Jennifer Bailey is building more united, morally-rooted social movement infrastructure in the American South, and clear pathways for leadership and self-care for its most marginalized leaders. By combining the existing moral authority of religious institutions with a new wave of “moral imagination” from young, marginalized, faith-rooted leaders, Jennifer is re-building the bridge between social justice movements and the religious institutions that have historically fueled them.
As an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the oldest historically-Black denomination in the United States, Jennifer Bailey knows the role religion has played in shaping public life, especially in the American South. But as a millennial, Jennifer also sees how religious institutions – and the interfaith movement as a whole – operates from a place that concentrates power in the hands of a few. Within the hierarchical history of religious institutions in the American South, the Faith Matters Network is building a horizontal movement of faith-rooted millennials who are fighting for change – in their communities, and their congregations. Through this growing network of leaders, Jennifer is re- connecting religious institutions across the American South to once more offer solutions to the region’s most pertinent social justice issues.
Faith Matters Network trains, supports, and amplifies the leadership, and stories of faith-rooted changemakers – especially those at the margins of faith communities: people of color, women, LGBTQ communities, the poor, and other marginalized identities. Jennifer’s insight is that the people best positioned to move the South toward a more just and equitable society are those who have been marginalized by traditional religious perspectives. Leaders at the margins are key, not because of a need to be “helped,” but in their acute, indispensable, and unique ability to both (1) offer solutions to social justice issues in the American South from a place of power and experience, (2) provide real, human examples that usher faith communities toward a 21st century social justice agenda, and (3) embed new leadership structures with distributed, collective power structures.
In mending the bridge between “sacred” and “secular,” the traditional assets of each can flow again to the other: Social justice movements can once again benefit from the infrastructural backbone provided by faith communities’ land, leadership, and moral authority; faith institutions have new tools (and newly- energized ambassadors) to confront a structural rigidity which threatens its ability to operate in a changing world. As a key part of bridging the societal gap between sermon & action, Jennifer is pioneering new professional pathways for millennials who wouldn’t otherwise see their faith identities as congruent with their vocation. Jennifer’s movement chaplains deliver an answer to institutional partners who understand that their structures of faith are not the structures of the future. Her new idea is to decentralize moral authority by creating a new leadership structure that draws together the legitimacy of faith and the ethos of a new generation.
Despite making great strides for equality in the last 60 years, the social fabric of the United States has suffered much, threatened by the segregation of urban spaces, a staggering wealth gap, and an individualistic narrative that now falls flat: Social isolation can be discerned from the highest suicide rate in 30 years, a record number of Americans who believe the American dream is out of reach, and social
trust at historic lows for millennials. In the rising tension of a polarized political backdrop, and with a second Civil Rights movement that is calling for Americans to implement the rights fought for over the last sixty years, the country is being asked to have a real conversation about its morals, values, and identity.
The American South is like a microcosm of the country: On one hand, it is the homeground of the Civil Rights movement and other major civil and human rights advances across history. On the other hand, there is a flagrant lack of practical implementation of those rights to this day, as evidenced through the myriad of racial, economic, social, and environmental justice issues across the region. It is the region with the lowest economic mobility, highest poverty (7 of the 10 poorest states in the country are in the South), highest obesity and teen pregnancy rates, the lowest food access rates, and more. But religious identity still matters in the South – even when the religious sector isn’t responding to urgent needs, changing social values, and archaic systems of hierarchy. Surprisingly, no existing interfaith or faith-rooted social change network bases its work in the American South despite the pronounced inequality in the region and the openness to religious language and frameworks.
Historically, religious leaders have helped guide these moral crises, and faith communities have played a pivotal role in social movements – demonstrated most evidently through the church’s role in mobilizing strategic bases during the Civil Rights Movement. But after the 1960s, more and more Americans began to disaffiliate from religious institutions, and the Civil Rights agenda turned toward economic policy.
Decades later, the relationship between sacred and secular is fraught, with faith often playing a one- sided role in American civic and political life – one that is politically partisan, conservative, and one that leads to the further disenfranchisement of marginalized communities.
Growing numbers of young people choose to break ties with religion, unwilling to support institutions that marginalize or belittle entire communities (LGBTQ people, women leaders, people of color, the poor), and who concentrate power in the hands of a few. Similarly, secular citizen organizations opt not to engage faith communities. But breaking ties also implies a loss of the powerful, unique tools of the religious sector: gathering spaces, an infrastructural backbone, talent and leadership, and the potential to contribute (not dictate) moral guidance in a rapidly changing world.
