religious organizations, and immigration advocates, a rotating band of participants fasted for weeks in a tent on the National Mall to pressure the House of Representatives to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Led by the storied labor organizer Eliseo Medina, fasters hailed from a variety of professions and backgrounds and included several undocumented immigrants and DREAMers. But organizers also listed a fair number of high-profile religious leaders as participants, such as Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition; Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of NETWORK; Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners.

The fasters and their tent attracted widespread media attention, sparking solidarity fasts from groups all over the country and visits from prominent musicians such as Peter Yarrow and politicians such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Vice President Joe Biden, First Lady Michele Obama, and President Obama.

Although the House of Representatives failed to act on immigration reform last year, discussions around how to address the issue are continuing on Capitol Hill. The Fast for Families campaign is recharging as well, embarking on an ambitious cross-country bus tour to more than 100 congressional districts in the next several months as advocates press for an immigration system that provides a viable pathway to citizenship for America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.

4. Nicole Baker Fulgham is the author of Educating All God’s Children: What Christians Can – and Should – Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids and president of The Expectations Project. Fulgham is helping craft the religious case for improving the quality of America’s public schools. She holds a doctorate in urban education policy and teacher preparation and was formerly the vice president of Teach for America. Fulgham left the organization to use her background in education to spark a school-focused movement among the faith communities in which she was raised. The result was The Expectations Project, an organization dedicated to mobilizing people of faith to support public education reform and close the academic achievement gap. Fulgham is a popular speaker at evangelical colleges and educational conferences across the country, amplifying her message about the need for faith groups—especially evangelicals—to become more involved in helping children from all backgrounds receive high-quality public education instead of fighting tired cultural battles over what is taught. Debates over the Common Core State Standards and how to implement and fund public preschool programs are set to rage across the country in the coming months, positioning Fulgham as a much-needed religious advocate for America’s students.

5. Ana Garcia-Ashley is the executive director of Gamaliel, a nonpartisan grassroots network of faith-based organizations with affiliates in 19 U.S. states and around the world. Garcia-Ashley is at the helm of a nationwide effort to empower local faith groups to bring about change in their communities. She was a highly accomplished faith-based community organizer for almost two decades before becoming head of Gamaliel. A former Iliff School of Theology student and the first woman of color to head an American national community-organizing network, Garcia-Ashley has helped launch a number of national campaigns since taking up the mantle in 2011, shedding light on environmental issues and championing efforts to create work opportunities for the underserved. What’s more, Garcia-Ashley and Gamaliel’s national-level efforts draw strength from an impressive list of local legislative victories won by Gamaliel affiliates, including a recent instance in which the Metropolitan Congregations United for St. Louis helped establish a local Community Benefits Agreement that stands to create job opportunities for women, low-income workers, and people of color in the city.

Campaigns that push for federal legislation tend to make headlines, but most analysts agree that many of the key political battles of 2014 are going to be fought in state houses and city halls—not on Capitol Hill. As such, Garcia-Ashley and other champions of local faith-based organizing are likely to be on the front lines of these debates.

6. Kentucky’s “Green” Catholics take a stand for the environment by rallying against encroaching energy companies and mountaintop removal mining. A growing group of Catholics are working to create a new kind of environmental movement in a somewhat unlikely place: rural Kentucky. When energy companies threatened to build the controversial Bluegrass Pipeline in 2013 on land owned by the Sisters of Loretto and the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani—local groups of Catholic nuns and monks, respectively—the religious devotees launched a campaign to keep the pipeline off their land and out of Kentucky. The nuns were particularly vocal in their criticism of the proposed project, holding signs and singing hymns of protest at an open house session about the pipeline.

Meanwhile, Father John Rausch, a Catholic priest who recently retired as coordinator for the Catholic Committee on Appalachia, has been working for more than 35 years to fashion an interfaith effort to combat Mountaintop removal mining, or MTR, in eastern Kentucky. Named one of the “Top 10 Religious Environmental Saints” for his work organizing against MTR, Rausch has written, preached, and organized protest prayers vigils to draw attention to how MTR is spoiling the lives and environments of thousands of Kentuckians.

The Kentucky Catholics are not alone. In addition to support from their local parishes and an expansive network of like-minded faith-based groups in the region, Pope Francis recently reiterated the Vatican’s charge for believers to care for the environment. As faith-based activism around the Bluegrass Pipeline grows and as places such as Kentucky and West Virginia become flashpoints for conversations about America’s energy concerns, let us hope this emerging breed of Kentucky Catholics will heed the pontiff’s call and continue to stand up for the sanctity of God’s creation.

7. Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, is a bold leader in the faith-based effort to ensure all Americans have access to health care and contraception coverage. Kaufman—whose wide-ranging experiences include everything from health care delivery in state and local government to the nonprofit sector—has led the National Council of Jewish Women, or NCJW, for years in its grassroots efforts to advocate around an impressive range of foreign and domestic issues. More recently, Kaufman and the NCJW have been standout supporters of the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, with Kaufman passionately defending the benefits of the health care law in The Huffington Post and the NCJW organizing days of action to assist with ongoing enrollment efforts. Kaufman has also endorsed Medicaid expansion and, similar to the NCJW, is a firm critic of attempts to dismantle the ACA’s contraception mandate. The NCJW was one of the signers of an amicus brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in response to the Supreme Court case that challenged the mandate, joining a growing chorus of faith groups that argue that allowing businesses such as Hobby Lobby to deny its workers contraception coverage would “undermine—rather than promote—religious liberty.”

As millions of Americans begin to benefit from the ACA and as legal challenges to the contraception mandate make their way through the courts, expect Kaufman and the NCJW to continue their efforts to improve the quality of life for women, children, and families.

8. Rev. Harry Knox, a Metropolitan Community Church minister and president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, or RCRC, is a leader of a growing wave of religious clergy fighting for reproductive health and justice. Under his leadership, RCRC has worked in states across the country to support religious voices calling for comprehensive sex education and access to health care. The organization puts low-income women of color—who face some of the largest barriers to health care access—at the center of its work. In 2013, RCRC leaders were crucial in the defeat of the proposed 20-week abortion ban in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and were key partners in successfully advocating for Medicaid expansion in Ohio. More recently, Knox helped RCRC launch a new “It’s Time to Talk” campaign, mustering a robust, coordinated effort to spark a new national conversation around the intersection of religion, abortion, sexuality, and justice. As heated state-level abortion rights debates and national-level contraception cases continue, Knox and a growing coalition of faith leaders will assuredly keep making the religious case for reproductive health, rights, and justice in 2014.

9. Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, is creating a new model for American Muslim community activism. Founded in 1995 in the heart of Chicago’s South Side, IMAN uses a unique blend of direct service, community organizing, and the arts to seek justice on behalf of Muslims and non-Muslims in the Windy City. A specialist in urban sociology, Nashishibi draws upon his education and his Muslim faith to lead IMAN to advocate around a variety of issues in the Chicago area, including criminal justice reform, ex-prisoner re-entry, youth development, health and wellness, and the creation of “safe zones” to combat urban violence, among other projects. He also hosts a series of live concerts and performing arts events featuring Muslim artists and offers local services, including a free health clinic that caters to the surrounding community.

With politicians in Washington embroiled in near-constant gridlock, local faith-based community organizations such as IMAN are becoming increasingly important engines of change. Given its success, IMAN will likely serve as a model of urban faith-based justice activism—regardless of religious tradition—for years to come.

10. Rev. Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist pastor from Central Pennsylvania, rose to national attention for his “act of love” support of same-sex marriage. Schaefer made national news last year after the United Methodist Church publicly reprimanded, suspended, and ultimately defrocked him for officiating his son’s same-sex wedding. The church’s decision was controversial, but the defiant Schaefer, who called his role in the wedding “an act of love,” has energized the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, movement among his fellow Methodists. Since his case first attracted widespread attention last fall, at least two bishops have offered him public support, a group of more than 30 United Methodist pastors from Eastern Pennsylvania have jointly officiated a same-sex marriage in solidarity, and more than 36,000 people have signed a petition urging his bishop to stop putting pastors who perform same-sex weddings on trial.

The experience has transformed Schaefer into an inspirational figure among LGBT supporters within the Methodist Church, a role he appears to be embracing as he travels to churches all over the country to speak and preach about God’s call for LGBT equality. His story and advocacy efforts are inspiring a new wave of faith-led pro-LGBT activists, helping trigger a recent spike in the number of United Methodist clergy openly defying the ban on performing same-sex marriages. With the United Methodist Church moving to put more pastors on trial for officiating gay marriages – and with some bishops already refusing to do the same – keep an eye on Schaefer to be a leading spiritual voice for LGBT equality this year.

