12 Faith Leaders to Watch in 2017

The Rev. Michael Curry gives a hug before a march and rally against gun violence, on June 28, 2015.

The 2016 elections drew immense attention to religious identities and values. The news reported on a flood of hateful rhetoric about immigrants, women, people with disabilities, people of color, and religious minorities. Muslim Americans experienced the highest levels of hate crimes since the period immediately following 9/11. And state legislatures across the country introduced and passed an onslaught of anti-LGBT and anti-choice legislation.

People of faith did not stand idly by. They are activists, advocates, educators, and organizers working tirelessly as forces for social change across many issues areas, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, rights; reproductive justice; racial justice; religious liberty; economic justice; and education. The country will need them more than ever this year.

As a new presidential administration and congressional and state legislative sessions begin, faith leaders can fill the critical dual roles of holding political leaders accountable to communities and witnessing to the shared vision of a more just nation and world. Both individually and collectively, people of faith, their voices, and their actions will be integral to fighting back against injustice and ensuring that all people are treated with dignity and equity. Here are 12 leaders and groups to watch in 2017.

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is the founder and editor-in-chief of MuslimGirl, a news and lifestyle website that shatters misconceptions surrounding Islam in today’s society. Tired of being bullied, Al-Khatahtbeh founded MuslimGirl at age 17 to connect with other young Muslim women with similar experiences growing up in a post-9/11 era. Al-Khatahtbeh is now 24, and MuslimGirl is thriving with content for Muslim girls and their allies on issues such as anti-Muslim bigotry, the 2016 presidential election, and wearing hijabs. The site also reclaims the narrative of Muslim women by raising awareness about the Quran’s message of gender equality and Islam’s principle of peace. Al-Khatahtbeh and MuslimGirl ambassadors have been featured in many mainstream media outlets, allowing them to share their stories and educate an even wider audience. Last year, Al-Khatahtbeh authored a memoir about coming of age in the United States’ current political climate. Her ability to reach young people and spread awareness and messages of acceptance is crucial at a time when anti-Muslim bigotry is so prevalent in the news and even has the support of some elected officials.

Rev. John C. Dorhauer

The Rev. John C. Dorhauer currently serves as the general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, or UCC. Dorhauer embodies his vision of justice for all by dedicating his time to a variety of additional causes, including LGBT rights, religious liberty, and environmental justice. For example, in 2014, he officiated the first legal same-sex marriage in Arizona and signed onto a letter from more than 100 faith leaders opposing religious exemptions for LGBT nondiscrimination protections in hiring. His writing demonstrates his deep understanding of progressive religious liberty and concern that the religious right has co-opted the phrase to infringe upon people’s civil rights.

Dorhauer is very passionate about racial justice and has prioritized the UCC’s work on this issue. He frequently writes articles on criminal justice and white privilege, and he initiated the creation of “White Privilege: Let’s Talk,” an adult education curriculum and subsequent webinar series released by the UCC last year. These resources have engaged thousands of UCC members in meaningful and bold conversations on race and faith, and they can be a model for helping other faith communities make meaningful change for racial justice when such leadership from the faith community is desperately needed.

April Baskin

April Baskin is the vice president of Audacious Hospitality for the Union for Reform Judaism, an initiative focused on fostering Jewish communities that are open and inclusive and that embrace diversity. She believes that by welcoming groups that have traditionally felt marginalized from mainstream Judaism—including interfaith families, LGBT Jews, Jews with disabilities, unaffiliated Jews, and Jews of color, such as Baskin herself—the Jewish community will be much stronger. In partnership with other Jewish organizations, Baskin’s Audacious Hospitality department recently ran a six-month-long webinar series for congregations to advance their transgender inclusion efforts. It also offers a Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center for Reform Jewish professionals looking to make possible full participation of people with disabilities in congregational and communal life. In 2017, particularly when inclusion faces additional hurdles in legislation and the new Congress and administration, resources such as these will be vital to faith communities who wish to embrace inclusivity.

Rev. Michael Curry

The Rev. Michael Curry became presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in 2015. He is the first African American to head the mainline Protestant denomination. “We’re a tradition that has historically been able to live with differences,” Curry said six months into his leadership role. “And I think now we’re seeing [how to] live that out in some new ways … to be a church that really can embrace [diversity], not only theological traditions or liturgical and worship styles and approaches, but people of all stripes and types.”

