‘We’re not the “nice” faith people!’: Faith leaders are battling white supremacy, Trump

Conference attendees sing hymns as part of the Prophetic Resistance Summit. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA — Bishop Dwayne Royster wasn’t even halfway through his speech, but members of the crowd were already on their feet. With one hand doggedly clutching the wooden pulpit at the front of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, he suddenly threw his other arm in the air as he kicked his message into high gear, working the impromptu congregation into a spiritual frenzy—and a political one.

“We’re not the ‘nice’ faith people!” he bellowed, sparking shouts of agreement as he slid into a sermon cadence. “We’re not just going to show up to a vigil and be glad [a politician] invited us! We have some demands, we are the prophets of the people, and we have something to say!”

Royster, a cheery United Church of Christ pastor with an easy smile, is actually perfectly nice in person. So, too, were the more than 350 faith leaders from across the country who packed the pews that chilly night. They were gathered in late October as part of a three-day Prophetic Resistance Summit convened by the People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO) Network, a massive, nationwide web of interfaith coalitions that regularly campaign to change local, state, and national laws in ways that benefit underserved communities.

“We’re not the ‘nice’ faith people! … We have some demands, we are the prophets of the people, and we have something to say!”

But for many in the crowd, being a person of faith means there are some things they refuse to be “nice” about. White supremacy, voter suppression, and the unjust treatment of Muslims, Jews, and immigrants are just a few of them. And unlike figureheads of the conservative Religious Right who often grab headlines for vociferously defending Donald Trump, this group had little (if anything) “nice” to say about the president or his administration.

“Since January 20th, we have experience pain that a lot of us haven’t experienced in a very long time,“ Royster, who serves as a PICO’s political director, said. He went on to insist the key to bettering things is to “step up and do what our faith calls us to do” and change the way “we govern our cities and our states—and take back the federal government!”

Just in case his point wasn’t clear, Royster stood above a banner that made the theme of the gathering explicit: “Moral vision, political muscle.”

It’s a remarkable—but rarely discussed—message at the core of a resurgent religious “resistance” movement that is already proving to be a thorn in the Trump administration’s side, itself a powerful subset of the broader resistance movement. It’s also one that conservative leaders have spent years either dismissing as inert or simply ignoring altogether, fortifying their monopoly on “faith” by taking up as much media oxygen as possible. But if PICO’s electric conference is in any indication, the right may not have that luxury for long: conversations with attendees at the summit offered an unusual glimpse into a left-leaning, highly trained, faith-based organizing machine that already undermines Trump, Republicans, and even some Democrats almost every day.

For them, “resistance” isn’t just a political slogan. It’s a spiritual edict.

LIVE FREE Director Rev. Michael McBride addresses attendees at PICO's Prophetic Resistance Summit. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins, ThinkProgress)

A spiritual approach to political change

The specter of Trump and his supporters loomed large at the Prophetic Resistance Summit. Many invoked him by name, but mentions of the Commander in Chief sometimes took on a Voldemortian quality: when one speaker made an offhand reference to “81 percent of white evangelicals” during a speech, the crowd gathered at the sprawling J.W. Marriott hotel nodded and groaned with frustration. They didn’t need an explanation to remember that 80 to 81 percent of white evangelical Protestants backed Trump on Election Day in 2016, despite the former business mogul’s well-documented history of moral failings.

In fact, the Prophetic Resistance Summit often felt like the theological, political, and strategic opposite of conservative—and largely evangelical Christian—gatherings such as the Values Voters Summit in Washington, D.C., where Donald Trump spoke two weeks ago.

Instead of featuring evangelical-style praise and worship bands, for instance, an art-centered faith community called The Sanctuaries invited PICO’s conference attendees to gather around each morning at the hotel’s conference room to clap and dance to the rhythms of a djembe drum. And unlike the often heavily white evangelical sessions of the Values Voters Summit, the seats in Indiana were overwhelmingly filled with people of color—especially black and Hispanic leaders—representing a myriad of faiths such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Native American traditions.

