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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.

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.