Embracing diversity has led Curry to approach justice intersectionally. Despite strong objections from other bishops in the global church community, for example, he maintains support for the Episcopal Church’s recent decision to bless same-sex marriages. He challenged those with reservations to consider the exclusion of LGBT people as analogous to racism. Also, he traveled to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to stand in solidarity with protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Positing “Standing Rock may be the new Selma,” Curry visited the protesters to preach about the infinite value of all people and of creation. He advanced what will be a core argument for people of faith in uncertain political times: All struggles for justice are related.

North Carolina clergy advocating for transgender rights

Last March, the North Carolina legislature targeted the LGBT community with the passage of H.B. 2, a law that rescinded Charlotte and other cities’ LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances; banned future protections from being passed; and barred transgender people from using restrooms in accordance with their gender identity. Hundreds of the state’s clergy members joined businesses, celebrities, and the general public in opposing H.B. 2. The interfaith Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice pledged to do whatever it could to help overturn the law, including financially supporting a lawsuit challenging it and organizing an anti-H.B. 2 rally.

Additional clergy members across the state preached that everyone is a child of God and deserving of rights, respect, and equality at rallies and press conferences. They joined protests, staged sit-ins, and wrote public statements and letters to former Gov. Pat McCrory (R), expressing their dismay with the bill and urging the state legislature to overturn it immediately. The actions of progressive clergy in North Carolina are a contrast to those of the religious right who seek to advance a conservative Christian social vision at the exclusion of transgender people, while the controversy over repealing H.B. 2 continues. Despite the backlash in North Carolina, a growing number of states are already considering similar legislation for 2017. Clergy across the country should look toward their peers in the Tar Heel State as a model for effective, perseverant advocacy.

Rev. Susan Chorley

The Rev. Susan Chorley is an ordained American Baptist minister and associate director and minister of programs at the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry. She is a co-founder and board member of Exhale, a national pro-voice talkline for people who have had experiences with abortion. Last year, she garnered attention for breaking a 12-year silence to share her experience as a minister, mother, and woman who had an abortion. Now she has taken her story on the road in the Pro-Voice Tour, speaking about her experience as a woman of faith and a mother who made the decision to seek abortion care. Sharing her story from the pulpit at churches across the country, Chorley models the transformative power of storytelling and listening to create more supportive, respectful faith communities and reduce hostility toward women who have had abortions—many of whom are themselves religious. While the issue of abortion continues to be deeply divisive, she preaches about leaving shame at the door of houses of worship and calls on faith communities to help women who have had abortions find belonging and acceptance.

Sapreet Kaur

Since starting as the Sikh Coalition’s executive director in 2009, Sapreet Kaur has transformed the organization into a large and visible civil rights organization that provides legal defense and advocates on issues of hate crimes, racial and religious profiling, safe schools, employment discrimination, and religious liberty. Shedding a light on the lesser-recognized faith, in 2013, Kaur was the first Sikh to speak at a Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service. In 2016, Kaur and her team launched the groundbreaking Sikh Project, a collection of photographs of diverse Sikh Americans that complicates the narrative and sparks conversation about what it means to be American.

In all of her work, Kaur prioritizes building bridges within the interfaith community, ensuring that the Sikh Coalition’s advocacy work supports not only Sikh civil rights but also the rights of all people. Going forward, Kaur is committed to pushing back on attacks on religious minorities and lesser-known communities and taking a stand against fear mongering and discrimination.

Rev. Cedric Harmon

The Rev. Cedric Harmon is an ordained Baptist minister and the executive director of Many Voices: A Black Church Movement for Gay & Transgender Justice, an organization that envisions a community that embraces the diversity of the human family and ensures that all are treated with love, compassion, and justice. Harmon engages black religious leaders and other people of faith at the intersection of religion, faith, human sexuality, and gender. Many Voices makes clear the connection between justice for LGBT people and the traditions of black churches. Further, it creates safe spaces for LGBT families to understand black churches’ historic commitment to liberation, freedom, and justice. Harmon travels around the country providing trainings, presentations, and opportunities for action propelled by biblical themes and values. Through captivating articles and videos such as “My God Too: Black LGBTQ Students Speak Out,” Harmon and Many Voices are prophetically touching the hearts and minds of people and combating injustices with faith and intersectionality.

