The Evangelist

Can Shane Claiborne’s progressive version of evangelical Christianity catch on with a new generation?

Evangelist Shane Claiborne's popularity has surged since President Trump’s political rise. (Portraits by Jabari Jacobs)
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On a gloomy Tuesday morning in April, the Christian activist Shane Claiborne was in the studio of WCPN, Cleveland’s NPR affiliate, waiting to go on air. The overhead lights glinted off his thick-rimmed glasses. The 43-year-old had spent the past five weeks on a national tour, living on a retrofitted school bus, speaking at community centers and churches every night, trying to accelerate regional movements against gun violence. His collaborator, Mike Martin, a Mennonite blacksmith from Colorado, was sitting to his left.

“Mass shootings are a horrifying fact of life,” the WCPN host, Mike McIntyre, said into his microphone, by way of introducing their segment on his show, “The Sound of Ideas.” “Parkland, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook. Beyond ‘thoughts and prayers,’ which we so often hear in the aftermath of mass shootings, Shane Claiborne and Michael Martin say they have found inspiration: the Book of Isaiah.” The host recited a well-worn passage: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”

Claiborne and Martin had been enacting the verse on tour. They were promoting a book they had written — “Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence” — and at every stop, they were using Martin’s forge to convert a rifle into a garden tool. The point was to give communities a chance to grieve, but also to convince them that change was possible. It all reflected the broader project that has made up Claiborne’s career: promoting what might be called an alternative version of evangelical Christianity, one more concerned with social justice than with personal salvation. Or, as he would put it to me later, a bit wryly: “Getting Christians to connect their faith to issues that I think matter to God and are affecting our neighbors.”

On the table before him in the studio, he had set a pair of handmade garden tools next to his notebook. “Those look pretty substantial,” McIntyre said, gesturing toward them. The tools had long wooden handles attached to jagged steel claws. “They used to be guns?”

“Yeah, these were both guns from Philadelphia,” Claiborne said in a drawl. He leaned forward. “I’ve been carrying them with me because they’re both sort of special to me.”


“There are a lot of people doing charity work and compassion work who aren’t challenging the bigger systems and structures,” says Claiborne. “We’re trying to do both.”

Philadelphia has been Claiborne’s home for 27 years. He moved there from rural East Tennessee for college, and his career as an activist began during his junior year, when he and some classmates got involved in advocacy for the city’s homeless population. He and his wife, Katie Jo Claiborne, now live near the epicenter of Philadelphia’s heroin crisis, working with a nonprofit Claiborne co-founded that provides food and housing assistance to the poor.

McIntyre took a caller. “Let’s have David in Kent join the conversation. Hello, David.”

“I would like to ask your guests about some Scripture. I am a gun owner, and I will not surrender my guns.” The caller’s voice quivered with obvious emotion. He quoted a passage in which Christ tells his disciples, “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” “It seems to me,” he concluded, “that Christ is admonishing us to be able to defend ourselves.”

The caller had more to say, but McIntyre broke in. “Let’s ask about that then, David. Shane?”

I was eager to hear how the activist would respond. During the part of the tour I had witnessed, starting a couple of nights earlier in Fort Wayne, Ind., they had encountered only audiences that seemed to agree with him — mostly lefty Christians, spanning many denominations, but also nonreligious people who found common cause politically.

“I think it’s a very important passage,” Claiborne said, “because it does get used often to argue that Jesus was encouraging an armed rebellion, which is exactly the opposite of what I think Jesus was doing.” When Christ asked his followers to obtain swords, Claiborne said, he was only trying to “air the dirty laundry and get the weapons out there and, ultimately, to triumph over the idea that violence is the kind of change that we want to see.”