PICO Director of Clergy Organizing Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)

Both summits were also unabashedly political. PICO’s leaders described theirs as a “strategy session” for faith leaders ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, and while attendees brandished collars and yarmulkes and hijabs and tribal adornments, many were also draped in symbols of an explicitly progressive political outlook—T-shirts and buttons emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter,” images of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling, or feminist slogans. Even the conference pamphlet was political, dedicating several pages to polling data and a document listing the faith affiliation of every single member of Congress.

Still, attendees often didn’t fall neatly into America’s aggressively binary two-party system. Many recoiled when ThinkProgress mentioned the Democratic Party or labels such as the Religious Left, a broader term that encompasses a slew of progressive religious leaders and groups. Michael-Ray Mathews, PICO’s director of clergy organizing, suggested this is partly because their coalitions sometimes involve leaders who would identify as theologically or even politically conservative. More importantly, however, he argued neither conservatives nor liberals have adequately engaged on an issue seen as paramount among the clergy he serves: race.

“When the frames of right-left, Democrat-Republican come up, I’m really clear that we can’t afford to be either one of those things things,” he said, noting that a conference was the first convening of its kind in six years. “Too many on the so-called progressive and Democratic side have been too afraid to talk about race, and we’re very clear that race has to be at the center…The reality is the left is still pretty white run—it’s like, ‘which white people do you want to run things, the conservative or liberal ones?’”

“The reality is the left is still pretty white run—it’s like, ‘which white people do you want to run things, the conservative or liberal ones?’”

This may explain why the program centered around practical organizing strategies instead of disputes over “messaging” that often plague Religious Left gatherings, and why so many pivoted to other topics when asked about political descriptors.

To demonstrate the organization’s reach, attendees would rattle off a list of PICO’s various interfaith networks encompassing thousands of congregations, which PICO officials said amount to 45 faith-based organizations–working in 150 cities and towns in 22 states. They operate under names such as “Faith in Action Alabama” or acronym-heavy monikers POWER (Philadelphia), ISAIAH (Minnesota), or IndyCAN (Indianapolis). Others pointed to the power of a “theology of resistance,” in which lifting up the oppressed is a major focus of religious life. Still others focused on the localized approach of their work, which utilizes old-school congregation-based community organizing techniques to push for change in cities and towns instead of obsessing over national-level disputes. For example, the reason attendees left the hotel to gather in the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church was to witness an IndyCAN “youth action” that included pressuring a local police chief to assist with a campaign to end gun violence, among other issues.

Clergy hailing from several faiths gather. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)

The secret to understanding this sprawling organization is to accept that it is all of those things at once—and that’s precisely what makes it powerful. During the 2016 election, for instance, PICO officials claimed its networks engaged in around 840,000 “conversations” over the phone, in doorways, or between church members, all aimed toward upping voter turnout.

In fact, eschewing tidy ideological attachments did little to dilute the gathering’s political fervor, which attendees say is significantly more intense than in years past. During one session, Andrea Marta, director of PICO’s 501(c)4 wing (a classification in the tax code assigned to non-profit organizations that are legally allowed to engage in explicit political advocacy), delivered a presentation detailing a grander vision for impacting electoral politics. After walking though a slide show recounting how GOP lawmakers created restrictive voter ID laws and redrew congressional districts in Alabama, she explained how PICO helped flip a local election in Hillsborough county, Florida, using grassroots organizing efforts to unseat a 16-year incumbent county prosecutor and replace him with a progressive reformist candidate.

“Who does that new prosecutor have to be accountable to now?” she asked the crowd, rhetorically.

“To the people!” they shouted back.

“That’s right, to the people—to the faith community,” she said, before moving on to a discussion of how their coalitions can impact the 2018 midterms and the 2020 primary season.

Rev. Michael McBride talks to activists Linda Sarsour, Rosa Clemente, Bree Newsome, Rev. Jin S. Kim, and Rev. Osagyefo Sekou during a panel at the Prophetic Resistance Summit. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)

Becoming “prophets of the resistance”

In the place of partisan attachments, faith leaders at the conference often articulated their politics by citing the religious community’s unsung (but deeply influential) involvement in the 2017 “resistance” movement.

