Prolific writer, speaker and activist Lisa Sharon Harper carries the power of her ancestors with her when she walks into a room. She embodies their resistance to systems of oppression, their strength, and their pain.
“I am, because they are,” she says. “And there is nothing, there really is nothing, like being able to stand on the foundations of your ancestors and to know who you are, and to know the struggles that your family has been through. And to know how that shaped them and how that shaped you. And your sense of possibilities, your sense of strengths and weaknesses.”
Her latest book, Fortune: How Race Broke My Family and the World, and How to Repair it All traces her family’s story 10 generations back. Its release date is February 8, 2022.
Harper believes that her overarching and higher, “30,000-foot” calling is to bring shalom in all areas of life. She seeks “to build a world where we are reconnected—or connected for the first time—to all things: to God, to ourselves, to each other, to the rest of creation…”
And right now, she understands that practically takes the form of “narrative reconciliation.”
Harper sees two warring meta-narratives “competing for the soul of America.” One that says the United States is and always has been a “great” nation; the other is that the U.S. is not so great and has actually never lived up to its ideals.
An Unlikely Start
But Harper got started in an unlikely place—as a theater major in undergrad. After getting her master’s degree in playwriting and winning prestigious theater awards, Harper was bound for Broadway. Until one day, she realized the role faith played in her life.
“My faith is who I am,” she told a friend at the time. “I think I could go the rest of my life and not write another play. But I couldn’t go the rest of my life and not share about Jesus, not share about the kingdom of God.”
With a heart for evangelism, Harper joined the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Then a pilgrimage in 2003 that walked her and other staff through Black history hotspots in the American South, along with the Cherokee Trail of Tears, was her “big ‘aha!’ moment.” Harper realized, “I want to be a shalom-maker.”
Moving Powers to Do Justice
After ministering with InterVarsity for 10 years, Harper left with this new focus. She moved back to New York. After earning a master’s degree in Human Rights from Columbia University, started “New York Faith and Justice.” The evangelical organization focused on “environmental injustice, police brutality and immigration reform” in the city.
After five years of advocacy, lobbying, and hard work, the organization struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the 2009 recession. In need of a “real job,” Harper called Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners magazine. The progressive publication brought her on as director of mobilizing and chief church engagement officer. Eventually taking on other roles there, Harper worked as a “second face to Sojourners,” right beside Wallis. She describes her time there as “developmental and transformative.”
“To work at Sojourners is to work at the center of the power struggle in America. It’s in D.C., and your work is to actually move the powers to do justice,” she said. “So it was like a roller coaster every day.”
Now, Harper is the founder and president of Freedom Road, a consulting firm “dedicated to shrinking the narrative gap” in our nation through “training, speaking, consulting, and pilgrimage.”
But the pandemic brought a new change of pace for her. Harper’s most recent project is to “reunite” with her body and “become embodied again.”
“How do I be an embodied person?” She has been asking herself. “Because that is also what it means to be free. That is also what it means to live into the image of God within us, to exercise dominion in the world—is to not be a slave to our calendar, to not be a slave even to the call… of others to come out and play, to come out and do stuff with them; but rather to be guided by the voice of God strategically and intentionally with myself in mind.”
When asked what advice she would give her 25-year-old self, Harper recalled what someone told her when she was about 37: “You will be powerful when you grow to love who you are. When you no longer make caveats for your sentences, apologies for anything…of course except sin. But when you no longer apologize for taking up space but expect when you enter a room to take up space and come prepared to take up space, you’re going to be powerful.”
“And there is no peace that is greater than the peace with self that is anchored to peace with God, and causes peace with others, and moves you into peace with the rest of creation,” she said. “There is no greater peace than that.”