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15 up-and-coming faith influencers we wrote about (or published) in 2022

2022's rising stars in religion are loud and proud, and they are calling it as they see it.

(RNS) — Influencers, by nature, usually come in the “grind-and-hustle” variety — go-getters who are relentless in their pursuits, stopping at little to make an impact. But what if your passion is napping, and you’re convinced what the world really needs is a little rest? 

Enter Tricia Hersey, the “Nap Bishop,” one of Religion News Service’s 15 emergent leaders of 2022. With her “rest as counterculture” message, Hersey embodies a theme evident in each of this year’s up-and-coming influencers: resistance.

Whether pushing back against centuries of Indigenous colonization, countering messages of Islamophobia (on the right and left) or testifying to the growing dangers of antisemitism and Christian nationalism, 2022’s rising stars in religion are loud voices, and they are calling it as they see it.

Inclusion on this list does not equal endorsement or agreement from RNS.

Wajahat Ali

Ali — a commentator, writer and playwright — has become a familiar presence on political talk shows and on social media, where he has amassed more than 322,000 Twitter followers.

Author Wajahat Ali. (Photo by Damon Dahlen, Huffington Post)

Author Wajahat Ali. (Photo by Damon Dahlen, Huffington Post)

Ali has written about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to “double down on vaccine skepticism to prop himself up as the new MAGA leader” as well as making the case for President Joe Biden to “officially declare MAGA and its allies as an active terror threat.”

But he’s also gotten personal with his 2022 memoir “Go Back to Where You Came From.” His new book tells of his upbringing in an immigrant community — he spoke only Urdu until the age of 5 — and emerging as a kind of spokesperson for other Muslim students at the University of California Berkeley after the 9/11 attacks, writes RNS’ Yonat Shimron in a Q&A with Ali.

Ali also writes about the Quranic passages that offered him comfort over the years. “When you go through a crisis you need something to give you hope and keep you afloat,” he said.

Zahra Ayubi

In a year that saw editorial cartoons and newspaper columns comparing the passage of anti-abortion legislation to Islamic law in Muslim-majority countries, Zahra Ayubi was among the scholars and advocates working to reclaim the Islamic history that they saw misrepresented in discussions around reproductive justice.

Zahra Ayubi. Photo courtesy of Dartmouth College

Zahra Ayubi. Photo courtesy of Dartmouth College

Ayubi, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College and scholar of gender in premodern and modern Islamic ethics, spoke to RNS about her efforts to collect 500 interviews of religiously identified people who have had abortions. Described as the “largest data set” of its kind, it seeks to challenge “the narrative that religion is against abortion” and to understand how religious people think of “their abortions and their reproductive lives theologically.”

Ayubi also highlighted her Islam and medical ethics project, in which she aimed to document how Muslim women, as well as nonbinary and trans Muslims, go about making decisions related to abortion, gender-affirming therapies, pregnancy loss and in vitro fertilization.

As Nadiah Mohajir, who co-founded HEART Women and Girls to offer sexual and reproductive health programming to Muslims, noted, the scope of Islamic decision-making around reproductive care goes beyond just citing Islamic law. And Ayubi, she said, is working toward expanding “that conversation to include ethics and lived experience.”

Candice Marie Benbow

Candice Marie Benbow came to be a theologian by way of the death of Whitney Houston, whom she considers “the ultimate church girl.”

Candice Marie Benbow. Photo by Cuemadi White

Candice Marie Benbow. Photo by Cuemadi White

Dressed like they were there, Benbow said, she watched the famous singer’s funeral on TV with her mother and grandmother and wondered how and why Houston was once hailed by the Black church, dissed by it when she had addiction and marriage troubles and later reclaimed by it. When the service ended, she started writing an application to seminary.

Fast-forward a decade, and Benbow is now a public theologian out with the 2022 book “Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Supply Store When Sunday Morning Isn’t Enough.”

Both spiritual and religious, Benbow offers critique of the overall Black church in hopes it can live into “its best self.” And she preaches a theology that calls on Black women in particular to move beyond shame into “a much more holistic understanding of what it means to be human and what it means to realize that we will not get it right all the time,” she told RNS reporter Adelle M. Banks in a January interview.

Her book, which was released in early 2022, was named among Amazon editors’ picks for best nonfiction and featured, along with a massive picture of Benbow, on a Times Square billboard during Black History month. 

RNS was pleased to announce in December the addition of Benbow as a regular contributor with her new column, Faithfully Feminist.

Vance Blackfox

As director for Indigenous ministries and tribal relations at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Vance Blackfox is stepping up the mainline denomination’s relationships with Native American communities and nonprofits.

