Center for American Progress

RELEASE: CAP Names 16 Faith Leaders to Watch in 2016
Press Release

RELEASE: CAP Names 16 Faith Leaders to Watch in 2016

Washington, D.C. — The convergence of social justice movements and the upcoming 2016 elections has put an intense spotlight on injustice. As religious leaders and faith-based activists organize, educate, and advocate at the local, state, and federal levels on a range of justice issues—including racial justice, LGBT and women’s equality, climate change, income inequality, religious freedom, and more—this has placed growing pressure on politicians to address such issues. At the same time—and as America becomes increasingly diverse—faith leaders and communities are also becoming more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Today, the Center for American Progress named 16 faith leaders and groups who are working to heal the planet, welcome newcomers, overcome hate with love, and bring those who have been pushed to the margins back to the center of society.

“Pressing justice issues such as economic inequality, immigration and criminal justice reform, and equality for women and LGBT people are at the fore of the national dialogue,” said Claire Markham, the Outreach and Campaign Manager for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. “More than ever, we need the moral authority, prophetic vision, and organizing power of these progressive leaders of faith to ensure a more just nation for all.”

Here are 16 leaders and groups to watch in 2016:

  1. Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner and #WhatHappenedToSandraBland activists (Chicago, IL; Waller, TX): Rev. Bonner, an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, has been holding peaceful protests almost every day since the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was pulled over by police for failing to signal a lane change and, days later, died under disputed circumstances in a Waller County, Texas, jail cell. With a civil trial date set for January 2017, the efforts of Rev. Bonner and other people of faith will keep the world from forgetting that #SandyStillSpeaks, while they continue seeking a more just criminal justice system for all.
  2. Jacob Feinspan (Washington, D.C.): As the executive director of Jews United for Justice, or JUFJ, Feinspan relies on his Jewish values to organize for a pressing and timely issue: paid family leave, which he has made a priority for his organization. Focusing on local change as a catalyst for justice, he is setting an example for other organizational leaders by not only advocating for paid leave legislation, but also by implementing more just workplace policies at JUFJ.
  3. Faith groups embracing refugees: After last November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, governors of at least 31 states threatened to refuse Syrian refugees entry into their states despite having no legal authority to do so. Leaders from many faith traditions wrote public letters of support for refugees that called for compassion and hospitality. Their statements described ways the public could support refugee resettlement and provided a vivid reminder that welcoming those displaced by famine, war, and other injustices—without a religious test for entry—is a core part of the American spirit and character.
  4. Candace Simpson (New York City, NY): Simpson is a seminary student at Union Theological Seminary, where her robust social media presence and unapologetic pursuit of justice and joy—especially for women of color—is emblematic of many young, emerging faith leaders. Simpson writes for the black women’s blogging collective For Harriet, where she vividly analyzes institutionalized privilege and power and calls for women of color to be valued for their inherent dignity.
  5. Arjun Singh Sethi (Washington, D.C.): Sethi serves as the director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition—an organization that defends Sikh civil rights—and an adjunct professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center. As an attorney, he has represented victims of domestic violence, asylum seekers, national security detainees, and criminal defendants on death row. In debates on national security, he has called out actions that stigmatize innocent groups, fan the flames of Islamophobia, and harm Muslim, Arab, and Sikh Americans.
  6. Green the Church (Chicago, IL; Washington, D.C.): Green the Church, a project by the eco-justice organization Green for All, was launched in early 2015 after some of the nation’s most prominent clergy issued a call to action for African American churches to help combat climate change. Operating alongside the U.S. Green Building Council, the initiative aims to mobilize 1,000 African American churches to advance the message of “ecology theology”—namely, that Christians have a biblical mandate to protect God’s creation. The effects of climate change—such as devastating superstorms, unrelenting heat waves, and chronic urban pollution—disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income individuals.
  7. Yavilah McCoy (Boston, MA): As an African American Orthodox Jew, McCoy stands at the intersection of two marginalized communities and works for full recognition of the dignity of both. She is a trusted voice on diversity, dialogue, and the critical partnership between Black Lives Matter and Jewish activism, representing the increasing importance of intersectionality in social justice work.