Granted, most of the time they were talking about resisting Trump or the Republican party’s agenda. The keynote speakers weren’t slick political operatives, but clergy made famous for their involvement in protests. Rabbi Sharon Brous opened the conference with a fiery sermonette that referenced how she was recently arrested in Washington, D.C. while protesting the proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Rev. Traci Blackmon—a pastor and organizer in Ferguson, Missouri who was also a very public participant in ACA protests—closed out the session two days later.

Both were treated like rock stars for their advocacy: they often found themselves swarmed with giddy fans whenever they weren’t onstage, posing for selfies as they swapped tales of demonstrations past.

“A lot of people see me and think that I am an anomaly, and they think that I’m progressive in spite of my religion … I am all of those things because my religion is rooted in anti-racism, rooted in progressivism, rooted in women’s equality, and rooted in social justice.”

Meanwhile, the conference’s many panels boasted big-name progressive organizers whose activism is often touted by secular liberals as central to anti-Trump “resistance” efforts (or movements that claim the president as inspiration). The list included Linda Sarsour, one of the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington; Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, a faith advocate who was among the clergy who stared down white supremacists in Charlottesville; and Bree Newsome, the activist who recited scripture and invoked God as she tore down the Confederate flag in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.

And unlike more secular-oriented “resistance” gatherings, almost all took time to explain how their faith informs their advocacy.

Linda Sarsour speaks with attendees after her panel. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)

“A lot of people see me and think that I am an anomaly, and they think that I’m progressive in spite of my religion, that I’m doing social justice work and on the front lines despite the religion that I follow, that I’m anti-racist despite Islam,” Sarsour, a Muslim, said. “I am all of those things because my religion is rooted in anti-racism, rooted in progressivism, rooted in women’s equality, and rooted in social justice.”

Sekou and Newsome echoed the value of faith. Newsome described the murder of nine black worshippers by white supremacist Dylann Roof inside a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015 as “a spiritual evil” that merited a response from people who are “walking in faith,” and Sekou noted the religious reaction to Ferguson protests was often lacking.

“If you tell me what you think about Ferguson I can tell you what you think about Jesus,” Sekou said. “Jesus looked a lot more like Michael Brown than Donald Trump.”

The program also included a myriad of lesser known speakers, panelists, and attendees eager to catalog lived examples of everyday “prophetic resistance.” Several spoke of offering up sanctuary in their houses of worship to undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation, and others said they were already coordinating efforts to shelter them in people’s homes. Reza Nekumanesh, executive director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, talked about why he forged a coalition with Latinos and Muslims in opposition to “bans, registries, and walls.”

“If you tell me what you think about Ferguson I can tell you what you think about Jesus. Jesus looked a lot more like Michael Brown than Donald Trump.”

Many said they combat creeping white nationalism in their own communities. Rev. Lorraine Harris, a priest in the Diocese of New Jersey and attendee at the conference, told ThinkProgress how she and others participated in demonstrations in defense of Lutheran pastor who was threatened by a white nationalist after his church erected a sign in the aftermath of Charlottesville reading “Resist white supremacy.”

“In my community, I have been a part of some of the protests against neo-Nazi attacks on some of our fellow clergy,” she said. “We definitely got out and demonstrated against that [white supremacist] movement.”

Over time, an unspoken subtext emerged: when people across the country show up to demonstrate against Trump, his policies, or his supporters at any one of the near-constant string of marches and protests, it’s often at the behest of faith-based organizing groups, many of which are affiliated with PICO or Religious Left organizations. When Royster asked the gaggle of clergy who among them rushed to airports to protest the Muslim ban, protested to preserve the Affordable Care Act, or pushed lawmakers to make their home a sanctuary city, roughly half the room raised their hand each time.

“When we have organizing power, we can prevent some things from happening,” he said. “You have power. We’re not victims…We serve a powerful, divine creator—so how about we act like it?”

Rev. Traci Blackmon address the Prophetic Resistance Summit. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)

Prophetic resistance predates (and will outlast) Trump

Even with all the Trump-talk, it would be inaccurate the characterize the 2016 election as the genesis of the “prophetic resistance” movement. Several attendees insisted the campaigns they organize pre-date the Trump era by years, if not decades.

“The struggle didn’t begin with number 45,” Reza Nekumanesh said during panel, referencing Trump’s status as the 45th president of the United States. “Our previous president deported more people than any president in history. He launched more missiles in two years than Bush did in eight. Ferguson didn’t happen under Trump. Eric Garner wasn’t killed under Trump.”

