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Tennessee Rep. Justin J. Pearson joins the tradition of prophetic Black faith leaders

After being expelled from the Tennessee House of Representatives for engaging in protest for gun reform, Rep. Justin J. Pearson demonstrated that his work is not just on behalf of the people or even just with the people; his work is Black faith embodied.

The Sunday following his expulsion, Pearson preached an Easter sermon in which he made clear that he’d mastered the homiletical genius and the sociopolitical hermeneutic of hope often found in conscious or prophetic Black preaching. And he is in good company.

He is a descendant of liberating faith traditions that have marked their identity by the life of a revolutionary Jesus resurrected in these contemporary civil rights movements.

Across generations, Black preachers have often been the voice, face and front-line leaders of freedom struggles. That truth remains evident in Pearson’s work as grassroots organizer, nonprofit founder, state representative and invigorating preacher whose audience crosses socioeconomic and racial lines.

Justin Pearson - Easter Service
Justin J. Pearson, fourth from right, stands with his fiancee Oceana R. Gilliam at The Church of the River in Memphis, where Pearson preached an Easter sermon.Photo by Ron Peck

Pearson appears to recognize this truth, as he began his sermon by calling the names of his own ancestors — Annie Ruth, Flossie, Evaline, Lavenia, Gwen, Kimberly, Jason — and the great cloud of witnesses who have taught us what it means to believe that “the true measure of a [person] is not how [that person] behaves in moments of comfort and convenience but how [that person] stands at times of controversy and challenges.”

Though the myth of inevitable progress coupled with our violent realities may make the future appear bleak, I am encouraged by the voices of my peers across the nation, including the public faces such as Pearson and his fellow state representative Justin Jones, as well as by the quieter workers who are also making major contributions to freedom struggles.

I’ve personally worked with leaders such as the Rev. Kazimir Brown of the Poor People’s Campaign and the Rev. Kendal McBroom, the director of civil and human rights at the General Board of Church and Society of the UMC. They are the evidence that the spirit of Black liberation theology is still moving among us.

I’m inspired by what I am witnessing.

I watched the events in Tennessee unfold, and it seemed as if half the world stopped. I was reminded of the power and purpose of our proclamations, the possibility of realized liberation as a result of liberating theologies.

Many people are moved by the sounds of Black preaching, the oratorical passions and homiletical theater of it all. But in these traditions, the words must be embodied. The Black preaching tradition is a matter of prophetic proclamation that begins in individual study and does not conclude unless or until the sermonic moment has been embodied. Both speaker and hearer become the word daily lived into the world as co-laborers with God in efforts to usher in a more just world.

No matter where we find ourselves after the Sunday morning gathering, what we believe about who God is and how God is at work in the world as a result of that moment will dictate how we engage the world around us. Engaging that experience responsibly is especially weighted for Black faith leaders who have positional authority in particular occupations.

Though the House floor is not an inherently spiritual space (or prophetic in its intended work), there is a spirit that is inextricably linked to the faith in public witness that Black leaders carry with them into diverse occupational spaces, because our proximity to power never saves us from death-dealing politics and policies. Therefore, to be a politician and descendant of Black preaching is also to be the personification of prophetic witness in the face of injustice.

The March 27 shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville is not only one of 163 mass shootings in the U.S. as of this writing in 2023, but it is couched within a history and culture of gun violence across generations. Be it by the bullets of police, of neighbors, of racist vigilantes, of white supremacists with Nazi manifestos, of hooded evangelicals or of “friends” on camping trips, Black people are familiar with the violence being inflicted upon the nation right now.

Furthermore, we are familiar with the apathy and inaction of legislators who serve as co-conspirators with the lobbyists, corporations and millionaire classes that benefit from the crosses we’re all being forced to carry.

While it is imperative that we recognize the unique struggle of children being gunned down in schools, it is also important for us to recognize the interconnectedness of our suffering and the shared source of that suffering.

In the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. … This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

Our hope, therefore, may be found in our collective will not to stand down. What took place in the Tennessee House is evidence of what could and should take place across the U.S.

The expulsion of Pearson and Jones from the legislative body coincided with Holy Week and Resurrection Sunday and signifies the hope we embody when we choose to reject the cross in all its death-dealing variations.

We are surrounded by crosses, and those crosses must be dismantled. Second Amendment crosses upon which our nation’s children are sacrificed. Crosses of capitalism upon which the poor and dispossessed are hung. Crosses of white supremacy upon which those who voice dissent are nailed.

Black and brown people who are being sacrificed on the altar of power for the sake of the crosses of dominion must be saved. We are living in existential hells from which we can be redeemed only when we choose to resurrect the spirit and ideology of a crucified but resurrected Jesus.

