15 Faith Leaders to Watch in 2015

Religious leaders and faith-based activists are poised to make significant progress on a range of social justice issues this year.

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Archbishop Blase Cupich walks down the aisle after his installation Mass at Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral on November 18, 2014. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Archbishop Blase Cupich walks down the aisle after his installation Mass at Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral on November 18, 2014. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Last year was a time of dynamic engagement for social justice, and progressive faith leaders and religious communities spearheaded much of the action. They tackled the crisis in our immigration system, poverty, climate change, threats to religious freedom and women’s reproductive rights, criminal justice, voting rights, and more. From houses of worship offering prayer vigils around the country to faith-based groups leading rallies outside the U.S. Supreme Court, people of faith are giving public witness to the moral values embedded in our nation’s policies.

Working strategically at the local, state, and national levels, religious leaders and faith advocates remind us how important faith voices are as we work together to create a more just and equitable nation. This year promises to be filled with more vibrant faith engagement. As we look ahead, the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative has crafted a list of 15 progressive faith leaders and groups to watch in 2015 as they work to bring about enduring change.

1. Macky Alston. An award-winning filmmaker and media trainer for progressive activists and faith leaders, Alston is vice president for strategy, engagement, and media at Auburn Theological Seminary and the founder of Auburn Media. Through his media training work, Alston prepares religious leaders to be effective, bold messengers for social justice and amplifies the efforts of faith-based organizers. Since 2002, he has trained more than 3,500 faith leaders, who have made major impacts in public debates on topics ranging from economic inequality to rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, communities, and other pressing justice issues. His most recent film is the award-winning documentary Love Free or Die, which chronicles the life of Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church and a Senior Fellow at American Progress. Alston’s digital and theological expertise, combined with his strategic sensibility and engaging training style, promise to bring more religious leaders to national attention this year.

2. Rev. Jennifer Bailey. The founder and executive director of Faith Matters Network, Bailey is an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal, or AME, Church, a community organizer, a Truman Scholar, and an Interfaith Youth Core alum. She has advocacy experience building economic justice. This year, she is working to dismantle a major obstacle for faith-based anti-poverty advocates: a lack of resources to invest in effective communications. As a Nathan Cummings Foundation grantee, Bailey launched and is stewarding the Faith Matters Network, an online community that helps faith-based advocates and organizations harness the transformative power of digital storytelling. Through a central location for collaboration, resource sharing, and mobilization, Bailey is building a multifaith alliance to allow activists to more effectively transform social and economic systems. 

3. Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara. Beach-Ferrara is a United Church of Christ, or UCC, minister and the founder and executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, an advocacy and organizing group working for full LGBT equality and inclusion in the South. Beach-Ferrara’s efforts have had a major impact: Under her leadership, the campaign helped overturn a same-sex marriage ban in North Carolina last year. Operating out of First Congregational UCC in Asheville, the group’s WE DO campaign shed light on the suffering and discrimination that LGBT couples seeking marriage licenses face and catalyzed a surge of faith-based, pro-LGBT activism that can serve as a model for how people of faith can be effective allies in the fight for LGBT equality.

4. Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl. The senior rabbi at New York City’s well-respected Central Synagogue is expanding the reach of Judaism. Buchdahl is the first woman to be ordained as both a cantor and a rabbi, as well as the first Asian American in either role. Nationally recognized for her innovations leading worship, Buchdahl is also an advocate and organizer through Just Congregations, a network of Reform Jewish groups engaging their members on economic and social justice issues. Listed as one of The Daily Beast and Newsweek’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis in 2011 and the Jewish Daily Forward’s Forward 50 in 2014, Buchdahl was invited by President Barack Obama to lead the prayers at the White House Hanukkah celebration in December. Buchdahl’s remarks—in keeping with her reputation as a woman who defies expectations and challenges tradition while still uplifting it—highlighted how faith can defy limits: She pondered how difficult it would have been for the founding fathers to imagine a female, Asian American rabbi celebrating Hanukkah with an African American president at the White House.

