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13 Emerging Faith Leaders Who Made Their Mark in 2023


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13 Emerging Faith Leaders Who Made Their Mark in 2023

2023’s rising stars in religion are loud, proud and defiant.

News Story by Yonat Shimron | Religion News Service

The events of 2023 catapulted a variety of people of faith into the public eye.

Religion News Service selected 13 who made their mark this year, speaking out on a range of contentious issues and challenging the nation to live up to its values.

Some railed against embedding Christian teachings in Texas public schools or took on a hunger strike in support of legislation that would add caste as a protected class. Others came on the scene in response to the Oct. 7 Hamas incursion in Israel and still more to Israel’s retaliation in the Gaza Strip. Some broke glass ceilings — one became the first Muslim woman to sit on the federal bench, another the first drag queen to top a Christian music chart.

Here are 13 emerging leaders, beginning with a pair who came to be known by their first name. (Inclusion on this list does not equal endorsement or agreement from RNS or FāVS News.)

The Justins

Former Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, from left, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and former Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raise their hands outside the House chamber after Jones and Pearson were expelled from the Legislature, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, two Black Democratic lawmakers in the Tennessee Legislature, were expelled by the Republican-dominated General Assembly after staging a protest in support of gun control on the House floor. Their triumphant, but interim, reinstatement in mid-April captured national attention and brought a spotlight to a conversation on gun violence, race and democracy. Both Justins cut their teeth in old-fashioned, faith-led civil rights advocacy, appealing to God and Scripture as a powerful tactic in their activist arsenal. Pearson even compared his removal from the chamber to the crucifixion of Jesus. Jones is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School; Pearson is the son of a pastor. The two both easily won reelection to their districts in August and have become icons of a kind of Black liberation politics that is both inspired by faith and progressive.

Rachel Goldberg

Relatives of U.S. citizens who are missing since the Hamas attack attend a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Oct. 10, 2023. Rachel Goldberg, second from right, is the mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23; Jonathan Polin, right,  is Hersh’s father. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

The American-Israeli mother of Gaza hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin has emerged as one of the most prominent spokespersons for the hostages taken by Hamas militants during their Oct. 7 raid in Israel. The Chicago native has addressed the United Nations in New York and the March for Israel in Washington. She has met with President Joe Biden and with billionaire Elon Musk. She has been featured by every major news organization and, with her team of public relations volunteers, has developed a ubiquitous social media presence, especially on Instagram, where she always appears with a white sticker on her shirt marking the number of days since her son was taken. Goldberg and her husband, Jonathan Polin, are observant Jews who moved to Israel in 2008 to pursue their dream of living there. Hersh, their eldest child, was born in Berkeley, California. He was attending a music festival when he was taken hostage, one of 10 American hostages.

Esau McCaulley

Esau McCaulley. (Photo by Robb Davidson)

A New York Times contributor and New Testament professor at Wheaton College, McCaulley published a widely acclaimed memoir this year. In “How Far to the Promised Land,” he tells of growing up poor in Huntsville, Alabama, with an abusive and drug-addicted father and how as a Christian he overcame his hatred of him. McCaulley, a Black evangelical, refuses to let stereotypes define his story or the story of the community he came from. “I felt trapped by the story that people were telling about me — this kid who escaped poverty and made it to the middle class,” he told RNS. “That was the story people wanted to hear. But I felt like that wasn’t true. Because it made it seem like the only people who mattered were the people who succeeded.” He added: “What I really wanted to say is no, you need to see my family. And by seeing them, you can see America.”

Kerry Alys Robinson

Kerry Alys Robinson. (Photo courtesy of Catholic Charities USA)

In June, Catholic Charities USA appointed a woman and a layperson to guide the domestic humanitarian work of the Catholic Church in the United States. Robinson, who comes from the world of philanthropy, has been an adviser to and trustee of more than 25 grantmaking foundations and charities. Most recently she worked at the Leadership Roundtable, a group of lay business people who advise the church in management practices. In her new role she oversees Catholic Charities’ 168 member agencies, which serve more than 15 million people in need across the country. Robinson has also advocated for the role of women in the church, calling it a matter of moral urgency. “We are impoverished without the contribution of so many well-educated, theologically astute, pastorally sensitive women,” she said on a podcast for National Catholic Reporter.

James Talarico

Texas state Rep. James Talarico speaks on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives on May 24, 2021, in Austin, Texas. (Submitted photo)

The Democratic state lawmaker has given impassioned speeches this year criticizing his Republican colleagues in the Texas Legislature on a host of issues, but never more so than on the topic of religion. He was incensed with a trio of religion-related education bills. One that passed and became law allows public schools to hire chaplains. Another bill mandating that Texas classrooms hang a donated version of the Ten Commandments ultimately failed this session, perhaps in part thanks to a viral TikTok video in which Talarico explained why as a Christian he felt the bill was unconstitutional, un-American and un-Christian. “A religion that has to force people to put up a poster to prove its legitimacy is a dead religion,” Talarico intoned. The 34-year-old lawmaker is a former middle school teacher and now also a Presbyterian seminarian.

Rami Nashashibi

Rami Nashashibi in 2017. (Photo © John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation — used with permission)

A Palestinian American activist and community organizer, Nashashibi was among a group of U.S. Muslims who met with President Joe Biden in late October as Israel launched a full-scale ground invasion in the Gaza Strip in response to the Hamas incursion into Israel on Oct. 7. Nashashibi spoke after the meeting, in which he said the group asked for a cease-fire and more sympathy for civilians dying in the conflict. “We need anybody of good conscience to realize that — when we have escalated to the point where a child is dying every 10 minutes in Gaza, where water, electricity, fuel, generators are being shut off, people are dying in hospitals — that whatever you want to call it at this moment, it can’t just be a temporary pause.” Nashashibi, who was born in Jordan and educated at the University of Chicago, is the founder of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, a social justice organization. He won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2017.