Pearson and his colleagues are standing within a lineage and legacy of Black faith leaders who have done just that. They are doing the work of moving the pulpit into the public sphere.

This begs the question: Who are we when the hour of “worship” has ended and we are surrounded by the spirits of Golgotha’s hill? When we find ourselves drunk with congregational praise, visions of Calvary should sober us into righteous indignation — until freedom.

For Luke Powery, it’s significant that different people heard their own native tongues from strangers’ mouths at Pentecost.

The impact of being able not only to understand another’s speech but to hear a familiar language from a stranger could provide a road map to navigating division.

Turning to the Holy Spirit and Pentecost as a means for re-imagining human relationships and pushing past divisions created by racialization is the subject of Powery’s recent book, “Becoming Human: The Holy Spirit and the Rhetoric of Race.”

“A turn to the Spirit is a turn to the human,” Powery writes.

Luke Powery

Rather than a call to uniformity and dropping conflict, the Holy Spirit’s work at Pentecost is a testament to how unity and diversity coincide for Christians.

Powery is the dean of Duke University Chapel and an associate professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the book and how the Holy Spirit can inspire us to become more human. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: How did the pandemic influence your writing of this book?

Luke Powery: I gave three lectures at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary around “Searching for Common Ground,” playing off Howard Thurman’s book “The Search for Common Ground,” and that was right before COVID, actually, in February.

Through everything in the pandemic, I think what was striking to me was our mortality as human beings and thinking about our shared humanity or lack thereof — the tensions that there were over mask wearing or not, the tensions between human beings across racial divides because of the murder of George Floyd.

Becoming Human book cover

The book is focused on those dividers, adjectives, whatever you want to call them, that have functioned in a way to separate people and not embrace our mutual humanity.

The pandemic brought everything to a head in many ways — our striking mortality as human beings. The pandemic should have been a time to help us get things in order, at least get our lives straight, our minds right, and it just, I think, became more tense and polarized. And so it was this call, which I have at the end of the book — a call to togetherness.

Ultimately, that’s what’s behind the book, this call to reconciliation. I try not to use that word, because it’s overused, but I think fundamentally, the book is a call to come together as children of God regardless of who we are, and trying to ground that in a kind of pneumatology.

As Thurman says at King’s funeral when he eulogizes, “We’re not quite human yet. We’re becoming human.” I think those words are so true for where we are today in this nation and really in the world. We’re not quite human yet.

F&L: How does the Holy Spirit change or work against the racialization of our world?

LP: For me, Pentecost is a metaphor for the gift of multiplicity that we see in languages, cultures, ethnicities. There is the embrace of, or the affirmation of, difference, and there’s not a hierarchy created.

It’s really this diversity unified. So racialization is a de-affirmation or a mode of dehumanization of the other, whoever that might be, in a kind of racialized hierarchy.

At Pentecost, there isn’t a hierarchy, and what’s central — or who is central — ultimately at Pentecost is God, and it’s not even our own particularity. Our particularity is not erased; it’s affirmed.

God is central, and God is the one who can bring us together. And so for me, what we have is this affirmation of the beauty of humanity.

At Pentecost, it’s not just the gift of speech but the gift of hearing and understanding in your own native language. What’s interesting is people are hearing their own native tongue in the mouths of the other who’s someone who’s different, not even somebody from their own ethnic background.

I think the Spirit drives us, leads us to a coming together, to unity, to mutual understanding, to the bodies that are again affirmation of the bodies of people, of all people, and as gifts of God. And so diversity, or difference, however you want to say it, is the gift of God.

It’s not something to be avoided or sort of ignored even. It’s the gift of the heterogeneous expression of the Spirit; that’s the gift.

Homogeneity and uniform communities are not the gift of the Spirit. It’s unity and heterogeneity; that’s the gift. And so the Spirit, I think, helps in opening that up in a way to help us embrace the humanity, no matter how different, of someone else. It actually affirms the humanity of others.

F&L: What do you think that unifying power of the Holy Spirit looks like in preaching?

LP: From the pulpit, it’s what our telos is as preachers. Is our telos to divide, or is our ultimate goal the move toward unity? Again, unity implies diversity, so it’s different from uniformity.

It doesn’t mean every single sermon is on a specific topic, but what is your thrust? Is it to see a community really be a community, which means it being diverse and not functioning with this racialization, which is dehumanization, but really seeing people as people?

There’s an overall thrust as preachers and in the community. How do we at the church find a new tongue, playing off Pentecost? How do we find a new language? How do we find a new way of talking about human relations?