Vance Blackfox, director for Indigenous ministries and tribal relations for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, addresses the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, Aug. 10, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Vance Blackfox, director for Indigenous ministries and tribal relations for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, addresses the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, Aug. 10, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

In the last year and a half, the ELCA has adopted a Declaration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to American Indian and Alaska Native People. Its Churchwide Assembly welcomed an address from National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp, hosted an American Indian/Alaska Native Community Learning Space curated by Oglala Sioux theologian Kelly Sherman-Conroy and worshipped at a service designed and led by Indigenous Lutherans. It has expressed support for a national Truth and Healing Commission on Indian boarding schools and is launching a taskforce for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

“It’s not all me. I’m kind of leading the charge. I’m encouraging and hoping to engage and inspire and teach, right?” Blackfox, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, told Religion News Service.

And, at a time when many Christian institutions are reckoning with their past involvement in the U.S. Indian boarding school system that separated generations of Indigenous children from their families and cultures, the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States has launched its own quickly growing “truth-seeking and truth-telling” initiative.

“Now is the time,” he said. “I still believe this truth and healing can happen, and we can be the leaders of that in the ELCA because of the people who are willing to take this on, both Indigenous leaders and a lot of non-Indigenous folks have stepped up and are ready.”

Charlie Cytron-Walker

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker’s life changed dramatically early this year when he and several congregants of his Colleyville, Texas, synagogue were taken hostage by a gunman who demanded the release of a person in prison. Rabbi Charlie’s courageous actions — he calmly negotiated with the hostage taker and after 11 hours threw a chair at him and evacuated his congregants through an exit door — have been much heralded.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker poses at the Temple Emanuel pulpit in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Photo by Shaun Stockton

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker poses at the Temple Emanuel pulpit in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Photo by Shaun Stockton

Since that fateful January day, Cytron-Walker was interviewed on TV countless times, testified before Congress and was awarded an exceptional service award from his seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Among American Jews, he became a household name.

Cytron-Walker also moved to a new congregation, Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, about twice the size of the Coleyville synagogue, with 280 families or about 600 people.

His renown continues. In July, he and his wife were invited to the White House to celebrate the signing of a modest bipartisan gun safety law. This month, he traveled again to the White House where he lit a Hanukkah menorah with President Biden.

Cytron-Walker’s twin concerns — synagogue security but also hospitality — have become the primary challenges of many clergy this year.

Erna Hackett

Desperate for connection, public theologian Erna Hackett took to social media in the early days of the pandemic — just days after George Floyd’s murder — asking if any Asian American women would like to virtually meet to talk about anti-Black racism.

Erna Hackett. Photo by Kayleigh Shawn

Erna Hackett. Photo by Kayleigh Shawn

With about 100 people responding to her call, Hackett’s yearning for community resulted in filled up virtual rooms with non-Black Latinas working on anti-Black bias, 20-something women of color leaders and those wanting to “decolonize with badass Indigenous grandmas,” RNS’ Kathryn Post wrote in a story about Hackett’s work.

Hackett is the founder of Liberated Together, which hosts gatherings and provides coaching to help Black, Indigenous and Women of Color “heal from toxic white Christianity.” It’s one of several groups that grew during quarantine and that have now taken on a post-pandemic life.

Liberated Together cohorts include weekly Zoom gatherings, readings and reflections and can range from $450 to $1,800. Costs ensure that group leaders are fairly compensated. Liberated Together is restricted to women of color because, as Hackett noted: “There’s really no space in the nonprofit world, racial justice world or the ministry world that is just for women of color, queer women of color.”

Tricia Hersey

According to Tricia Hersey, who calls herself the “Nap Bishop,” rest is a spiritual force that allows participants to honor their inherent divinity, abandoning a mindset that values productivity over self-worth. 

Tricia Hersey. Courtesy photo by Charlie Watts

Tricia Hersey. Courtesy photo by Charlie Watts

Since 2016, Hersey has been leading retreats, curating performance art and crafting workshops to promote rest as a tool of resistance against what she calls “grind culture,” which teaches that endless hustle leads to fulfillment.

And her message is gaining traction. In 2022, she released her first book, “Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto,” named as an Editor’s Pick for Amazon’s Best Books of 2022. Half a million followers track The Nap Ministry’s Instagram account, which posts memes and screenshots with messages like: “You don’t have to earn rest” and “A Black Woman in a rested state is a radical act.”

Raised in a Church of God in Christ church just outside Chicago’s South Side, Hersey said growing up in a Black Pentecostal church taught her the value of Black autonomy, nurtured her gift of public speaking and imbued her with an embodied spirituality.

