Hakeem Jeffries’ Black church cultivated his House leadership style

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Speaker Mike Johnson and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries stood together at the annual National Prayer Breakfast — an opportunity, in the words of one introductory speaker, to “put our political differences aside.”

Such differences are vast between Johnson, a staunchly conservative Republican, and Jeffries, a hero to liberal Democrats. But at the prayer breakfast earlier this month, they collegially took turns reading Scripture — evoking how their shared Christianity confronts evil.

It was a fleeting moment of unity for the two Baptist leaders who work side-by-side in the House but are miles apart politically and theologically. Jeffries, whose faith is rooted in the Black social gospel, has not been shy — just not as outspoken as Johnson regarding the role faith plays in his political duties.

Jeffries spoke in depth with The Associated Press about his religious upbringing, which was centered at Cornerstone Baptist Church in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. He declined several invitations to comment on present-day dynamics in the House, including the lingering cross-party tensions brought on by Donald Trump’s presidency and his efforts to contest the 2020 election.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., records a welcome message for an upcoming conference of preachers at Cornerstone Baptist Church in New York, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

However, Jeffries’ religious commitment while in office has been noticed by his political peers.

“There’s nothing that the public can detect more clearly than sincerity, especially young people — they know when you’re real. In terms of being a person of faith and justice, Hakeem Jeffries is real,” said former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Jeffries, a New York Democrat who became minority leader in November 2022, handed the speaker’s gavel to Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, on Oct. 25.

Outside of that ceremonial moment, the two hardly interact in public. When pressed at a recent news conference to characterize their relationship, Jeffries said it was “functional.”

Johnson, 52, is a Southern Baptist — one of the white conservative evangelicals who are the majority in America’s largest Protestant denomination. While celebrated by many on the Christian right, Johnson’s expressions of faith and past legal advocacy have faced extensive scrutiny, including his positions against abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.

If anyone was curious about his views, Johnson told Fox News host Sean Hannity, “Go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it — that’s my worldview.”

Jeffries also is deeply familiar with the Bible. For example, he has shared on social media a passage from the New Testament’s Book of Ephesians evoking the need to “wrestle … against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

For Jeffries, 53, his leadership in the House traces back to his formative days growing up and serving at Cornerstone, a historically Black congregation which he still attends.

“It certainly was an important part of my mother’s life, and therefore my younger brother’s and myself,” he told the AP.

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Cornerstone in its heyday was the spiritual home for many grandchildren and great-grandchildren of enslaved African Americans who fled to Brooklyn from the South for better opportunities, including war-industry jobs. The church has long been part of the National Baptist Convention, the largest Black denomination in the U.S.

Cornerstone — and the Black Church more broadly — taught Jeffries how to build consensus, said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader who met Jeffries as a young lawyer. Navigating competing in-house constituencies and varied personalities gave him the temperament needed to lead a diverse, complex body of people, Sharpton said.

“He became committed to doing what he thought was right, rather than doing what was politically advantageous for his own benefit,” Sharpton added.

In his youth, Jeffries became one of Cornerstone’s white-gloved, dues-paying ushers, tending to crying babies and handling neighborhood traffic issues during worship services. Hakeem said that being an usher “taught me how to count, engage and serve.”

Jeffries said his maternal grandmother, a longtime Cornerstone member, often shared a prediction: “I think one day you’re going to be a preacher.”

Her grandson took another path of service, but Jeffries did make certain to get the blessing of two Brooklyn pastors, including Cornerstone’s, before entering his first New York legislative race.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., left, leaves Cornerstone Baptist Church in New York, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Over the decades, Jeffries has been inspired by numerous Black leaders whose civil rights advocacy was fueled by their interpretation of the Gospel. Among them was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — a friend of Hakeem’s childhood pastor, the Rev. Sandy F. Ray.

Harry S. Wright, Cornerstone’s pastor after Ray’s death in 1979, said Jeffries’ upbringing at the church shaped him for a life of service.

“The emphasis was on being a wonderful person … with an idea that you make your life count for something with your commitment to make the world better,” Wright said. “With his drive, training and genius, he just got into the right lanes, and we see the fruit of it in the kind of person that he is today.”

Jeffries came of age during an uptick in police brutality cases in New York and elsewhere. He says his decision to attend law school, and dedicate himself to the fight for racial justice, was motivated by the 1992 acquittal of four white policemen in Los Angeles after they had been shown on video brutally beating an African American man, Rodney King.

After getting his law degree, Jeffries spent 10 years in private practice before winning a seat in the New York State Assembly in 2007.

Since entering Congress in 2013, Jeffries has been true to his roots. For instance, he was lead sponsor of a 2015 measure outlawing police use of the chokehold and other tactics hindering a person’s breathing.

Early in his congressional career, when Jeffries needed help injecting theology into one of his speeches, he asked for the advice of Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo.

Cleaver, an ordained United Methodist minister, said that kind of deference to himself and toward late former colleagues like John Lewis, John Conyers and Elijah Cummings endeared Jeffries to the Congressional Black Caucus.

“You know, this guy seems a little bit different,” Cleaver recalled telling a colleague. “One of the things I liked was he wasn’t trying to (wear) his Christianity on his sleeve.”

Nancy Pelosi hopes that Democratic success in November will enable Jeffries to claim her former position as speaker of the House. She depicts him as a man of deep faith who believes there’s a spark of divinity in everyone.

That ethos, Pelosi said, is clear in “Hakeem’s attitude, his language and the rest, and in fact, his beautiful speech from the Bible on the podium when he was handing over the gavel to the new speaker – which he’ll be receiving back in about 10 months.”

In that speech, Jeffries said, “Every time we have faced adversity, the good news here in America is that we have always overcome. … That is why America remains the last best hope on Earth.”

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At the National Prayer Breakfast, House Speaker Mike Johnson and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, two Baptist leaders with contrasting political views, came together to read scripture and discuss their shared Christianity. Despite their vast political and theological differences, they found unity in their faith during the event. While Johnson is a conservative Republican and Jeffries is a hero to liberal Democrats, their commitment to Christianity was evident during the prayer breakfast.

Jeffries, who hails from a Black social gospel tradition rooted in his upbringing at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Brooklyn, has integrated his faith into his political leadership. Although both leaders have faced scrutiny for their positions on controversial issues like abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, they continue to draw inspiration from their religious beliefs.

Jeffries’ dedication to representing his faith in political leadership has been recognized by peers like Nancy Pelosi, who sees him as a genuine, faith-driven leader. Despite their differences, the two leaders work together in the House, finding common ground in their shared Christian values and commitment to serving others in their roles as elected officials.

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