5. Rev. Amy Butler. Butler, senior minister of famed New York City institution The Riverside Church, made headlines in June when she was appointed the first female to hold the position. The church’s congregation has a history of vibrant political activism, and with Butler’s leadership and emphasis on dialogue and open communication, it will remain at the forefront of advocacy and social justice. Butler writes frankly and openly on her blog, Talk With the Preacher, and in regular columns for Baptist News Global. Prior to her installation at Riverside, she was senior minister of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., where she helped triple membership. Butler sees her new role as an opportunity to journey with a diverse and larger congregation; her goal is to “figure out how to make [diversity] into an asset and something that is compelling and [an] attractive expression of our community.”

6. Clergy in Ferguson. Religious leaders from a multitude of faith traditions were among the first to respond to needs of the Ferguson, Missouri, community following the death of Michael Brown. Since then, interfaith cries for justice in Ferguson and around the nation have increased. Clergy have called on fellow religious leaders to fight for equality for people of color, marched in solidarity with protestors, and hosted forums for dialogue and reconciliation. Revs. Starsky Wilson and Traci Blackmon are two pastors serving on the 16-person Ferguson Commission, a group tasked with evaluating the social and economic conditions that contributed to Brown’s death and proposing solutions to prevent future tragedies. What began in Ferguson is growing into a broader interfaith movement to end violence against communities of color: Arab and Jewish activist communities have led demonstrations to protest police brutality; Muslim advocates are calling for greater community involvement; Christian churches have provided healing alongside calls for engagement; and clergy have preached peace from the pulpit. Faith leaders are making abiding efforts to drive racial justice transformation in 2015.

7. Stosh Cotler. As CEO of Bend the Arc, a leading Jewish organization that advocates for workers’ economic opportunity and rights, Cotler has expanded her organization’s reach and impact and encouraged coordination among Jewish organizations. She spearheads the group’s efforts to fight for voting rights for all and has contributed to the national dialogue on voter marginalization, explaining how voting rights are consistent with Jewish values. She also testified before Congress on the importance of the Voting Rights Amendment Act. In 2004, Cotler launched the Selah Leadership Program, which has trained more than 300 religious and secular leaders to be agents of social change.

8. Archbishop Blase Joseph Cupich. Cupich is the archbishop of Chicago and Pope Francis’s first major appointee in the United States. He leads the third-largest and one of the most influential Catholic dioceses in the country. Not only is Chicago’s Catholic population huge and diverse, but the Archdiocese is also a major employer and service provider in the city and surrounding area. With 2.2 million worshipers, almost 8,000 employees, 207 elementary schools, 17 hospitals, and 160 Catholic Charities locations to oversee, Cupich faces major challenges as both pastor and manager. Although he said he will begin to tackle these challenges by “getting to know people,” Cupich—who some have called the American Pope Francis—will surely continue to work on issues he prioritized as bishop of Spokane, Washington: civility and kindness, immigration reform, and income inequality.

9. Rev. Alison Harrington. As head pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, Harrington is continuing the church’s legacy—through the New Sanctuary Movement—of providing a safe haven for immigrants threatened with deportation. Southside’s provision of sanctuary to one husband and father, Daniel Neyoy Ruiuz, made national news last year, and Harrington encouraged other faith communities to provide sanctuary to undocumented individuals and welcome them into their communities to help keep families together. Although the passage of comprehensive immigration reform remains uncertain, Harrington’s leadership stands as an important witness against indifference.

10. Pastor Ricky Lopez and Rev. Mitch Hescox. Lopez is the youth sectional leader for the San Gabriel Valley Assembly of God Churches and a member of Por la Creación Faith-based Alliance, and Hescox is the president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network. Together, they are making great strides in the fight for environmental justice. Lopez and the young people he has organized have made convincing appeals to the Obama administration about the importance of protecting the San Gabriel Mountains—which President Obama announced would be the nation’s newest national monument—and were credited with reminding people that Latinos can be a powerful force for issues beyond immigration reform. Hescox’s belief in the responsible stewardship of creation has led him to testify before Congress on the dangers of mercury exposure, publically challenge Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) to acknowledge the dangers of climate change, and rally evangelicals to become politically engaged on issues such as clean power. Lopez and Hescox are harnessing the energy of faith advocates in environmental activism to ensure that public policies reflect care for creation.

