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Building a Bigger Tent

An Ohio megachurch’s revival of religious community activism

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

In the fall of 2016, 250 volunteers from the Crossroads Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, worked more than 500 volunteer shifts in the campaign for Issue 44, a $48 million municipal levy to create a universal preschool program and support K-12 education. If the levy were implemented, taxes in the city would go up by $278 for every $100,000 of the value of a home—a tough sell in Ohio, a state that helped put Donald Trump in the White House, and in a city with sharp racial divides. Even so, Issue 44 passed by a 24-point margin, garnering 62 percent of the vote.

As a Midwestern, evangelical, pro-life, Christian megachurch, whose congregants are 82 percent white, Crossroads might seem an improbable source of volunteers for a tax hike that would largely benefit low-income black families. Christian churches have historically been crucibles of leadership, voluntarism, and action for progressive social movements, from abolitionism to civil rights. In recent decades, however, conservative Christian activism has eclipsed the religious left, and liberals have become increasingly secular. (According to the Pew Research Center, 39 percent of self-identified liberals are religiously unaffiliated, nearly twice the level two decades ago.) The left now seems to lack a collective identity, relying on abstract policy discussions and empty appeals to unity to patch together a loose coalition that lacks an emotional core.

Crossroads is different. It has an average attendance of 38,000 people per week, making it one of the few institutions in American public life that can consistently bring such numbers together. Its head pastor, Brian Tome, regularly preaches in jeans, holding an iPad with his notes, on a stage with drum sets behind him. The service is broadcast into Crossroads’s 14 campuses across Ohio and Kentucky. On Super Bowl Sunday, when other churches around the country saw a dip in attendance, Crossroads drew 58,000 people to its annual Super Bowl of Preaching, complete with its own half-time show and preaching teams tossing Bibles to start each quarter.

Just as it charts a new path for a church, Crossroads charts a new path for politics. Today, many grassroots organizations on the left define themselves by difference, relying on implicit ideological purity tests to determine who belongs in these groups. Imagine the suspicious looks someone would get if they arrived at a Greenpeace meeting in hunting gear and a gas-guzzling pickup truck. Crossroads, in contrast, accepts all people, no matter what they wear, eat, drive, or say. It is more interested in forging a shared identity that transcends the differences that normally divide Americans—race, partisanship, and even faith. Although Crossroads adheres to the teachings of the Christian Bible, it welcomes people who do not. With this philosophy, it has built up a base of political activists that is far more durable than anything Democratic campaigns can create through blast emails and algorithmic wizardry. In a moment when the left is riven with debates over how to hold together contentious coalitions of women, millennials, environmentalists, constituencies of color, and many more, Crossroads offers powerful lessons about the way commitments to a community translate into commitments to a political agenda.

In April 2015, when cases of police brutality against black men dominated headlines around the country, a black pastor at Crossroads, Chuck Mingo, delivered a sermon about race. “He stood up onstage and said, ‘I feel like God is calling me to be a voice of racial reconciliation in Cincinnati,’ ” Elizabeth Hopkins, a biracial Crossroads congregant, recalled. “And I swear, my heart exploded inside of my chest. I wanted to stand up and be like, ‘Me too, Chuck, me too!’ I emailed him right afterwards. He probably got 4,000 emails.”

Soon after, Crossroads launched Undivided, a “racial reconciliation” program that drew 1,200 participants to its first session. Over the course of six weeks, members took part in racially mixed groups of eight to ten people with two facilitators, one white person and one person of color. Each group explored Cincinnati’s history on race, research on implicit racism and empathy, and their own experiences of race. “When I walked into that first meeting about Undivided, I was as cynical as you could be that this would be a watered down, me-and-my-friend-of-color experience that tries to keep everything as noncontroversial as possible,” said Troy Jackson, then the executive director of the AMOS Project, a faith-based organizing network in Cincinnati that partnered with Crossroads on the Issue 44 campaign. “But it’s been the most interesting, challenging, exciting, perplexing organizing work I’ve done.”

Churchgoers who have heard a political sermon recently

2 in 3

Megachurch congregants who identify as conservative:

83 percent

Fastest-growing megachurch in America:


Source: Pew Center, Hartford Institute for Religious Research

During the sessions, the organizers learned that almost half of the people in Undivided had never had a person of another race over for dinner. So they decided to end the program with a group dinner at one of their houses—one of the many shared, intimate experiences that could help build collective commitments that would ultimately galvanize volunteers toward political action. “I don’t think people understand that we all have racial wounds,” said Petra Hostetler, a black woman who was part of Undivided’s first class.

AMOS was already organizing around Issue 44 when Crossroads finished its first Undivided session in 2016. The two groups worked together to build a “Justice Team,” within the church, of people interested in helping pass the tax levy. “It started as a team of 50,” Hopkins said, “which then grew to 150, then 200, almost overnight.” The volunteers organized teams of people to phone-bank and canvass every Monday night throughout the fall of 2016. They were so successful that they eventually took over Wednesday nights and had volunteers showing up on other nights of the week as well.

The Crossroads volunteers were only one part of a much larger effort to pass universal preschool in Cincinnati. Imagine, however, if the professional consultants who run most Democratic campaigns ran the field program for Issue 44. They would likely have printed yard signs and spun out poll-tested messages about race, education, and poverty targeted to “activate” narrow segments of the electorate. Television commercials would try to narrowly persuade people to support the issue of universal preschool. That approach may have turned out a few extra votes in the short term, but it would not have created the same kind of commitment that drove sustained action in Crossroads. “The campaign became a mission,” said Brewster Rhoads, the campaign co-manager for Issue 44. “They volunteered in ways you would never see for a school levy. Period.”

What was interesting about the Undivided participants was that they were willing to volunteer—over and over—for programs that may not have benefited them directly but did benefit their community. That is unique in today’s activism world. At this point, Crossroads has taken 3,000 congregants through Undivided: almost 10 percent of its congregation. The Justice Team is now working on criminal justice reform. It has been working on getting 2,000 members to collect as many as 20,000 signatures for a ballot initiative dedicated to reducing the state’s prison population and freeing up resources for drug treatment, prevention, and trauma recovery. Few grassroots organizations can expect an activist base committed to working on multiple campaigns and issues. Far more common is the person who goes to the Women’s March on Washington and never volunteers again.

Trump’s victory in 2016 exposed the perils of trying to win an election by patching together loose coalitions and relying on the politics of outrage—as opposed to building a constituency that is grounded in actual commitments people have to each other. In a moment when most of our politics are driving us further apart, Crossroads offers hope for an alternative path.