I say “racialize” or “racialization” quite a bit in the book; I do that intentionally, because it’s something that’s done to us. It’s not something that is ontological. It is something that’s social.

We have this social inheritance and historical inheritance of race as a social construct, and obviously it’s shaped how things are in the world. It’s not as if we can erase that and say, “Oh, we’re going to change how we talk, and things we can do better.” But I think there is a way that we can talk about relations with each other across these divides that might be more helpful, more Christian, more Spirit filled.

Identities can become idols, and so before we even see someone else as a human being and talk to them like a human being, we’re already thinking whatever categories they are, whether it’s political affiliation or what we see them to be racially.

We don’t see them as a human being, a brother and sister. In the church, how can we find a new way, a new language? What is the more human way and more humane way for talking about these things in the church?

When the seeds of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (now NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community) were taking root in the 1990s in Canada, becoming an accredited graduate school seemed like a far-off goal. The group of Indigenous scholars began having conversations, which blossomed into an annual symposium, an academic journal and graduate curricula.

“But when we held our first symposium, I don’t think any of us imagined that we might want to, never mind get to that point,” co-founder Terry LeBlanc said.

It wasn’t the main objective for NAIITS to receive formal ATS (Association of Theological Schools) accreditation, but when it did arrive in spring 2021, LeBlanc says it felt “vindicating.”

NAIITS is the only accredited Indigenous-led graduate theological school in North America. It offers four master’s degrees, together with an experimental accredited Ph.D. program.


LeBlanc is CEO and director of Indigenous Pathways, a corporate entity comprising NAIITS and its sister organization, iEmergence, which focuses on leadership development in Indigenous and tribal communities. He completed his Ph.D. at Asbury Theological Seminary.

LeBlanc spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about NAIITS’ accomplishments so far and what the future might look like for the school. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Can you tell me the story of NAIITS?

Terry LeBlanc: The idea of it began back in the late ’80s for some of us, mid-’90s for others, and came about as a result of the continuing challenges raised by varieties of individuals in the Christian church, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, who criticized the idea that Indigenous culture and faith could be brought together in some fashion — or put another way, that one could be authentically Indigenous and authentically Christian in the same way that one could be authentically Euro-American or Euro-Canadian Christian.

So it began with conversations about how to address that, which led to hosting annual symposia on Indigenous theology and mission, which in turn led to the publication of a journal and the creation of a faculty and curriculum to teach our own programs in the broad compass of divinity.

F&L: Recently, you were accredited by ATS. How did that feel?

TL: Vindicating. I’m not sure that we had it in mind when we launched our formal programs, first in Canada in the late 1990s and then in the U.S. in 2001. But when we held our first symposium, I don’t think any of us imagined that we might want to, never mind get to that point.

F&L: What kinds of degrees do you offer?

TL: We offer four master’s degrees in North America: an M.A. in intercultural studies, an M.T.S., an M.A. in Indigenous community development and a newly framed M.Div. program. We also offer an experimental Ph.D. program accredited by ATS.

And in Australia, we offer an M.T.S. program, along with a grad certificate and a grad diploma, as well as the Ph.D.

F&L: How does the teaching work, with so many different people from so many different places?

TL: We had determined that we needed to do something to address the issue of many Indigenous students being reluctant to leave their home communities or territories to go for lengthy periods of time to study. So we had already determined that we needed to offer some of our programming in a virtual format, online within learning management software, as well as with Zoom and virtual videoconferencing.

But we also wanted to be sure that we created an in-person community experience, so we went to a trimester system, with two semesters, the September and January semesters, being offered in a virtual format, synchronous and asynchronous, and then the summer semester, which wrapped around our annual symposium on Indigenous theology and mission, being offered as an in-person intensive set of courses.

We’ve been doing that from the beginning, so going virtual with COVID wasn’t an issue for us.

F&L: What have you seen your students be able to do with their training in their communities?

TL: Varieties of things. Some have gone into spiritual care work as chaplains, some, in urban environments, doing street work or urban-based advocacy and ministry. Some have gone into pastoral ministry.

Others have become or are becoming community scholars in their communities or have gone on to do further study to advance their academic skills.

All of the graduates thus far have gone into vocations that connect to the disciplines within which they received their degrees.

F&L: Why is NAIITS so important?

TL: At this juncture, it’s important because it’s the only Indigenous-designed, developed, delivered, and wholly governed Indigenous graduate and postgraduate theological educational institution that is ATS-accredited in North America.

While there are other institutions teaching at the undergraduate level, and some at the graduate level, they are either teaching under the auspices of non-Indigenous governance or teaching under the auspices of other denomination-institutional environments.