  8. Minister Asher Kolieboi (Washington, D.C.): Kolieboi serves as the assistant university chaplain at Johns Hopkins University Campus Ministries, where he works with a diverse community of students to stimulate interfaith dialogue on intersecting justice issues. Kolieboi also co-founded Legalize Trans*, a campaign that sheds light on the lack of legal resources for transgender and gender nonconforming people. In 2010, he co-organized the Soulforce Equality Ride, a two-month bus tour of young adults visiting Christian campuses to have conversations about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, identities and faith.
  9. Imam Suhaib Webb (Washington, D.C.): A Muslim convert and American imam, Imam Webb works to strengthen interreligious understanding and combat anti-Muslim bigotry through new and innovative efforts. As the former imam of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, Webb forged connections with Boston’s Jewish and Christian leaders following the Boston Marathon bombing. He is also the founder of the Ella Collins Institute of Islamic and Cultural Studies, where he trains American imams and Muslim women scholars in Islamic curriculum within a contemporary American context.
  10. LEAD Ministry at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church (Baltimore, MD): St. Matthew’s LEAD—LGBT Educating and Affirming Diversity—Ministry is working to uphold Catholic Church teachings and create a welcoming space for all people in the Catholic Church. By answering Pope Francis’ call to encounter those who have been marginalized and by echoing his question “Who am I to judge?”, LEAD is providing a safe space to ask questions, get support, and show a faith that is loving and accepting of LGBT individuals, their families, and loved ones.
  11. The New Baptist Covenant (Washington, D.C.): The New Baptist Covenant was born to help heal a number of divisions within the Baptist denomination: racial, geographical, theological, generational, and more. The alliance of more than 30 Baptist organizations has already turned this inspiration for unity into action—they have tackled predatory lending, assistance for formerly incarcerated family members, food inequality, and literary skills training for disenfranchised communities.
  12. Rev. Darcy Roake (New Orleans, LA): An ordained Unitarian Universalist, or UU, minister, Rev. Roake is raising a moral voice for women’s reproductive health and rights. Along with many other religious leaders, she is helping lead an effort to ensure that an embattled New Orleans Planned Parenthood clinic is built and open to serve women. Last year, she lobbied against restrictive reproductive health bills at the Louisiana State Capitol; trained ministers throughout the South to provide pastoral care for reproductive loss; and worked with UU congregations to develop strategies that promote positive storytelling about reproductive decision-making.
  13. Rev. Rodney McKenzie Jr. (Washington, D.C.): Rev. McKenzie is the director of the Academy for Leadership and Action at the National LGBTQ Task Force. As a pastor, advocate, and an out person of faith, Rev. McKenzie’s leadership at a major LGBT justice organization signals the importance of religion in all justice work. Recognizing that many LGBT people have been excluded and harmed in the name of religion, Rev. McKenzie is reclaiming faith as a tool of liberation for all.
  14. Progressive clergy in Michigan: An important network of religious scholars and leaders in Michigan is refuting conservative attempts to use misleading rhetoric to enshrine discrimination into law. They are battling a range of state legislative efforts that would strip adoption rights from LGBT parents; deny public goods and services to women, LGBT individuals, and other marginalized populations; and instruct officials to “ignore” the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, all in the name of religious liberty.
  15. Alex Patchin McNeill (Minnetonka, MN): McNeill is the first openly transgender person at the helm of a mainline Protestant institution, bringing years of experience as an educator and advocate for LGBT Christians to the helm of More Light Presbyterians, or MLP—an organization working for full inclusion for LGBT people in the Presbyterian Church and society at large. With the help of McNeill, MLP, and others, the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved marriage equality in the denomination in June 2015. MLP also organized Presbyterian individuals and congregations in key states—such as Texas, Ohio, and North Carolina—to combat anti-LGBT legislation.
  16. Rev. Waltrina Middleton (Charleston, SC; Cleveland, OH): An ordained minister and associate for national youth event programming in the United Church of Christ, or UCC, Rev. Middleton is a spirited mobilizer for youth-led movements to combat racial injustice. Rev. Middleton’s efforts are unequivocally personal—she is the cousin of Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, one of the nine victims in last year’s massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Read the column: 16 Faith Leaders to Watch in 2016 by Claire Markham and Lauren Kokum

For more information or to speak to an expert, contact Chelsea Kiene at [email protected] or 202.478.5328.


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