Jason Byassee: The new evangelicals

Teach For America is one model for crossing the sacred/secular boundary.

I got the idea to write about Teach For America for Faith & Leadership after hearing rumors that the organization “didn’t know what to do” with the fact that so many of its applicants are evangelicals. That turned out to be false. Not that so many applicants are people of faith, but that TFA didn’t know what to do with that.

Far from it, they hired Nicole Baker Fulgham as faith and community outreach director, whose job is to network and build institutional partnerships with religious organizations.

I met Baker Fulgham at Q, a gathering of evangelical entrepreneurs. While there she filmed this clip for ABC news on the “new evangelicals.” And while there she played something of the role of a missionary, appealing to this crowd of pastors and business leaders to send their communities’ kids to TFA. “God doesn’t just give gifts to kids of means,” she thundered. Her charge to spread the word about God’s displeasure with the injustice of the achievement gap was met with raucous applause.

Baker Fulgham is a TFA alumna who was reared in a social-justice-loving African Methodist Episcopal church and had a born-again experience at the University of Michigan. She credits her AME upbringing for her sense that faith can’t refuse to be active on behalf of justice in the world -- Christians must “put their own needs aside, and work on behalf of others.”

While studying education for her Ph.D. at UCLA, she noticed a communication gap between her secular university professors and her evangelical fellow students. “I could talk to both,” she said, so she did: She wrote her dissertation on the way evangelical school teachers view the race of their students. She found that those who described their views of race as “colorblind” often misled themselves. They would describe their work and students in quite racialized ways without realizing it. But one large batch of evangelicals did a great deal better: those who grew up in the mission field. Having lived in another culture allowed them to see their own cultural baggage and to engage those of other cultures with mutual respect for the sake of a shared goal.

What perfect preparation for mediating between a secular organization like TFA and the evangelical and other religious constituencies to which Baker Fulgham reaches out now. This illustrates one additional lesson the church can take from TFA: We shouldn’t be afraid of crossing the secular/sacred boundary.

Baker Fulgham calls her position her dream job. “When this initiative was first kicked around, I was so excited to engage more explicitly with principles at the core of my life, and to combine that with what we’re after in TFA. It was even more personal for me because I could connect with faith-based leaders about mission.” Her eyes twinkled as we shared sushi on Michigan Avenue and I wondered: How many pastors or academics are this happy?

Meet the new evangelicals: just like the old in some ways, throwing themselves headlong into a greater cause for less money, and yet new as well: more diverse, more educated, more civically engaged and more, please God, like Jesus.