Then Claiborne, who was baptized in a Pentecostal church and later studied at Princeton Theological Seminary, showed he could quote chapter and verse as well as any NRA member. “So what happens right after that Gospel reading that you cited is that Peter actually draws his sword, when the soldiers come to get Jesus, and he injures one of them,” he went on. “Jesus’ response is stunning. He scolds Peter and says, ‘Put your sword away. You don’t get it. If you pick up the sword, you die by the sword.’ And then Jesus heals the man that Peter wounded.”

The implications for 21st-century Christians, he argued, were clear: “When Jesus disarmed Peter, he disarmed every one of us. Because if there was ever a case for standing our ground, or using violence to protect the innocent, Peter had the case.”

This brief exchange captured Claiborne’s dynamic with the Christian right at large — which is to say, with most of his fellow white evangelicals. He believes that as a group, they’ve lost their bearings, and for 16 years, he’s been trying to get them back on course, by calling constant attention to the example of Christ. “Shane is that rare evangelical who challenges the status quo but does so with the Bible as his foundation,” says Karen Swallow Prior, a literature professor at Liberty University who has herself been a powerful voice for reform in the Southern Baptist Convention. She credits Claiborne for modeling “the ways in which Christianity is countercultural,” and for encouraging young Christians to ask “deep, difficult questions” — “because that’s what Jesus did.”

“Shane is that rare evangelical who challenges the status quo but does so with the Bible as his foundation,” says Liberty University professor Karen Swallow Prior.

We’ve seen figures like Claiborne before. His most obvious predecessor is Jim Wallis, the 71-year-old founder of the liberal Christian magazine Sojourners. Wallis was a media fixture during the George W. Bush administration, and his 2005 book “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It” spent weeks on the bestseller charts. Wallis helped Claiborne early in his career, and the two remain friendly. But there are stark differences between their approaches. Wallis lives in Washington, D.C., and often works through conventional political channels. His organization runs on a budget of about $5 million. “Dadgum!” Claiborne said when this figure came up in an interview. “We’ve got, I don’t even know what it is, a $150,000 budget.” While Claiborne tries to dodge political labels (he prefers “suspicionism”), calling him an anarcho-socialist would not be inaccurate. He’s been arrested for civil disobedience about 40 times. When I called Wallis to discuss the younger activist, he was quick to point out that he’s been arrested in many protests himself — but he also affirmed that his strategy involves engaging more often with people in power. He described Tom Perez, the Democratic National Committee chair, as a good friend, and he served as a faith adviser to President Barack Obama. It’s hard to picture Claiborne becoming a regular presence in anyone’s White House, even in the event of a Bernie Sanders victory. “I feel very complementary with Shane,” Wallis added.

By and large, mainstream evangelical leaders have opted to ignore Claiborne. In 2018, for instance, his team organized a “revival” in Lynchburg, Va., where Liberty University is located, and Claiborne invited the president — Jerry Falwell Jr., one of the Christian right’s chief spokesmen — to join him in prayer. Falwell responded by saying he’d have Claiborne arrested if he set foot on the campus. (Falwell’s statements have time and again landed him in public controversy. Last year, he told the New York Times that he doesn’t “look to the teachings of Jesus for what my political beliefs should be.” One recent news report quoted emails in which he called a Liberty student “physically retarded” and described the school’s then-police chief as “a half-wit and easy to manipulate.”)

But millennials and Gen Z-ers are drawn to Claiborne’s authenticity. “With young people, he’s like a rock star,” says the Christian sociologist Tony Campolo, Claiborne’s 84-year-old mentor, who has often toured alongside him. “I don’t know how else to describe him. Wherever he goes, they flock to him.” And his popularity has surged since Trump’s political rise. He’s received piles of letters from disaffected young Christians, saying he helped salvage their faith by showing them a different way of practicing it. Turnout at his events is higher than ever, and his Twitter following has shot up to nearly 100,000 — not bad for someone who’s relatively offline. No figure on the Christian right can claim such a large youthful following.