“This work is for all those weary and exhausted by grind culture, and I believe that’s the entire globe,” Hersey told Religion News Service in March. “We can’t imagine this new world we want to see, full of justice and liberation and freedom for all people, from an exhausted space.”

Amy Kenny

“God told me to pray for you!” is about the last thing Amy Kenny wants to hear when she cruises into church riding Diana, the mobility scooter she has named after Wonder Woman.

Amy Kenny. Courtesy photo

Amy Kenny. Courtesy photo

It’s not that she has anything against prayer. Kenny, a Shakespeare scholar and lecturer at the University of California, Riverside who is disabled, would simply like other Christians to quit treating her body as defective. “To suggest that I am anything less than sanctified and redeemed is to suppress the image of God in my disabled body and to limit how God is already at work through my life,” Kenny writes in her new book, “My Body Is Not a Prayer Request.”

The book, which came out in May, has helped spark a broader conversation about how ableism is baked into everyday assumptions and what it could look like to imagine a world — and a church — where the needs of disabled people aren’t ignored or tolerated, but are given their rightful place at the center of conversations.

RNS reporter Kathryn Post spoke to Kenny last spring about making the church a “crip space,” her belief in a disabled God and why she prefers Good Friday over Easter.

Kevin Nye

In the aftermath of the pandemic, and amid rising inflation, homelessness around the country has spiked and, as author and advocate Kevin Nye pointed out in an RNS column, became a front-and-center issue in many of the midterm elections around the country.

Kevin Nye. Courtesy photo

Kevin Nye. Courtesy photo

When Nye, a graduate of Fuller Seminary, first began working at The Center, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that hopes to “break the cycle of homelessness through radical hospitality,” he thought he had all the answers.

In his 2022 book, “Grace Can Lead Us Home: A Christian Call to End Homelessness,” Nye says that many of his fellow Christians make the same mistake. Too often, they offer cash or bagged lunches instead of relationships. Or they avert their eyes and just move on.

Nye suggests trying to see people experiencing homelessness as if they were Jesus — he believes this approach can help avoid transactional, paternalistic models that dehumanize the very people being served.

“If we actually saw Jesus on the side of the road, and recognized him as the Son of God, our savior, we probably wouldn’t just roll down our window and hand him a five,” Nye told Religion News Service in August. “We’d hopefully pull over and talk and enter into some sort of relationship where we are doing a lot more listening than talking.”

Gopal Patel

When he was 21, Gopal Patel moved into an ashram on the banks of the River Ganges to study the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s foundational Scriptures. Poring over the text, he found resonance in a conversation between the sacred text’s warrior prince Arjuna and the god Krishna.

Gopal Patel participates on a panel at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in Nov. 2022. Courtesy photo

Gopal Patel participates on a panel at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in Nov. 2022. Courtesy photo

“By the time I finished reading it, I was like, ‘I want to give my life to this,’” Patel told RNS earlier this month.

Nearly two decades later, that spiritual charge has led Patel to the cause of protecting the environment, where he has become an ascendant figure in the effort to combat global climate change.

In 2009, he founded Bhumi Global, a faith-based environmental movement rooted in Hindu principles. The organization, named for the Hindu goddess who represents Earth, focuses on the “triple crisis” of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

The group has been working for years but recently began making bigger splashes in the international space. In October, Bhumi Global hosted its first international summit, a virtual two-day event in partnership with the United Nations’ Faith for Earth Initiative. And just this month, Patel championed the multi-faith response to the cause of biodiversity — broadly defined as the variety of life on Earth — while huddling with experts and advocates in Montreal as part of COP15, the U.N.’s major gathering on the topic.

Erica Ramirez

Texan Mayra Flores dominated national headlines after winning her June special election campaign that flipped her Latino district to red for the first time, making her the first Mexican-born woman to serve as a member of Congress. But, while Flores lost her short-lived seat in the November general election, Erica Ramirez’s column for Religion News Service shed light on how “religion, not race, best explains Flores’ successful campaign.”

Erica Ramirez. Photo courtesy of Auburn Theological Seminary

Erica Ramirez. Photo courtesy of Auburn Theological Seminary

A sociologist at Auburn Theological Seminary in Manhattan, Ramirez analyzed the language and symbols in Flores’ campaign, from the Bible Scriptures on her pastor’s church website that are “key to Pentecostal claims that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is for practice in the present day” to “how deftly (Flores) expresses Christian nationalismo in Spanish.”

“The aesthetics of her campaign lend little credence to the idea that Christian nationalism is, necessarily, white,” wrote Ramirez, a fifth-generation Texan and a graduate of Southwestern Assemblies of God.

