(RNS) — When Justin Jones marched toward the Tennessee Capitol building last week, he was flanked by so many people that cameras struggled to pick him out of the crowd. But as he approached the doors to the House chamber, the crowd thinned to just a few, as Jones linked arms with a local lawmaker and two faith leaders. One held a Bible. Another, the Rev. Ingrid McIntyre, was donned in a stole. Together, they sang the gospel spiritual “This Little Light of Mine.”
“It was important to him to have clergy with him,” McIntyre, a local activist and United Methodist minister who serves two churches in Nashville, said of Jones about the day he was reinstated as a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives.
His return came just days after the Republican-dominated legislature expelled Jones and his colleague Justin Pearson for staging a protest on the House floor in support of gun control, following the deadly shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School. The expulsion — and triumphant return — of “The Justins,” as they’ve come to be known, captured national attention and brought a spotlight to the growing tension between Tennessee’s majority Republican Congress, and its crop of young activist lawmakers elected to represent the state’s blue cities.
At the heart of that activism is a faith-infused advocacy environment common in the South, where coalitions of local religious communities — particularly Black churches, mainline Protestants and interfaith organizations — often partner with national faith-led activist groups, such as the Poor People’s Campaign, to champion liberal policies.
Both Jones (27), and Pearson (28), cut their teeth working with faith-led movements in Nashville and Memphis, respectively, as well as with the Poor People’s Campaign. Their faces were familiar as fellow protesters alongside faith leaders like McIntyre long before they raised their bullhorns on the House floor. And it came as no surprise to those who knew them when both men appealed to God and Scripture as they defended themselves against allegations from Republican colleagues this month, who declared their protest a violation of House rules and ultimately expelled them.
Both Pearson and Jones were promptly reinstated by local councils in their districts.
For McIntyre, last week’s march to the state Capitol was simply one in a list of “intense” moments she has shared with Jones, who once interned for her at Open Table Nashville, an interfaith, poverty-focused organization McIntyre co-founded in the city. This month isn’t even the first time she’s demonstrated with Jones inside the state Capitol, she said, recalling an instance in 2016 when Jones and others served Communion to each other outside the House speaker’s office amid a protest for health care access.
Tennessee, McIntyre noted, is home to an array of faith-based advocacy groups, such as the Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship in Nashville or the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope, which goes by the name MICAH.
“Organizing people of faith matters,” she said.
During a press call in early April, the Rev. William Barber, co-founder of the activist group the Poor People’s Campaign, described a yearslong relationship with Jones, who has participated in the organization’s Moral Monday demonstrations.
When Barber, now head of an advocacy-focused center at Yale Divinity School, described Jones as a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School in a separate press call last week, Jones gently corrected him. Explaining he has one semester left, Jones, who sometimes refers to Barber as a sort of “godfather,” said he has already received an education in faith-fueled activism.
“(I) grew up in the moral movement with Rev. Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign,” Jones said. “That’s the divinity school I can get my accreditation from for now.”
Jones further highlighted Barber’s influence in his book “The People’s Plaza: Sixty-Two Days of Nonviolent Resistance,” which documents a two-month racial justice protest Jones helped organize in Nashville’s Legislative Plaza in 2020. In his book, which features a foreword written by Barber, Jones says he has looked to Barber as mentor, “spiritual father” and a “model of faith and justice” since 2013 — the year Moral Mondays protests began.
“I am so grateful and moved every time I see and experience your commitment to uplifting the rising generation,” Jones writes.
The same year Jones’ protest movement roared to life in Nashville, Pearson helped launch one of his own in Memphis. Pearson co-founded Memphis Community Against Pollution, a group dedicated to opposing the Byhalia Pipeline, a proposed 49-mile crude oil conduit that was slated to run through predominantly Black neighborhoods in South Memphis.
The effort turned into a yearslong series of demonstrations and protests aimed at defeating the pipeline, garnering attention from national media outlets such as Vice News and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, as well as pop star Justin Timberlake. Faith played a prominent role throughout, with Pearson, the son of a pastor, often using religious rhetoric in public events.
“They believed that even in a place like this, there was hope, there was love, there was possibility and there was a God,” Pearson said in a December 2020 speech, speaking as he stood on land where, he explained, his great-grandmother raised her children. “As my mama said, it was the God that was, the God that is and will be with us in this fight.”
Groups such as the Black Clergy Collaborative of Memphis supported the movement, and when Al Gore, himself a divinity school dropout, spoke at one of MCAP’s prayer-filled rallies in 2021, the former vice president couldn’t help but note the religious subtext.
“I feel like I’m in church,” Gore said as he began his speech. He went on to cite Scripture no less than three times, referring to Matthew 25, Galatians 6:9 and the book of Genesis.
A month later, Barber told RNS, Pearson asked him to come speak at a rally in Memphis hosted by the MCAP and the Tennessee chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign.
“If God be for us, it doesn’t matter if the whole world is against us,” Barber declared to the crowd at the rally. “Not here. Not Now. Not on our watch.”
Pearson and his fellow advocates went on to defeat the pipeline, and when he was elected to the state House, he listed affiliation with the Poor People’s Campaign in his official biography.
Things may come full circle for Pearson and Jones on Monday, when Barber and others are holding a major Moral Mondays protest in Nashville — an event, which Jones helped promote in a joint MSNBC appearance with Barber over the weekend, that happens to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the first Moral Mondays protest.
As lawmakers potentially debate gun-related legislation inside the Tennessee State Capitol, faith leaders from across the religious spectrum plan to join other gun control advocates to march from a Methodist church and into the Capitol building carrying caskets designed for children to highlight the victims of gun violence.
Among those marching will be McIntyre, who hopes the attention will help others across the country understand why so many Tennessee faith leaders like herself feel compelled to pursue activism in the first place.
“There are so many organizers, so many faith leaders, so many amazing organizations in Nashville and across the state doing really, really hard and powerful work,” she said. “I hope the nation sees how difficult this work has been.”