Mike Johnson

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., takes the oath to be the new speaker of the House from the dean of the House, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

If there was one bright moment for conservative white evangelicals in 2023, it was the surprising ascent of Johnson to speaker of the House, a man who has put faith at the center of his career. The Louisiana congressman wasted no time suggesting immediately after the vote that he was ordained by God for this role. Johnson, a Southern Baptist, is a former lawyer and communications staffer with the Alliance Defense Fund, now known as Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal firm. He rejects many broadly held interpretations of the separation of church and state and is an ally of self-styled historian David Barton. In Congress, Johnson played a central role in attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. As the most powerful Republican in Washington, he is in a position to put his brand of evangelical Christianity at the center of American policy and lawmaking.

Flamy Grant

Musician and drag queen Flamy Grant plays the guitar during a photo shoot. (Photo by Haley Hill)

The first drag queen to top iTunes’ Christian music chart, Grant is a queer singer-songwriter with the offstage name of Matthew Blake Lovegood. A North Carolina native, Grant had been writing and releasing contemporary Christian music for years, most recently as a worship leader at a progressive church in San Diego. Her hit song, “Good Day,” is a hymn to a church that rejects queer people. “God made me good in every way,” the song goes, “so I’ll raise my voice to celebrate a good day.” On July 27, “Good Day” hit No. 1 on the Christian songs and albums charts. Since discovering drag, Grant found a career and stage name, a nod to lifelong music idol Amy Grant. Flamy Grant no longer attends church but still sees herself as part of the Christian music genre. “I want to push back, and be more of a prophetic voice, in the biblical sense — a member of the community who is speaking out about the ills and the wrongs of the community, and asking us to consider, and change, and love bigger, love harder, love more,” Grant told RNS.

Simone Zimmerman

Simone Zimmerman, right, in the 2023 documentary “Israelism.” (Image courtesy of “Israelism”)

Zimmerman is co-founder of IfNotNow, a Jewish American organization that gained widespread media attention this year for its protests calling for an immediate cease-fire in Israel’s war in Gaza. The group is committed to ending what it says is Israel’s apartheid system. But Zimmerman was also a central figure in the 2023 documentary “Israelism,” which features the 32-year-old as one of two young American Jews raised to love and support Israel until she begins to learn about Israel’s long-standing occupation of Palestinian territories and related policies she comes to see as oppressive. Zimmerman, as the documentary shows, is a product of the Jewish American educational system. She attended Jewish day schools in Los Angeles and graduated from the University of California Los Angeles. “Israelism” received added attention after the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, when several universities attempted to cancel screenings for fear it might spur more protests or violence.

Rhonda Thomas

The Rev. Rhonda Thomas attends an event at the White House. (Photo courtesy of Faith in Florida)

After a Florida law passed this year that limited classroom discussion of race, Thomas decided to mobilize faith leaders to teach “raw and real” African American history from their pulpits. As the executive director of Faith in Florida, Thomas created an online toolkit on Black history and soon it was adopted not only by Black churches but white ones, too. The online list includes books on slavery and slave narratives; articles on the Civil War; and documentaries, from “Eyes on the Prize” to “Trayvon Martin: 10 Years Later.” Thomas is also co-pastor of New Generation Missionary Baptist Church in Opa-locka. Florida legislators, she said, didn’t want Black history taught because they feared it would offend white children. “If they wanted to really look at who’s been offended, it has been Black children (who) have been offended — and I use myself — all my life,” she told RNS.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, front center, leads demonstrators marching in favor of SB 403 near the California Capitol building in Sacramento. (Photo courtesy of Equality Labs)

Soundararajan is a Dalit American activist and community organizer committed to fighting against caste-based discrimination. The founder of Equality Labs, based in California, Soundararajan is fighting for caste liberation. She supported the historic Seattle bill to end caste-based discrimination, which passed in February, as well as a similar bill that passed in the city of Fresno, California. She and her group led a hunger strike in the hopes that California Gov. Gavin Newsom would sign a bill adding caste as a protected category in the state. He vetoed it in September. While caste discrimination is most prominent in South Asia, the bills argue it is on the rise in the U.S. too — on college campuses and in the tech industry, where large numbers of South Asians mingle. “The issue is not whether or not caste exists in the U.S.,” wrote Soundararajan, “but rather how we should address the liability created by such severe discrimination.”

Nusrat Choudhury

Nusrat Jahan Choudhury testifies April 27, 2022, before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Video screen grab)

In June, Choudhury was the first Muslim woman confirmed by the U.S. Senate as a federal judge. A Bangladeshi American, she was nominated by President Joe Biden in 2022 to expand diversity in the nation’s courts. She follows Zahid Quraishi, who in 2021 became the first Muslim man to be confirmed as a federal judge. Choudhury served as a legal director for the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union before her appointment. Before that she worked in the ACLU’s New York headquarters, where she filed a lawsuit challenging the New York Police Department’s surveillance of Muslims. It resulted in a court-ordered settlement. She serves on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, an area that is home to some of the largest Muslim and Bangladeshi communities in the country.

Religion News Service
Religion News Servicehttps://religionnews.com
Religion News Service (RNS) aims to be the largest single source of news about religion, spirituality and ideas. We strive to inform, illuminate and inspire public discourse on matters relating to belief and convictions.

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