11. Rudy Lopez. Lopez is the incoming executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, or IWJ. A former senior organizer for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement with the Center for Community Change, Lopez has more than a decade of experience in grassroots organizing, leadership development, and education and outreach in disenfranchised communities. That, along with a commitment to comprehensive immigration reform, led him to join last year’s Fast for Families bus tour, as well as the board of NETWORK Education Program, the education arm of the national Catholic social justice lobby behind Nuns on the Bus. With increased visibility and strong connections in the faith-based advocacy community and grassroots networks, Lopez is the right person to build on IWJ’s successes organizing people of faith and raising the profile of labor issues such as increasing the minimum wage and preventing wage theft.

12. Minister Leslie Watson Malachi. As the director of African American Religious Affairs for People for the American Way, Malachi leads 1,700 faith leaders in an alliance of progressive African American ministers. Previously the director of the Multicultural Programs Department at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Malachi has advocated for reproductive justice for women of color and written extensively on issues such as gun violence, LGBT equality, racial justice, and money in politics. She understands that many of the most pressing challenges facing our nation exist at the intersection of race, faith, and inequality, and she has the skills and experience to work with African American faith leaders to drive lasting social transformation.

13. Rev. Dr. Madeline McClenney-Sadler. A Baptist preacher with years of experience working on criminal justice issues, McClenney-Sadler first envisioned mobilizing African American churches and communities to fight mass incarceration while she was completing her master of divinity degree at Howard University. In 1999, she founded to reduce the incarceration of at-risk African Americans and to address the diverse challenges that confront incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. The organization provides mentoring and scholarship programs in high-risk communities, as well as resources and support to address challenges that formerly incarcerated people face, such as barriers to employment. If predications prove true that criminal justice reform can lead to bipartisan achievement in the new Congress, experts such as McClenney-Sadler will be central to the conversation.

14. Rabbi David Saperstein. As the newly confirmed U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, Saperstein will work at the State Department to promote religious freedom and conscience around the world. Secretary of State John Kerry said Saperstein “represents the gold standard” in working to protect religious liberty: He was an instrumental leader in the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law protecting the free exercise of religion, and has been an influential faith voice on a range of domestic and global justice issues. He has also been a strong leader within the Reform Jewish Movement and, in an era of divisive politics, has earned high respect across partisan lines. As director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for the past 40 years, Saperstein has led advocacy work on fair judicial nominations, gun violence prevention, environmental protections, and more.

15. Sayyid M. Syeed. Syeed is the national director of the Office of Interfaith & Community Alliances for the Islamic Society of North America, the continent’s largest Muslim organization. Syeed’s leadership has been crucial to increasing public awareness and understanding of Islam and Muslim Americans. He has built strong coalitions with interfaith partners to advocate on a range of justice issues, such as ending torture and protecting religious minorities in Arab countries. A naturalized American citizen, Syeed gives a public face to his organization’s vision “to be an exemplary and unifying Islamic organization in North America that contributes to the betterment of the Muslim community and society at large.” Syeed’s visibility, especially his work on interfaith dialogue and multifaith movements for peace, is needed now more than ever to safeguard religious liberty, tolerance, and acceptance for all Americans.

Looking ahead

The work of these faith leaders reflects the diversity and power of America’s faith-based justice movements. They stand with millions of people of faith and conscience who live out their beliefs every day to make our nation and world more merciful and just. We commend them and look forward to their invaluable efforts in the coming year.

Claire Markham is the Outreach Manager for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Lauren Kokum is the Special Assistant for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center.

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.


 (Claire Markham)

Claire Markham

Associate Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

Lauren Kokum


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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.


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