That rapidly-changing world is also sending faith institutions reeling for solutions to dwindling congregants and a shrinking talent pipeline, with 30-40% of seminaries projected to close their doors in the next 10 years. Similarly, the leadership of American interfaith networks does not reflect the diverse demographics of the frontline communities they seek to empower through their work. The world needs more grounded, morally-attuned leaders, but the places that once trained them as struggling to keep up with changing social values and demographics.
Instead of dismissing religion as a lost cause, Jennifer sees this panorama as an opportunity for leaders to reclaim their voice in a system that is least welcoming to them, and in turn, to bring an inclusive, interfaith lens to social justice work in the United States, with new tools to address social challenges that plague their communities.
In 2014, having just received her master’s degree in divinity and becoming an ordained elder in the AME church, Jennifer embarked on a series of conversations with over 60 faith-based institutions about the social justice challenges particular to the South. Overwhelmingly, they asked for three things that would help them create a stronger call to action: better leadership opportunities for faith-rooted millennials, a new faith narrative informed by marginalized groups, and a widespread community of leaders that transcends brick and mortar congregations and traditional nonprofit institutions.
In response, Jennifer founded the Faith Matters Network, a “21st century interfaith seminary” based on popular education and community, whose learning happens on the frontlines of social actions, in the corners of church basements, and in living rooms of neighbors. By pioneering rich, creative “remixes” of faith & social justice work, Jennifer is training the “bishops of tomorrow”: thousands of faith-rooted movement builders who are infusing moral imagination back into our societal infrastructure.
Jennifer’s strategy is to both create and demonstrate a new way of leadership that is so attractive to traditional institutions, that they draw themselves into this new reality. Rather than beating down the barriers to inclusion church by church, Jennifer’s “movement chaplains” accompany social movements and local congregations towards a new future of increased civic participation and empathy-based ethics. Instead of waging a cultural war on age-old institutions, she is nurturing a generation of leaders to shepherd them toward inclusiveness and justice, demonstrating how they may also replenish their own moral authority by leaving the brick-and-mortar church to support and sustain movements from local food justice initiatives, to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Her team does this by building visionary curricula and tools that connect faith frameworks with the region’s social challenges, and then diffusing these tools through strategic partners across the region and beyond. Jennifer’s leadership has attracted a vast network of institutional allies, including some of the most wide-reaching academic institutions (from entire networks of Historically Black Colleges and Universities to the likes of Harvard Divinity School); congregational networks as big as the National Religions Partnership for the Environment, and the country and region’s largest organizing bases, like PICO, the Gamaliel Foundation or Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.
In addressing the shrinking and antiquated “leadership ladder” in present-day religious institutions, Jennifer turns to her own bi-vocationality – part-time movement builder, part-time minister – as key to the strategy to solving the South’s pervasive social justice issues. Understanding that only 41 percent of divinity school graduates pursue full-time ministry post-graduation (compared to 90 percent just some decades earlier, Jennifer understands that more vocational roles and language must be built into faith communities, ones that encourage millennials to stand and work fully in their “secular” work while pulling from the unique moral authority, resources, and skills associated with faith institutions. In particular, Jennifer is architecting one strategic, vocational role: that of Movement Chaplaincy.
By defining the role of a “movement chaplain” – a trained “activist-minister” who offers solace and support to frontline activists – Faith Matters Network is crafting a new vocation for young, faith-rooted changemakers whose calling resides outside the brick-and-mortar place of worship. Chaplains – those who offer spiritual counseling to people in great transition or distress – are often associated with formal institutions, mainly hospital - but desperately lacking in more “secular” activist communities whose wellbeing is at stake. In building this vocation, Jennifer is also building an alternative path to the historically monopolized and expensive path to chaplain accreditation - and with it, a new curriculum that explores how themes like race, identity, and power might affect the role of a chaplain. Starting this December, Jennifer will incubate the first-ever Movement Chaplaincy accreditation process, working with the renowned Auburn Seminary in New York City as the accrediting body with the support of denominational groups like the Unitarian Universalist Association. This monumental re- architecting of an archaic church figure offers a new professional opportunity for young leaders of faith.
It also aims to solve the sustainability issues that have plagued leadership and have prevented communities from solving the intractable social problems in the South.