11. Michael Sherrard, executive director of Faithful America, is working to bring 21st century, digital organizing tactics to progressive faith-based activism. Sherrard has combined religion and politics savvy with online organizing know-how to create Faithful America, a digital community “dedicated to reclaiming Christianity from the religious right and putting faith into action for social justice.” Guided by the principle “Love thy neighbor. No exceptions,” Sherrard has fashioned Faithful America to be something of the digital gadfly of the progressive faith movement. Through online petition drives, he and his staff have used their virtual forum to galvanize tens of thousands of progressive Christians to push back against public figures who abuse the Bible for regressive causes and lift up lesser-known progressive religious groups such as the anti-fracking nuns in Kentucky. Their tactics have dramatically increased Faithful America’s influence: The website, which Sherrard took over in 2012, has doubled its audience in the past two years and now boasts one of the largest email lists of any organization in the progressive faith movement.

With more and more people of faith embracing online organizing, expect to see Sherrard and Faithful America play an increasingly influential role in 2014.

12. Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, Episcopal Bishop of Maryland, is a leader in the Episcopal Church’s push to prevent  gun deaths. Sutton is a force to be reckoned with amid the greater faith-led effort to end gun violence in the United States. As a leader in the Baltimore chapter of Heeding God’s Call, Sutton has led faith-based protests against local gun shops that sell firearms that end up in local criminals’ hands. He was also part of a coalition of religious groups that successfully pressured Maryland to pass expansive new gun-violence-prevention legislation in 2013 and has been active in campaigns by Marylanders To Prevent Gun Violence to lift up the new law as a model for the rest of the country. Sutton also appeared in a television ad touting the moral necessity of federal legislation that prevents gun violence.

As faith coalitions such as Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence—of which Sutton is a prominent member—launch renewed state and national efforts to stem the epidemic of gun violence, Sutton will be a key advocate for Maryland’s policies and a moral voice calling for action.

13. Rev. Dr. Harold Dean Trulear, an ordained American Baptist minister, associate professor of applied theology at Howard School of Divinity, and national director of Healing Communities has long been a leading advocate on criminal justice issues. As a professor and an ex-prisoner, he has spoken, preached, and written about America’s broken prison system and worked to create faith-based networks that provide critical support for inmates and their families. Through his Healing Communities organization, he has published numerous guides and resources that provide a framework for churches to act as “Stations of Hope” for returning prisoners. He and others also offer mentorship for children with incarcerated parents through the Prisoner Reentry Project of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation. With multiple religious groups ramping up efforts to address criminal justice issues such as mass incarceration in 2014, Trulear will no doubt continue to be a principal prophetic voice in the movement for a better prison system and fair treatment of the incarcerated.

14. Katey Zeh, project director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, is an emerging thinker and organizer around global maternal health and issues of reproductive justice in a faith-based context. A participant in the Center for American Progress’s 2012 Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute and board member for the RCRC, Zeh has hosted workshops and written extensively about global maternal health and family planning. In addition to offering crucial reporting on reproductive justice issues, she has used her theological training and policy expertise to decry unfair policies that hurt women and to lift up the stories of those affected. As director of the UMC’s Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project, she has partnered with the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society to co-host webinars that offer detailed information about human trafficking, as well as provide a Biblical and theological framework for Methodists organizing congregations around the issue. As several other faith groups bolster their initiatives to address trafficking and reproductive justice issues, Zeh and others like her are helping design a new kind of faith-based effort to create a more just world for women and families.


The Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative believes that these 14 courageous religious leaders are preeminent examples of America’s growing faith-based movement for justice. But their efforts are only a small taste of our country’s expansive religious coalition currently working to bring about progressive change. This year, look for the work of these and countless other religious Americans as they strive to build a stronger, healthier, and more just America.

The Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative of the Center for American Progress works to: identify and articulate the moral, ethical, and spiritual values underpinning policy issues; shape a progressive stance in which these values are clear; and increase public awareness and understanding of these values. Follow them on Twitter @CAPfaith.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

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Community members attend a candlelight vigil in Indianapolis.

The Religion and Faith team at the Center for American Progress publishes an annual list of faith leaders to watch. These clergy and lay leaders are infusing the progressive movement with moral clarity. From immigration reform and gun violence prevention efforts, to foreign policy and the climate crisis, faith communities are a critical constituency across every area of public policy.