NAIITS is unique, and that in itself makes it essential, since to be able to govern our own theological education, albeit within the parameters that ATS and the new standards of accreditation require, is critically important for us to advance our notion that one can be authentically Indigenous and authentically Christian.

F&L: In terms of the governance being Indigenous, how does that make the education qualitatively different for your students?

TL: Well, you could have the same course title, say New Testament Introduction. Offered from a Euro-Canadian or Euro-American seminary or divinity college, it will use mostly standard approaches to New Testament study, even though some will be more contemporary than others. They’ll use materials that are largely written by or taken from a Western philosophical and hermeneutical approach.

Whereas a New Testament introduction course that we offer will come from an Indigenous epistemology and Indigenous ontology and worldview and will use Indigenous frame materials, in addition to individuals from the Indigenous community who come in to provide community perspectives.

When we do a course, irrespective of what the course may be, it’s offered from an Indigenous perspective as the first order of business, not as a supplement.

F&L: How does theological education that is done by and driven by Indigenous people avoid some of the blind spots for the traditional Euro-American-centric theological education?

TL: Well, whether intended or not, by default, given the trajectory of the Western church, Euro-American as well as Euro-Canadian and Australian (or wherever it may be) approaches to theology have largely assumed that a singular worldview is the appropriate worldview through which to approach the Scriptures, through which to approach the ideas, the principal ideas of Christian faith and life.

As a consequence, this theology is not only blind in certain areas but oblivious to the fact that Christianity, or Christian faith — or, if you will, the following of Jesus — doesn’t originate in the Western environment.

There’s an imposed notion that Jesus was an American or Jesus was a Canadian, and the images, of course, tend to bear out the Eurocentric nature of Christianity down through the centuries.

There’s also certainly the idea that a theology rooted in the Western Enlightenment is an engagement with faith that provides a context for science and faith to coexist. And yet, at the same time, it doesn’t provide a place or a context where that coexistence can have a mutuality about it; it’s more that there are boundaries between the two, and on occasion, there are semipermeable membranes — but on other occasions, they’re completely separate.

Whereas with an Indigenous context, there is not an either/or epistemology at play but rather a both/and, so that impacts how we view not only the text of the Christian Scriptures but also other stories of experience and tradition of the pursuit of God.

F&L: What do you think the future looks like for NAIITS?

TL: Oh, goodness, I wish I were good at prognostication. Given that we’ll celebrate 25 years next year, and seeing what we’re able to accomplish with our partnerships and support, I foresee greater numbers of partnerships of differing sorts.

I can certainly see us creating perhaps a chair of Indigenous studies, which will have a Christian framework available for study but won’t be specifically a theological chair. It will be a chair of Indigenous studies that neither excludes nor centers Christian faith but rather sees Christian faith as one aspect of Indigenous life throughout our history.

F&L: Speaking of the partnerships, how can people who aren’t Indigenous support or partner with Indigenous theological development?

TL: Our partnerships with existing non-Indigenous institutions have been extremely supportive and beneficial.

We do provide up to 25% of our seats in any given degree program or course for non-Indigenous students — first, for non-Indigenous students who are engaged with Indigenous community, and then second, for non-Indigenous students who are wanting a non-Western approach to theological education.

Certainly financially, where we’re a not-for-profit, we are essentially people-funded. We’re tuition- and fundraising-driven — not that that isn’t the case for many other institutions — but we have a constituency that, as you might imagine, given the history of Christianity in treating Indigenous peoples, aren’t necessarily at the top of the list for Indigenous peoples support, and through no fault of our own.

While visiting Durham for job interviews in February 2015, I needed a haircut. I sought out the local Latino center, hoping to learn a bit about programs that I might support and to get a recommendation for a stylist as I scoped out the area.

Despite a rare snow, the center was open, although lightly staffed. Alex, the Central American facilitator of LGBTQ support services, greeted me kindly and gave me a brief tour, introducing me to the center’s work. When I asked for hairstylist recommendations, he pulled out a card and made a phone call.

“Yes, she is a woman,” I heard him say in Spanish. He gave me the address and directions and sent me on my way with a warm embrace.

The bells attached to the glass door rang as I pushed it open. Paco, a Mexican in his 40s, welcomed me warmly to the peluquería and then tastefully trimmed my short hair as we exchanged stories about each other’s families and day-to-day lives.

I continued making appointments with him for the next five years. I marveled at his social skills and styling talent while also gaining a sense of his insecurities and limited circles of trust.

When the pandemic began, I told Paco (whose name I have changed to protect his anonymity) that I would not be coming in for a while but would be sending him some money. I asked him to call if he needed me. It was as if we both understood that I was more than a customer; I was also a friend with documents and with mutual concern for his safety and well-being.