The work of movement chaplaincy extends beyond a formal profession; by incorporating changemaking and well-being practices into congregants’ faith framework, Jennifer is amplifying social movement work while also extending its longevity. Called the Hush Harbors Initiative (Hush Harbors were where enslaved people would gather in secret to practice religious traditions in antebellum America), women of both faith and public service come together to explore communal care practices that can fuel the work in their communities. Having received great demand from women around the country to scale the initiative, Faith Matters Network is disseminating an online training in the spring of 2017, with an expansion plan of creating Hush Harbors initiatives in ten Southern cities over the next two years.
Ultimately, Faith Matters network offers a new faith narrative, informed by social justice leaders at the margins. As the only interfaith organization in the United States to be led by women, people of color, and LGBTQ people, Faith Matters Network leverages top-tier media and literary partnerships, building a storytelling arm for faith leaders at the cutting edge of social justice battles in the American South. For example, Jennifer’s team launched the strategic “Standing with Black Women and Girls” liturgy right after a South Carolina high school student’s harassment by a police officer was captured on video. The toolkit was picked up and distributed by more than 1,000 places of worship through PICO, the largest interfaith organizing network in the country.
Jen brings together the strength of changemaking, with the strength of a moral base – cultivating a values- informed secular society, and doing so with the buy-in of religious institutions who, as she has helped them to articulate, have been waiting for the chance to fuel changemaking again in their communities.
As a well-known commentator on religion in publications like Sojourners and HuffPost Religion, Jennifer is leveraging her own status as a millennial religious maven to help Faith Matters Network leaders build their own brand, platforms, and online voice. Most recently, her team has helped secure deals with publishing houses such as Chalice and Fortress Press, gaining their commitment to publish more stories of the leaders and movement chaplains that emerge from Faith Matters Network.
A guiding principle for the Faith Matters Network is W.E. DuBois’s observation that “As the South goes, so goes the nation.” In understanding the historical role the South has played in civil rights - and the vast challenges it continues to see - the Faith Matters Network will continue to build a Southern-led movement for faith-rooted social justice. With a plan to reach two new cities per year, Jennifer is working towards five hubs in the South, dispersed in each of its five main regions (Piedmont, Appalachia, Mississippi Delta, Gulf Coast, and the Nashville area). “By having presence in these five areas, we’ll be building a southern movement that isn’t Charlotte- or Atlanta-centric, but building a movement representative of the entire region,” Jennifer says.
Jennifer’s story begins, as she puts it, “in the fall of 1950 when my grandmother boarded a bus in Bainbridge, Georgia bound for the promise of the North. Like many African-American women of her generation that were part of the second Great Migration, she was escaping a land of racial terrorism, a lack of access to quality education, and limited job opportunities. Upward mobility in her small Southern town was limited by her race, gender, and class.”
Jennifer’s family ended up in Chicago, where two organizations were instrumental in shaping her own identity. The first was the historically-black AME church where she spent her childhood. The second was Ashoka Fellow Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core, whose mission is to make interfaith cooperation a social norm through by transforming the field of higher education.
After spending ten years tackling inter-generational poverty in her hometown of Chicago, Jennifer decided to invest her time in the South: “I returned to the South, my ancestral homeland, in 2011 to begin my seminary education at Vanderbilt University and work as a local food justice organizer. While there is no doubt that progress toward racial equity has been made since the year of my grandmother’s flight, what I found was a land in which opportunity was still limited by what side of town you lived in, what your mother did for a living, and the color of your skin.”
In her blend of ministry and food justice work in Nashville, Jennifer found herself bridging two separate – but similar – worlds. Following the death of Sandra Bland, Jennifer attended one of hundreds of demonstrations around the country calling for police accountability. Following the protest, a group of police began to approach the (mostly people of color) protesters waiting at a subway platform. A circle of white allies surrounded this group, locking hands to protect them. Jennifer joined the outside of the circle, and because she was wearing her clerical collar, the officers went straight to Jennifer to communicate and clarify the situation. To Jennifer, this moment reflects “the power and authority endowed by a religious leader, as a reconciling voice, an intermediary and an intercessor.” This opportunity to act as a conduit and bridge, offering a moral authority, while still maintaining trust between both groups, demonstrated to her the urgency of her work. As Jennifer points out, “It’s one thing to make interfaith cooperation a social norm; it’s another to challenge the very systems and structures that allow bias to exist – to speak from a place of faith and moral agency; to not be afraid.”
Jennifer likens the national mood in the U.S. today to that of Holy Saturday in the Christian tradition, the period of somber reflection where the faithful mourn Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday and await his resurrection. Trusting that positive changes – and salvation – are coming, Jennifer and a growing number of movement chaplains around the country call us to prepare ourselves and act on what we want to see happen in the world.