This is all happening against the backdrop of rapidly declining church attendance, particularly among young people. The Southern Baptist Convention alone has lost 1 million members in the past decade. Some of this reflects generational trends — millennials and Gen-Zers are shaping up to be the least religious generations in American history — and some of it, in evangelical churches, is a direct backlash against the leadership’s longtime alliance with the Republican Party. Both these trends help explain Claiborne’s popularity. With his outsider status, the stark moral clarity of his message and his concern for the downtrodden, he’s tapped into the spiritual sensibilities of the younger generations. In this way, an anarchist may actually represent a new hope for white evangelicals’ future.


Claiborne with collaborator Mike Martin, a Mennonite blacksmith from Colorado. The two have been touring to promote their book “Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence.” At each stop on the tour, they used Martin’s forge to convert a rifle into a garden tool. (Rex Harsin)

Claiborne grew up in Maryville, a village of some 15,000 in the foothills of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains. “We’re hill people, for real,” he told me on the tour. His father, a Vietnam War veteran, had multiple sclerosis and was using a wheelchair as early as Claiborne can remember. He died just before Claiborne turned 9. “Shane is a lot like his dad,” his mother, Pat Lafon, told me. “We’ve heard people who knew his dad say, when he walks into the room, ‘I just did a double take.’ Shane’s not quite as funny, but he still has that I-want-to-entertain-everybody sort of thing going on.”

The mother and son attended a staid Methodist church, but Claiborne’s spiritual life took a turn in high school, when some Pentecostal classmates invited him to a service at their warehouse church. He kept going back and was eventually rebaptized there. Though he now attends a vaguely Anabaptist church in his neighborhood, he said he still feels comfortable in Pentecostal settings.

His politics as a teenager were deeply conservative. In early signs of his organizing talents, he orchestrated “See You at the Pole” rallies, where students gathered around the school flagpole and proclaimed their right to pray in the classroom; and when Vice President Dan Quayle made a campaign stop in their town, in 1992, Claiborne recruited a huge contingent of volunteers.

After graduation, he wound up at Eastern University, near Philadelphia. Tony Campolo, who taught full-time at Eastern from 1964 until 2001, says the school is theologically conservative but has long been a “hotbed for social activists.” Campolo’s sociology classes were mind-blowing for Claiborne. “Shane came with a heart for the poor and the oppressed,” Campolo says. “What sociology did for him was make him aware that there were fundamental changes that had to take place in society to deal with problems of the poor and the oppressed.”

Claiborne volunteered with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, in India, and internalized her mantra that each time they served a poor person, they were serving Jesus himself.

As a freshman, Claiborne started tagging along with two upperclassmen who hung out with homeless people downtown. The classmates didn’t volunteer at shelters or hand out pamphlets; they simply huddled with poor people on the streets and swapped stories. Claiborne soon realized some of the homeless knew the Bible better than he did. “It became less about, like, giving out peanut butter sandwiches and more about, like, These are incredible people, and I’m learning a lot from them,” he said. Some nights Claiborne and the other students slept on the streets; other times they brought homeless children back to let them sleep in their dorm rooms.

Inspired by these experiences, Claiborne and a friend had the idea of spending a summer in Kolkata, India, volunteering with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Claiborne worked in the hospice, where he helped terminally ill patients eat, massaged their atrophied muscles and gave baths — trying to “spoil people who really deserved it.” He internalized Mother Teresa’s mantra that each time they served a poor person, they were serving Jesus himself. He spent his final weeks there in the leper colony.

The year after Claiborne graduated, he and five friends pooled their savings and bought a rowhouse in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, one of the city’s poorest areas, where they had already gotten to know many of the residents. They filed paperwork to become a 501(c)(3) — an “antiprofit organization,” Claiborne later wrote — and moved there in January 1998, opening their doors to everyone who needed food or clothing. They dubbed their community the Simple Way and took inspiration from long-established “intentional communities” like the Catholic Worker and Bruderhof.