Rev. Allyson Robinson

The Rev. Allyson Robinson is the first openly transgender Baptist minister. After transitioning, her ordination was reaffirmed by Washington D.C.’s Calvary Baptist Church in 2014. Robinson has dedicated her life’s work to promoting LGBT civil rights, diversity, and inclusion because she recognizes that not everyone who identifies as LGBT is as fortunate as she was to find support through their church. She is currently a consultant, advising organizations on unconscious bias, social change, cultural competency, diversity, and inclusion. Prior to this, Robinson was the executive director of OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy organization that works on behalf of service members, veterans, and their families to build a culture of inclusion in the U.S. departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. Robinson continues to be a much-needed voice for LGBT inclusion in the church through her writing and speaking engagements, recently stating “The future rests upon our ability—and by ‘our’ I mean LGBT affirming Christian people—to continue to hold the institution accountable while finding new ways to cross the divide.”

Pastors for Texas Children

Pastors for Texas Children is a network of about 2,000 church leaders across the state that advocates for quality public education. Working with state lawmakers and mobilizing individual churches, the coalition supports public schools and opposes school vouchers, which use taxpayer dollars to fund private and often religious education. The organization cherishes religious liberty and believes that a high-quality education is a gift from God for all people; consequently, it also believes that no overt religious instruction or activity should be advanced or established with tax dollars.

Pastors for Texas Children has met with more than 100 state elected officials and published dozens of anti-school voucher editorials in newspapers across the state. Furthermore, the Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, the executive director, recently testified before the Texas House Education Committee against school vouchers. The organization’s mission will be increasingly important in the upcoming year if Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. secretary of education, brings her staunch support for school vouchers to the Department of Education. Recognizing the urgency of its cause, Pastors for Texas Children is currently making plans to expand into other states.

Suhag Shukla and the Hindu American Foundation

Suhag Shukla, co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, or HAF, currently serves as its executive director and legal counsel. An advocacy organization for the Hindu American community, the foundation educates the public about Hinduism; speaks out about issues affecting Hindus worldwide; and works with intrafaith and interfaith organizations to advance its mission of religious liberty. Shukla has positioned HAF as a strong voice in the national debate about the separation of church and state, consistently speaking out about issues of Hinduphobia and the rights of religious minorities. Prioritizing legal advocacy, HAF regularly weighs in on cases related to religious discrimination and accommodations. Educating the Hindu American community on their rights regarding religious liberty is a core part of this work.

HAF participates in the White House Initiative on Asian American Pacific Islanders Act to Change platform to combat bullying; it recently published “Classroom Subjected: Bullying and Bias Against Hindu Students in American Schools.” The report examines Hindu American students’ experiences with bullying in schools and offers recommendations to address this bias. Shukla embodies true religious liberty, ensuring that plurality and the rights of religious minorities are at the heart of religious freedom advocacy.

Tamar Manasseh

Tamar Manasseh founded Mothers Against Senseless Killings, or MASK, in 2015 to protect children in her Chicago neighborhood from gun violence during the summer months. A mother of two and a rabbinical student at a local seminary, Manasseh was alarmed into action after a mother in her neighborhood was shot and killed trying to break up a fight. With Chicago’s startlingly high rate of gun violence, she feared that, one day, her own kids would become victims.

MASK has an army of dedicated mothers who sit, barbeque, talk, and play games with children outside on a street corner in one of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Their presence, marked by bright pink shirts, keeps children safe at a time when few organized programs and activities are available. In fact, there have been only two shootings near MASK’s post since the organization began, both of which occurred late at night after moms were not present. Although MASK is not an exclusively Jewish or faith-based organization, it is infused with Jewish themes and language. For example, the group planted trees around Chicago in memory of gun violence victims in conjunction with Tu Bishvat, or Jewish arbor day. MASK sheds an important light on community-based solutions to gun violence and centers the experience of communities of color, which are often not recognized in gun violence narratives as victims. MASK’s success in Chicago has inspired offshoot chapters in New York state and Indiana.

Looking ahead

In seeking more justice for all marginalized communities, the work of faith leaders and advocates is increasingly intersectional, multifaith, and cross-disciplinary. These featured leaders represent the best of faith traditions: optimism that the future can and will be more just and strength and perseverance to fight to make it so. Their leadership is desperately needed, and CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative looks forward to the inspiration their work will provide in the coming year.

Tracy Wolf is the Research Assistant for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Claire Markham is the Associate Director for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center.