Progressive Religious Leaders Say They’re Seeing a Post-Trump Bump in Spiritual Engagement

By Miriam Zoila Pu00e9rez Mar 31, 2017

On January 29, two days after President Donald Trump issued his travel and immigration executive orders, Rev. Amy Butler, senior minister of New York City’s progressive Riverside Church, scrapped her planned sermon. She texted her fellow pastors and asked them to join her in reading 17 passages from the Bible about loving and sheltering immigrants, strangers and foreigners.

"It was empowering to be reminded of God’s great care for immigrants and refugees," says Bertram Johnson, another Riverside minister. That special service was captured in a short video by AJ+ which has received more than 2 million views.

One week later, a group of mostly queer- and people of color-led organizations hosted what they called a Spiritual Solace conference call for people to listen in and witness the prayers of a multi-faith group of activists and leaders. Participants included an imam, a Unitarian minister, Catholic laypeople, Sikhs and Ifá practitioners. The special service and the conference call are just two examples of politically progressive faith communities spiritual practices to condemn Trump policies they see as unjust.

Fresh! White, a leader in Bay Area Buddhist communities says he’s seen a rise in attendance since Trump was elected. He says a meditation group that usually maxes out at 100 people had 150 the night before the inauguration and that people who have been absent for years have started reappearing. "[Since the election] I feel much more grounded in my belief that the most important thing that any of us can do is to practice self-love, self-care and self-compassion," says White. "It’s through that practice that not only can we respect and align with our values but also makes us more caring and sincere in our activism with others."

Riverside’s Johnson, who is about a year into his role as the minister of justice, advocacy and change, has also seen increased engagement. "I’ve seen a lot of people who are trying to make sense of this world. People have been thrown into a sense of anxiety and despair. Church, religion, spirituality has become a practice that has renewed interest to them."

Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen, a Unitarian Universalist who does youth leadership development, says people in her Boston community suffer a similar sense of anxiety. "I have seen people who are really in the midst of heartbreak, asking incredibly beautiful spiritual questions. They’re asking, ‘Where does hope come from?’ ‘Where does strength come from?’ ‘How do I face down uncertainty?’"

While the leaders I spoke with have noticed increased interest, they also say that this political moment is not a shock to the people of color they work with. "For some people this does feel like a huge reckoning moment," says Nguyen. "For others it is just another day where family is at risk of deportation, or family is at risk of being shot by police, just like there have been many many days that like the before November or January."

Coming Out as Progressive and Spiritual

Francisca Porchas, who offered blessings on the Spiritual Solace conference call from her practice based in Ifá, says the election has made her more public about her spiritual tradition, which teaches that "our only purpose is to come to the world and leave it better than we found it."

"My tradition has been demonized for a long time because it’s Black and African," says Porchas, an immigrant from Mexico who began practicing Ifá while living in Los Angeles and working in environmental justice. "Since the election I have been much more open about what I believe. We’re needed now. It’s not a time to just do it in your shrine room. It’s a time to come out, be visible and be unified."

"I think that progressives need to start leading with their faith," says Lisbeth Melendez-Rivera, the director of Latinx and Catholic initiatives for the Human Rights Campaign. She offered prayers in English and Spanish on the Spiritual Solace call. "There has been a co-optation of religion by the ultra-conservative movement. [They] de-center Jesus for a vengeful God and use it as an excuse for prosperity."

Johnson says the election has led him to wonder how people reconcile the Trump agenda with the tenets of Christianity. "The election challenged me to question what my White siblings who are Christian believe. How can you be supportive or even tolerant of [Trump’s] policies, which are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus who said welcome the stranger? I don’t see how you can love Jesus and support or embrace a man who has been so damaging to the people who Jesus came to love."

Faith Leads to Action

The leaders I spoke with say that their spiritual practices aren’t just about prayer, or even gathering with like-minded people. For instance, at Riverside the congregation takes a monthly action through their Live Justice Now program. This month they are donating calling cards and stationery to people in local detention centers so they can communicate with lawyers and family members. 

Tomorrow, (April 1) the Black Lives Matter Network (BLM) is hosting #SacredResistance: 24 Hours of Spiritual Action. The central event is a rally in Washington D.C.’s Meridian Hill Park and a march to the White House. There are satellite events in  BostonInglewoodLong Beach, Los Angeles, Louisville, Memphis, New York City, Phoenix and Pittsburgh. People will also gather virtually to pray, meditate and hold space together. "What we’re up against isn’t only about the devastation with policy, but also a spiritual assault," says Prentiss Hemphill, healing justice director for BLM. "It’s up to us to get our spiritual reinforcements, to call on our ancestors and what has literally sustained us for generations. Engaging with these rituals and practices can help us."