It was a trip to Iraq, five years later, that catapulted Claiborne to minor fame. He tagged along with some other activists in the spring of 2003 on a peacemaking mission, not knowing when the United States might invade. On March 29, just over a week into the war, he was riding across the Iraqi desert in a three-car convoy, bound for Jordan, when a bomb went off nearby, knocking his vehicle off the road. Claiborne’s shoulder was dislocated; another passenger was bleeding profusely from a head wound. They were rescued by Iraqi civilians who took them to a hospital. Upon his return, Claiborne was interviewed by news outlets from all over the world.

He started writing for Sojourners magazine, then landed a contract to write his first book: “The Irresistible Revolution,” a memoir that covered his experiences overseas but focused on his life at the Simple Way. On the tour, I met several people who said the book had changed the course of their lives, inspiring them to devote themselves to the poor or become missionaries. By the time the 10-year anniversary was published in 2016, it had sold more than 300,000 copies.

Since the original release of his memoir, Claiborne has written nine books, including a manifesto for socially conscious Christianity (“Jesus for President”) and a polemic against the death penalty (“Executing Grace”). Most feature a co-author. In 2007, he and Campolo launched an organization called Red Letter Christians to connect like-minded communities in a network. It now encompasses about 120 church congregations and other groups, including one in Chile and several in Europe, with plans to launch in more countries this year. Its motto is “Taking the words of Jesus seriously,” and its website features frequent guest posts with titles like “Women’s Voices — Rather than Empty Slogans — Must Drive Abortion Debates” and “Facing the Church’s Complicity in Racism.”

Claiborne, who’s constantly rattling off quotations from his role models both in his books and in conversations, invoked the Brazilian Catholic leader Hélder Câmara to describe the way he splits his time: “When I feed people, they call me a saint; when I ask why people are hungry, they call me a communist.” “There are a lot of people who work on the issues and don’t always have their feet on the ground,” he explained. “And there are a lot of people doing charity work and compassion work who aren’t challenging the bigger systems and structures. We’re trying to do both.”


Mllennials and Gen Z-ers are drawn to Claiborne’s authenticity. “With young people, he’s like a rock star,” says Christian sociologist Tony Campolo.

At Cleveland’s Pilgrim Congregational Church, the pews were filling with a diverse crowd of a couple hundred. Someone drew my attention to LaTonya Goldsby, a co-founder of Cleveland’s Black Lives Matter chapter, when she walked in. Goldsby had become an activist after her 12-year-old cousin, Tamir Rice, was killed by an officer in the Cleveland Police Department. The night’s program, like most on Claiborne’s tour, was something like a church service reimagined as a political rally, and Goldsby was to be the keynote speaker.

Claiborne had on his daily uniform: absurdly baggy brown pants, hand-sewn, and a tan T-shirt over his tall, thin frame. (I had initially taken his look to be an ill-advised holdover of 1990s fashion — but then I noticed that from behind, especially with a brown hoodie on, he looked exactly like a Franciscan monk.) “Look at your neighbor and say, ‘Everything is not all right in the world. Amen?’ ”

His words began echoing in the pews around me.

“Look at your neighbor and say, ‘It doesn’t have to stay this way!’ ”

There were shouts of “Amen!” above the murmurs.

“We’d kind of prefer that we didn’t have to do a 37-city tour, talking about gun violence,” Claiborne said. “But we’ve seen too many people die in our neighborhood. A 19-year-old was killed by my house, and we held his hand as he took his last breaths. That is when we remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, when he said: We’re all called to be the good Samaritan and lift our neighbor out of the ditch. But after you lift so many people out of the ditch, you start to say, ‘Maybe we need to rethink the whole road to Jericho.’ ” It was time, Claiborne said, to “do something about why so many people end up in the ditch to begin with.”

He continued: “We have, in the U.S., about 5 percent of the world’s population — but almost half of the world’s guns.”