Ramirez has tracked Pentecostal support for former President Donald Trump and has also written about the “Christian conservative” commitment to religion’s importance over science. Her work has helped highlight how ethnic minorities, particularly those who are Pentecostals, “are very likely to vote for a Christian nationalist agenda.”

Danya Ruttenberg

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg has been a public theologian for some time. This year she broke through with two important contributions. Her book, “On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World,” was a post #MeToo analysis of the steps abusers need to follow to repair the harm they’ve done.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. Courtesy photo

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. Courtesy photo

Using the system of repentance as codified by the 12th-century Jewish sage, Moses Maimonides, the book distinguishes between repentance, forgiveness and atonement, explaining each in clear prose. It won plaudits far and wide, including an article by Jill Lepore in “The New Yorker.”

Ruttenberg, who has over 163,000 Twitter followers, has also been outspoken about abortion rights. As scholar-in-residence for the National Council of Jewish Women, she contributed to a strategy for challenging abortion bans in court by pointing out that Jewish law permits and sometimes requires abortion if the life and the health of the mother is at risk. As such, abortion bans violate Jewish religious freedom. Ruttenberg helped create Rabbis for Repro, a network of more than 1,800 Jewish clergy committed to supporting abortion access for all. “Safe and accessible abortion,” she wrote, “is a religious value.”

Jay Therrell

It’s hard to deny the influence Jay Therrell has had this past year on Methodism — for better or for worse, depending on the Methodist you ask.

Jay Therrell. Courtesy of Therrell

Jay Therrell. Courtesy of Therrell

As president of the Florida chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, Therrell announced this May that more than 100 churches in the Sunshine State had started the process to leave the United Methodist Church to join the new, theologically conservative Global Methodist Church, which had officially launched just days earlier.

Not long afterward, the lawyer and former United Methodist pastor was elected president of the national Wesleyan Covenant Association, a coalition of self-described “orthodox, evangelical” United Methodists.

Under Therrell’s leadership, the WCA has called on its members to withhold membership payments known as apportionments to some regional annual conferences it believes are making it difficult for churches to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church and join the Global Methodist Church. It also has encouraged its members to resume filing complaints against clergy violating the denomination’s Book of Discipline.

“I view myself as your servant to help us in the wilderness get to the Jordan,” he told members at the coalition’s 6th annual gathering.

Amanda Tyler

As Christian nationalism’s influence began to swell in 2022, one of its most visible opponents wasn’t an atheist or a non-Christian. Instead, it was a Baptist — namely, Amanda Tyler, the head of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

Amanda Tyler. Photo courtesy of Baptist Joint Committee

Amanda Tyler. Photo courtesy of Baptist Joint Committee

As head of the BJC and its Christians and Christian Nationalism initiative, Tyler railed against Christian nationalism in the press, penning editorials in CNN and appearing on news programs such as MSNBC. Her recurring argument: Christian nationalism, which she describes as a “gross distortion” of the faith she and others claim, is a threat to American democracy, and Christians should reject it.

A lawyer and former congressional staffer, Tyler also worked to bring her cause before elected officials. Her organization partnered with the Freedom From Religion Foundation to produce an exhaustive report on Christian nationalism’s role in the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and was part of a group that briefed members of the U.S. House of Representatives on the subject in March. Come December, she was testifying about Christian nationalism before the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which is chaired by Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin — a prominent member of the select committee charged with investigating the insurrection.

Jennifer Villavicencio

Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio, a first-generation Cuban American, grew up a devout Catholic in Miami, attending Catholic schools and advocating on behalf of her church against abortion. This year she became one of the most public champions for abortion rights.

Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio, center, participates in a panel about abortion during the Religion News Association conference March 25, 2022, in Bethesda, Maryland. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio, center, participates in a panel about abortion during the Religion News Association conference March 25, 2022, in Bethesda, Maryland. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

She is often the face of Catholics for Choice, a nonprofit organization that advocates for reproductive rights. She also took the lead for equity transformation at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Villavicencio’s journey questioning her faith’s opposition to abortion began in medical school. Today she regularly performs abortions as an obstetrician-gynecologist at two Maryland hospitals, in addition to a Planned Parenthood clinic.

In August she met at the White House with Vice President Kamala Harris as part of a group of Latina advocates for reproductive choice.

Villavicencio no longer attends church. But she said her commitment to helping pregnant people make choices about their reproduction stems from the values of helping others she gained from her Catholic upbringing.

“I’m called by my conscience and everything I was taught as a child growing up by my parents and my faith,” she said. “This is the work I need to be doing.”

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