What you should know about Humanite, Jeremy and Jessica Courtney’s new aid organization

Having been fired from Preemptive Love, the Courtneys are back with a new venture.

After a 7-month silence, Jeremy and Jessica Courtney returned to Instagram, claiming they were unjustly fired from Preemptive Love (PLC) and teasing their latest venture, Humanite, which they’re billing as an aid organization led by refugees.

(Background: Preemptive Love dismissed the Courtneys in January 2022, after nearly three dozen former employees came forward, accusing them of abuse. In addition to their mistreatment of staff, the Courtneys sometimes exaggerated their work or lied about how they used donor money. For details of the Courtney’s misconduct, go here.)

Humanite has yet to officially launch, but I had a chance to see their homepage and get an idea what kind of organization it will be—and what, if anything, has changed since the Courtneys left Preemptive Love.

Humanite home page, August 2022

A refugee-led aid organization?

One of the most noteworthy things about Humanite is its claim to be led “by refugees and war survivors.”

Jeremy and Jessica are, of course, not refugees—though that hasn’t stopped them from comparing their experience being fired to that of refugees losing their home to war. They also haven’t been as close to active warfare as they want you to believe.

Instagram post from Jeremy and Jessica Courtney, comparing their experience being fired for misconduct to a refugee’s experience fleeing war.

They appear to be launching Humanite with a handful of displaced families who’ve remained loyal to them since leaving Preemptive Love.

What remains to be seen is whether “founded by refugees” is more than a tagline — whether it has any real impact on decision-making or team structures or power dynamics at Humanite. Or whether it’s just a marketing gimmick designed to shield the Courtneys from accusations of white savior-ism.

Judging from the experience of dozens of former staff, some of whom have spoken publicly, the Courtneys aren’t ones to share decision-making power with anyone.

Humanite’s problematic relationship with the truth

On their homepage, Humanite claims “decades of impact across 11 countries and 2M people served.”

Humanite home page, claiming “decades of impact across 11 countries and 2M people served.”

The Courtneys have a history of playing fast and loose with the truth, so this claim deserves scrutiny.

Decades of impact” 

Preemptive Love was founded in 2008. Prior to that, the Courtneys were evangelical missionaries in Turkey. Calling 14 years “decades” is a bit of a stretch.

11 countries

 The Courtneys live in northern Iraq. They’ve been to Syria and Lebanon a handful of times, as well as Mexico and Colombia. (Preemptive Love has funded other aid organizations’ work in these countries).

But how did the Courtneys arrive at the number 11? It’s because Jeremy also claims impact in countries like North Korea, Iran, and Afghanistan — despite having never set foot in them. Sometimes his claims are based on the flimsiest of pretexts. For example, he includes North Korea in this list because he once attended a peace conference across the border in South Korea.’ 

“2M people served” 

If you count every box of food distributed using money given to Preemptive Love, you can probably arrive at a number like this. But the vast majority of this work was done by local partners—partners the Courtneys almost never acknowledged. Jeremy and Jessica themselves were nowhere near most of this work when it was happening.

Poaching other organization’s photos

One of the most telling things about Jeremy and Jessica Courtney’s new website are the photos: almost none of them belong to Humanite.

Most were taken from Preemptive Love. They show work funded by Preemptive Love donors, not Humanite donors.

Some aren’t even from Preemptive Love originally. The image below, depicting a man giving a drink of water to a detainee, belongs to IHAO, an Iraq-based NGO that was funded by Preemptive Love until the Courtneys cut them loose. Neither the Courtneys nor any PLC staff took part in this particular aid mission.

Screenshot of Humanite homepage, using a photo taken from another aid organization.

The photo below, showing a child holding a bag of bread, is from a former partner in Syria, which Preemptive Love doesn’t appear to have funded for some time. (It’s been a while since they reported any work in Syria, for that matter, or listed any staff assigned to the country.)

Screenshot of Humanite homepage, using a photo taken from another aid organization

There is a small disclaimer in Humanite’s footer, stating that “some” of the photos show the founder’s previous work, and that they were used with permission. Only Preemptive Love (or its former partners) can confirm whether that last part is true.