“Lord, have mercy,” the crowd said in quiet unison.

“In our country, we’ve got nearly five times more gun dealers than McDonald’s restaurants.”

“Lord, have mercy.”

“And that’s not an argument for more McDonald’s.” That one always drew a few laughs. Claiborne grinned but quickly turned serious again. “We also know that the lives lost every day are over 100 — close to 109! In two decades, domestically, in the U.S., we have lost more lives to guns than in 250 years of foreign wars!”

“Lord, have mercy.”

“We also remember tonight that for many of us, this is personal.” He looked in Goldsby’s direction. “This is something that chose us. And for others of us, for whom this is not personal, we want to invite you to lean in. And to realize that being closer in proximity to the pain of the world is a part of what it means to be human!” His volume began to rise, and his pacing sped up. “And it’s part of what creates the urgency of this crisis! Lovin’ our neighbor as ourself means that if this is hurtin’ one of us, it’s hurtin’ all of us! Right?” He pumped his free hand, pointing in the air. “And if Tamir Rice is cryin’ out in Cleveland, none of us are saved!” He had to yell to be heard above the applause. “So we want to say that we are proud to come to your city, to grieve the losses you’ve experienced, but also to build on the hope that you have!”

Everyone was shouting “Amen.”

“The peace, according to the prophets, doesn’t begin with the politicians,” Claiborne said at one stop on his tour. “It begins with the people, who lead the politicians towards that peace!”

The first two speakers that followed talked about family members being killed on Cleveland’s streets. The third, a bearded middle-aged man who went by the name Tank, said he’d been shot 11 times and had spent most of his adult life in prison. He had been out for 10 years. Goldsby went last. She put a palm on the table before her, waiting for the applause to die down.

Many white evangelicals see Black Lives Matter as divisive and unduly hostile. Evangelist Franklin Graham, for one, has attacked it for “calling for violence against police” and has claimed “most police shootings can be avoided” with a combination of “respect for authority and obedience.”

Goldsby began by asking the crowd to say the names of loved ones who had died because of gun violence. “I want you to bring their name into this space,” she said. “It’s important to remember their names.” After the murmurs died down, she recounted the death of her cousin: how the officer shot him in a park in 2014, how he died from his wounds the next day. She said it fit a pattern she had experienced for years, one that had also claimed the lives of her children’s friends. “And yes, police brutality, police violence, is gun violence.” All across the crowd people were nodding in assent. “We are the community. We need to act like the community. I don’t want to see my sisters, my brothers, hurting because they lost their child to gun violence, when it can be prevented — when we can execute the change we want to see.”

We made our way outdoors, where Martin was waiting. “The gun barrel of the AR-15 that was donated tonight is inside,” he said, gesturing toward a black metal box propped on a table. He invited anyone who wanted to come take a swing. A woman in a crimson pantsuit approached and took the goggles Martin handed her. He reached into a forge with tongs and pulled out the barrel, which glowed as bright as the fire. The woman raised Martin’s hammer in silence and struck the metal half a dozen times. The crowd began applauding. She kept going, now putting her back into it, bringing the hammer down with all her might. After a few dozen hits, the applause started again, building to a crescendo as she backed away and let her shoulders sag.

Goldsby took her turn a few minutes later. She hit the glowing metal again and again. Everyone within a 15-foot radius could feel her anger. The furnace made a rustling sound behind her. When she was done, another seven or eight people took up the hammer in succession. Finally a pastor with Claiborne’s group on the tour led everyone back inside to the refrain of “If I Had a Hammer.”

Claiborne took the mic again for the conclusion. He wanted the crowd to remember that the “beat their swords into plowshares” verse from Isaiah is a prophecy of world peace — a promise that one day, “nation will not rise up in violence against nation.” Destroying the weapons was the first step. “I like that, because the peace, according to the prophets, doesn’t begin with the politicians,” he said. “It begins with the people, who lead the politicians towards that peace!”