Most attendees pointed to August 2014—not November 2016—as the catalyst for their renewed advocacy. That’s when protests and riots broke out in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri after police shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown—an event many said altered their political consciousness. It was then that PICO officials began lifting up the term “resistance”—long before it became a staple of 2017 political parlance—and created a Prophetic Resistance Podcast.

“Many of us saw the dragon of white supremacy and empire [in Ferguson] in ways we had never seen before, and we realized we needed to draw on something much deeper to be able to face that dragon,” Mathews told ThinkProgress in an interview. “It begged this question: are we chaplains to the empire or prophets to the resistance?”

Attendees hold hands as a show of solidarity. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)

That provocative question—“are you a chaplain of the empire or a prophet of the resistance?”—became a mantra throughout the conference, with faith leaders using it as a spiritual compass to guide their work. It taps into longstanding theological understandings of empire, with many Christian clergy drawing parallels between Jesus Christ’s implicit struggle against the Roman Empire (he was crucified at the hands of Roman soldiers) and their own struggles against systems of oppression in the United Sates.

Using the illustration of the biblical burning bush that God used to reach out to Moses, Rev. Traci Blackmon likened them to signal fires in her keynote.

“Bushes were burning in Ferguson long before Michael Brown was killed,” Blackmon said, before listing incidents of police shootings and other issues. “Bushes were burning in Baltimore before Freddie Gray died! Bushes were burning in Florida before Treyvon Martin! Bushes were burning in New York before Eric Garner was killed on the street corner! Bushes were burning…in Flint [Michigan] before the water was contaminated, in Charlottesville before the white supremacists marched, in Palestine before the wall! Bushes were burning in the U.S. before Donald Trump became president!”

Responding to injustice with action or resistance, she said, is a holy calling.

“Just as God prepared Moses, God has prepared us,” she said. “God is at the border! God is with the DREAMers…God is with our LGBTQ family…And whether you call us Black Lives Matter, or the movement for Black lives, or protesters, or Black identity extremists, the fact is God is with us!”

Bishop Dwayne Royster preaches to attendees of the Prophetic Resistance Summit. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)

The price of prophecy

For all their vigor, PICO’s affiliates are realistic about the challenges they face. Some pastors of color who oversee majority-white evangelical churches spoke of hemorrhaging members after they engaged issues of race. White clergy also told stories of being pushed out of pulpits for taking bold stances, and others openly admitted their attendance numbers declined after they called out white supremacy.

This tracks with an unusual surge in pushback from conservative clergy and the right-wing against Religious Left leaders such as Linda Sarsour and “Moral Mondays” organizer Rev. William Barber II, among others. The shift is notable, as conservatives have long ignored progressive faith activists. But their new push to discredit them could influence the views of more conservative churchgoers. Meanwhile, leaders of largely black congregations quietly acknowledged that while solidarity between different marginalized groups has rapidly become the norm under Trump, they still sometimes run into tensions among worshippers about which group or issue should be prioritized.

And even if Trump is somehow removed from office or fails to win reelection, clergy said their struggle will largely continue unabated.

“Let me be perfectly clear for you: The Democrats and Republicans have jammed our people up,” Royster said in a speech. “Donald Trump did not win on November 8. White supremacy and institutional racism won on November 8…We are spending so much time focusing on Donald Trump. We are battling something that is bigger than Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan.”

“When we were trying to make the world great again we hung our Lord on a cross…But he got back up 3 days later!”

Given such obstacles, it would be easy for this diverse band of organizers to wallow in dismay. But as Royster pointed out in his speech at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, many people of faith don’t see despair as an option: their creator calls them to action and revival in the face of what they see as evil.

“When we were trying to make the world great again we hung our Lord on a cross,” he said, referencing his own Christian faith. The line prompted a somber murmur of agreement before the crowd quieted. He let the silence hang in the air for a tense beat, then shouted: “But he got back up 3 days later!”

Whatever he said next was impossible to parse, his voice drowned out by a deafening, defiant roar as “prophets of the resistance”—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or otherwise—lifted their voices and hands to clap and shout “amen!”