A year ago, in the days after learning that Donald Trump would be the next president, Charleen Ward was afraid.
And come Sunday, she was in church.
“I was really scared. I felt that things were going to be drastically changed for me as an African-American woman, as a gay woman,” she said. “I needed to come after the election. I knew there would be many who felt the way I did. I needed to have that family support of the church.”
The pews were packed in churches across the country on the Sunday after the election, filled with Trump supporters giving thanks for the turning of a page in America, with stunned liberals seeking solace, and with many who simply felt compelled to be together in community in an emotional moment.
Surely, the election didn’t mark any sort of spiritual awakening in America. There’s been no big turn in the tide of an increasingly secular younger generation. But there was a slight shift: In churches across America, some of the people who walked through the doors for the first time in many years on that Sunday after Election Day stuck around. In quiet ways in the past year, the church has changed them. And they have changed the church.
That’s apparent at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in the District of Columbia, where Ward found community on that Sunday after the election. The church has so many new members – many of whom voice their commitment to progressive priorities loud and clear, but don’t have quite as firm a grasp on church tradition – that the clergy just launched a series to teach them, over drinks, about the theology behind their social justice causes.
“It comes out of the requests from our 20- and 30-somethings, who are kind of new to church. They’re not new to advocacy. They’re not new to activism,” said the Rev. Richard Weinberg. “They have commitments. But they don’t have the theological language and background.”
Average Sunday attendance jumped from 98 in the month leading up to Trump’s inauguration to 122 in the next month, Weinberg said. “I would say that there is more of an energy and a commitment to the resistance movement. Young folks and not-young folks alike are coming.”
A pattern across the countryIt’s a pattern echoed across the city and across the country, in congregations of many stripes. In many Jewish and Muslim congregations, some young people who didn’t think much about their identities before drew closer to their communities in the face of rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. At All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Washington, D.C., the Rev. Robert Hardies said that Sunday attendance is 33 percent higher this fall than it was before last year’s election.
The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, said that’s the case at most congregations across the country in the liberal Unitarian Universalist church. Her own church in Phoenix saw a 20 percent increase in Sunday attendance after the election.
“A lot of people who are members but hadn’t been attending regularly or hadn’t attended in a while are all coming back to the community,” she said.
She thinks the stress of politics is driving women and immigrants in particular to church. “When people are afraid, when they’re facing trauma, when they’re in the midst of tremendous challenge and difficulty, they seek out communities that will support them,” Frederick-Gray said. “They seek out religious community. And I believe people are experiencing trauma in this political environment.”
Many mainline Protestant churches, as well as mosques and synagogues, have redoubled their social action activities, attracting new members who want a place to get involved. Church committees across the country have been busy hosting rallies about climate change and racism, writing and calling legislators about health care and taxes and offering direct aid to refugees and immigrants.
“I hear that constantly from pastors, that they’ve seen an uptick in attendance post-election,” said the Rev. Jennifer Butler, who led a White House faith council during the Obama administration and now leads the liberal organization Faith in Public Life.
“I think what’s helping is that there’s also a larger public witness of, I guess you would call it, ‘progressive religion’ – which I think has given people some comfort and some feeling of confidence in the church, that the church is going to practice what it preaches,” Butler said.
Sharing a social missionAt St. Margaret’s, members have joined some of the protest marches and have reached out to Muslim and Jewish leaders to show solidarity. But often the volunteer opportunities are less obviously political, like serving meals to hungry neighbors.
Jade Williams, 27, has started going to St. Margaret’s on Thursdays and Sundays to serve meals and chat with the homeless guests. She came to the church recently, soon after she moved from the Bahamas to the Washington, D.C., to work for the Bahamian Embassy here and spotted a sign on the church’s door. It matches many of the yard signs that sprang up in D.C. after the election: “Black Lives Matter ... Love is Love, Science is Real.” But it ends with an additional line: “God’s Grace is Everything.”
“That’s what drew me there and really keeps me there,” she said about the sign.
Recently, Williams had a harrowing experience that left her grateful for the church. She, her husband and relatives went to the Jefferson Memorial to take family photos and were shocked when a group of about 20 protesters, in town for a white nationalist demonstration, started taunting the family.
“Growing up, I went to a Catholic school. One of the songs we used to sing when we went to Mass in the morning, that’s what’s been on my mind these last few weeks – ‘They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love,’” she said.
“I think that relationship with the church home is incredibly significant and important to me, after that occurred,” Williams said. “It made me appreciate the work that St. Margaret’s is doing, its message. Every single message every Sunday morning has a social justice theme.”
On a recent Sunday, as the first anniversary of the election approached, Weinberg was the one delivering that message. He spoke of finding a message of liberation in that week’s Bible passage, from the Book of Revelation.
“That indeed is a good-news message, but ... consider how each of us is called to the service of liberating work and faithful resistance in the face of injustice,” he preached, naming rallies and marches as part of that work. “For those who have fled their homes and found little welcome in the xenophobic West, liberation is coming. ... For those who work so many damn jobs and still can’t make ends meet, liberation is coming. ... For our suffering planet, liberation is coming.”
Then the Rev. Kym Lucas explained Communion and the collection – taking care to demystify the rituals for those who are new to church services – and a member of the congregation made an announcement.
A year ago, that church member was brand-new herself. “I was so completely devastated by the election,” said the 40-year-old mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she works for the federal government and doesn’t want her name published. “I wanted to come to a place where I could start to put together what had happened in a way that wasn’t just the political horse race but was about my values and my beliefs.”
She was raised in the Catholic Church, and while she hadn’t attended a church in many years, she says her liberal political beliefs are very much rooted in her religious faith. After Trump won, she wanted to practice that tradition again. Now, she and her daughter are regular churchgoers, and she says the sermons have challenged her to think more deeply about her charitable donations.
Lucas describes the newcomers, like that federal employee, as “seekers.” Many of them are looking for a community to spur them to action, but also simply for solace.
“For a lot of people there’s been this sense of depression and sadness. We’ve had to remind ourselves that there is hope,” Lucas said.
That’s what Ward, as a lesbian mother concerned about raising her 8-year-old daughter in Trump’s America, felt she needed.
“The last year has felt like a nightmare,” she said. “The church really became a haven.”