For anyone Claiborne’s age or younger, the alliance of the evangelical establishment and the GOP has always been a given. But the origins of the Christian right as we know it only date back to the presidency of Jimmy Carter, himself a Democrat who was also a devout Southern Baptist. It was in those years that Jerry Falwell Sr. ramped up his preaching across the South, working to convince evangelicals of various stripes — “fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and conservative Southern Baptists,” as the journalist and historian Frances FitzGerald wrote in her 2017 book “The Evangelicals” — “that they and others could work for common goals without compromising their theology or even making a formal alliance.” In the early days, Falwell focused on so-called social issues: abortion, homosexuality and Christian prayer in schools, to name a few. Over the following decade, televangelists like Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker helped carry Falwell’s message beyond the South, and in 1988, Robertson founded the Christian Coalition, a nonprofit meant to mobilize evangelicals to vote for Republican candidates.

It wasn’t until 1995, after the Republicans had swept the midterm elections, propelled by the release of Newt Gingrich’s conservative legislative blueprint “Contract With America,” that Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition’s director, could say his movement was “thoroughly integrated and enmeshed into the machinery of the Republican Party.” In the short term, this partnership was a boon for both the GOP and the conservative faith leaders. But it had an unintended consequence: People who came of age in the ’90s or later learned to see the GOP and evangelicalism — or even religion more broadly — as almost synonymous. Rejecting one would mean rejecting the other.

People are “willing to shift their religious identity, to the point of dropping a religious identity,” says political scientist David Campbell, “because they see religion as wrapped in conservative politics.”

During the ’90s, in the aftermath of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, leaders of the Christian right harped for several years on the importance of character. “You can’t run a family, let alone a country, without it,” Focus on the Family director James Dobson told his supporters in 1998. “How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world!” So as the 2016 race got underway, it seemed early on like Trump’s lifelong pattern of brazen infidelity and charges of sexual harassment were bound to be stumbling blocks. During an interview before an evangelical audience in 2015, Trump said he generally does not ask God for forgiveness.

However, instead of trying to fake his moral credentials, the candidate made an appeal to white evangelicals that was bluntly transactional: If elected, he promised, he would appoint avowedly antiabortion federal judges, restore the “religious freedoms” that Obama had supposedly taken away and move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The strategy worked astonishingly well. Megachurch leaders gave him their endorsements en masse and apparently without much hesitation. And as the election neared, white evangelicals proved to be one of Trump’s most loyal demographics. In November 2016, some 81 percent cast ballots in his favor.

Since the early days of the Christian right, there has been a parallel Christian left — and it has surged during Republican administrations. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, for instance, liberal churches created the sanctuary movement, giving shelter to refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala, countries where the United States was backing illiberal regimes. And in the early 2000s, Christians turned out in massive numbers to protest the Iraq War and the Bush administration’s defense of torture.

But as a percentage, the number of young people who have crossed over to this camp, instead of defecting from Christian institutions altogether, has never been large. In the mid-2000s, “there was a lot of talk about younger evangelicals who were going to be rallying around climate change, who were going to rally around LGBT rights,” says Robert P. Jones, the director of the Public Religion Research Institute. “And that never really materialized. I think what really happened was, the younger evangelicals who might have held those views, instead of staying evangelical and shifting the needle within evangelicalism, most of them just left the category and became unaffiliated.”

David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, agrees that there has been a backlash — and says it’s been intensified since the rise of Trump. “Increasingly, people are putting their politics ahead of their religion,” he says. “That is, they’re willing to shift their religious identity, to the point of dropping a religious identity, because they see religion as wrapped in conservative politics.”

Among the scholars I spoke with, one common refrain was that political engagement itself is not the problem: Partisanship is. “What is important is that any religious group not be closely tied to a party,” Campbell says, “because as soon as that happens, then the religious voice ceases to be prophetic, and is only viewed as being partisan.” Claiborne hews closely to this nonpartisan approach (though he does vote, typically for Democrats).