One day, some months later, he did call. I was gardening in the front yard and put the spade down to give him my full attention. Paco was worried, speaking fast. An immigration officer had come to his door, and now Paco was convinced he could be deported soon. He told me where to find his cash in his apartment and asked whether I would be willing to wire it to a cousin in Mexico if he were to be picked up.

Gratefully, his fears were not realized. He continues to work and live locally but with the precarity shared by an estimated 10.5 million of our Mexican siblings in the U.S., fully one-fourth of the U.S. foreign-born population.

How is this possible? Nothing more represents for me the fracture and pain of federal inaction than our lack of success at updating our immigration laws, a major public policy priority for my church for more than two decades. A recent Pew research survey found that 4 in 10 Latinos worry that they or someone close to them could be deported, even though only one-third of Latinos in the U.S. are immigrants.

Our nondocumented sisters and brothers are not “in the shadows” so much as in a cage of fear in a land where they give so much while often suffering wage theft or enduring harassment and threats.

Latinos, for a long time primarily clustered in nine states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Texas), are now dispersed throughout our nation, joining and leading us in worship, fixing our roads, remodeling and landscaping our houses, caring for our elderly and our children, finding scientific cures, gifting us in all of the arts, and solving our tech problems. As the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) and Prospera emphasize, Latinos are not taking jobs; they are creating jobs, yet “there is an increasing hostility toward immigrants in our workforce and in our communities.”

Advocates in some states are combatting hostility with welcome campaigns. In Nebraska, an effort entitled “We Are Home” shares the message “Immigrant Nebraskans are lights in our families and communities.”

The message continues: “Congress has not meaningfully updated our immigration laws in more than 35 years, causing unnecessary harm to local families and communities. It’s time for full inclusion of family and longtime community members.”

The FaithAction ID initiative and similar parish identification card programs bring together churches, nonprofits and police departments to foster greater security and avenues for immigrant participation. Efforts supporting dignified work are especially life-giving.

Immigrant entrepreneurs in rural communities are finding support with bilingual business development specialists at the Center for Rural Affairs, with links to banks where business owners can open accounts with an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) issued by the IRS to those with documents to prove their identity and foreign status.

In North Carolina, the Cooperativa Latin@ Credit Union offers microbusiness savings accounts for those with a government-issued ID from any country and a valid ITIN.

Groups like Prospera in Oakland, California, help enterprising immigrant women learn how to overcome internal and external barriers and launch successful cooperative enterprises. Interest in this business model is growing, according to the SELC. To fill the gap in bilingual legal and technical help, they are partnering with Prospera to offer training and resources, including this website with state-by-state legal information for cooperatives.

The SELC and Prospera have a vision of building a national ecosystem to support immigrant-owned cooperatives. “Why immigrant-owned cooperatives?” they ask. “To address the root causes of wealth inequality and institutional racism, we need to put ownership and control back in the hands of those most marginalized by the dominant economy.”

What would it look like if churches helped realize this vision and collaborated with community partners promoting kin-dom values? One exemplary effort is Omaha Catholic Charities’ immigrant microbusiness training and startup loan program. In 2020 it received an innovation challenge grant to share its training model and curriculum with six other Catholic Charities agencies across the U.S.

I pray that more of us in Christian leadership will seek out ways to support local immigrant businesses, prioritizing them and partnering for organizational vendor and service needs, including catering, translating and tech, while also staying attentive to — and participating in — needed advocacy for just and humane immigration reform.

As a personal solidarity exercise that might be a simple Christian practice for you also, consider this: Try a barber or hairdresser at a peluquería. Don’t do it to save money but to connect and to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.

Nothing more represents for me the fracture and pain of federal inaction than our lack of success at updating our immigration laws, a major public policy priority for my church for more than two decades.


Suggestions for visiting a peluquería

  • Offer a greeting and request what you need: “Buenos dias. Deseo un corte de pelo por favor.” [Hello. I’d like a haircut, please.]
  • Wait for an answer or a motion of where to wait or sit.
  • If you want to know how much they charge, ask, “Cuanto cuesta?” (Brush up on your numbers before you go. “Quince” is 15. “Veinte” is 20. “Veinte y cinco” is 25.)
  • Demonstrate with your hands or a photo what kind of cut you would like.
  • Try to make some small talk if you know some Spanish or try a few questions in English and see whether you are understood and can converse a bit. Smiles will also go a long way.
  • At the end, give a big tip, even double the amount charged. Don’t get a cut there to save money but to connect with a sibling.