Research shows that among all those millennials who say they’re religiously unaffiliated, only about half call themselves atheists or agnostics. “There’s often a sense of, ‘Oh, they’re waking up on Sunday and rejecting church,’ ” says Angie Thurston, a fellow at Harvard Divinity School who studies the spiritual lives of young Americans. “The reality is, they don’t even think about it. It’s not an active rejection — it’s just like, ‘This doesn’t feel relevant to my life.’ ” At the same time, she says, “They often have a very active keening for many experiences we might call spiritual or even religious.” So what would make it feel relevant? Thurston’s research points to seven experiences young people are looking for in spiritual settings, including creativity, community and social transformation. In other words, experiences that Claiborne is skilled at curating.


Shane and Katie Jo live across the street from the original Simple Way building, which now houses the organization’s offices and food pantry. After 22 years, Claiborne is the only member of the original group who still lives in the neighborhood, but the Simple Way’s footprint is larger than ever, with an affordable housing program, one of the largest food pantries in Philadelphia and a full-tuition scholarship fund that sends a neighborhood kid to Eastern University every year.

During a visit over the summer, two months after the tour, Claiborne drove me to St. Edward the Confessor, the abandoned Catholic church where Claiborne’s activist career was launched. Claiborne tells the story memorably in “The Irresistible Revolution.” When he was a college junior, some homeless women moved into the building with their kids, trying to duck social workers. Claiborne and his friends read about it in their school cafeteria. The front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer said the archdiocese would be evicting the families the next day. That night, the students posted fliers around campus, saying, “Jesus is getting kicked out of church in North Philly. Come hear about it. Kea Lounge, 10 p.m. tonight.” They expected no more than a dozen friends to come, but more than 100 students showed up.

The next morning, they were there before the reporters and TV cameras arrived. They announced that they would stand in the way even if it meant getting arrested — something Claiborne had never experienced. It “made for quite a media spectacle,” he wrote in his memoir. Later that day, when representatives from the archdiocese came, they stepped out of their car, saw the crowd and turned around to leave. Over the weeks that followed, authorities tried repeatedly to evict the families while the students were away. Whenever Claiborne’s group got a call, they rallied the campus with an air horn, leading a caravan to the church as fast as they could. And on Sundays, they held worship services there, ringing the church bell and bringing in a gospel choir. They staved off an eviction until the families were ready to leave of their own accord — some to the homes of volunteers offering to host them, others to vacant government-owned homes — though the archdiocese, in Claiborne’s telling, never did anything to help.

The building itself, one of the great architectural treasures of Philadelphia, is now abandoned and decrepit. On our visit, Claiborne parked down the block, and we walked to the front. In the entrance, beneath a stone statue of Christ inlaid into the arch, the doors have “no trespassing” signs and spray-paint graffiti. Claiborne pointed to the spot where the homeless mothers had once held a news conference. “They said, ‘We mean no disrespect to the church officials, but we talked to the real owner of this building, you know, the Lord’ ” — he chuckled — “ ‘and God said we could stay.’ It was brilliant. It was so brilliant.”

He’s daydreamed about having the Simple Way buy the building, but the logistics don’t make sense. Still, it remains a source of inspiration. In his work as a public figure, he’s trying to give other people something like the experience he had there as a 20-year-old. “When you know people who have been victims of injustices, it puts a real fire in your bones, a real sense of urgency,” he said as we were leaving. It’s the reason he shares the stage with people like LaTonya Goldsby, the reason he tells so many stories about his neighborhood in Philly. “I think relationships do it most poignantly,” he said. “But stories get us one step closer in proximity.”

Nick Tabor is a reporter living in Mobile, Ala., where he is writing a book about race and environmental politics.

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Michael Johnson.

Credits: Nick Tabor

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