Humanite website footer, with a disclaimer (bottom left) claiming other organization’s photos were used with permission.

This is part of a larger pattern with the Courtneys: walking right up to the line between the truth and a lie, then stretching that line to its breaking point. In the past, Jeremy has doctored videos to make it look like he was in Fallujah when he wasn’t, or closer to actual danger in Mosul than he really was.

It looks like the Courtneys are following the same playbook for Humanite.

Humanite: same story, different name?

So what should donors make of Jeremy and Jessica Courtney’s latest venture?

Humanite promises to do a lot of the same work as Preemptive Love: feed refugees, start refugee-owned businesses, provide medical care, etc. In fact, their messaging is so similar, it’s hard not to see Humanite as an effort to peel off donors from the organization the Courtneys once led.

But there is another reason to be wary of Humanite:

The Courtneys have shown no signs of change since leaving Preemptive Love.

I worked with Jeremy and Jessica for more than five years. Traveled with them. Spent time in their home. Got caught up in their vision. I also witnessed firsthand the damage they left in their wake.

The Courtneys, for their part, flatly deny any wrongdoing. They insist they’re the real victims of the story, ignoring the accounts of 34 staff who came forward. Ignoring evidence shared with investigators and made public here. They have expressed no remorse. No acknowledgement of the ways they abused staff, crushed dissent, and at times misled donors.

They have, so far, shown no recognition of the harm they caused.

All of which makes it reasonable to expect more of the same from Humanite.

There are, of course, simple questions you can ask to decide whether you think an organization like Humanite is legitimate or not:

What kind of governance is put in place? 

The Courtneys talk a lot about making “upgrades” and “reinforcements” to their newest venture. The question is, who are these “upgrades” for? Are they meant to protect the integrity of the organization? Or preserve the Courtney’s power?

Are its leaders subject to meaningful, independent oversight? 

The Courtneys maintained a small board of directors at PLC—and populated it partly with personal friends. In the end, even that wasn’t enough to shield them from at least some form of accountability. The question is, what chance is there the Courtneys will submit themselves to a fully independent board at Humanite?

Is there financial transparency? 

What mechanisms will be put in place to prevent executives from misusing donor money, or deceptively categorizing marketing expenses as program costs in order to artificially inflate their overhead ratio—something the Courtneys did more than once?

Do they acknowledge partners who do the work in places they can’t go themselves? 

Or will the Courtneys continue to speak as if they are the ones with “boots on the ground”? If you really want to challenge the problematic power dynamics of the humanitarian aid world, you could start by centering local organizations in the stories you tell.

What is their staff turnover? 

Will Humanite have a revolving door of staff coming and going, like PLC? (Of the people working there when I started, only four remained by the time I left—and the Courtneys were two of them.) High employee turnover is often a red flag.

—//—

Time will tell whether donors should trust Humanite. To be sure, even the most problematic organizations are capable of doing some amount of good. But that doesn’t absolve them of their problematic behavior.

For now, all signs point to more of the same from the Courtneys—mistreating staff, misleading donors, lining their own pockets — this time under the guise of being a refugee-led organization.

NOTE: This post originally appeared on Medium. 

Preemptive Love: When a charity runs more like a cult

Founders Jeremy and Jessica Courtney have a history of abusing staff and possibly misleading donors.

Nearly 15 years ago, Jeremy and Jessica Courtney moved to Iraq and started the charity Preemptive Love. They raise millions every year for humanitarian crises in several countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela, and Mexico. They call their followers to “love anyway” and build a world “where everyone rises.”

Inside the organization, it can be a different story. The Courtneys prefer to govern by fear. They see themselves as authorities on gender and racial equality, while in practice they embody some forms of white saviorism. Staff are verbally and psychologically abused. The Courtneys, at times, appear to mislead donors about how their money is used.

Earlier this year, dozens of former staff came forward with stories of bullying, gaslighting, threats, and other forms of abuse they experienced at Preemptive Love. Their allegations triggered an investigation by the same organization looking into the Southern Baptist Convention’s handling of sexual abuse.

In many respects, I’ve come to believe the Courtneys run Preemptive Love like a cult. They demand unquestioning loyalty and punish dissent, perceived or real. They give the impression they will do anything to hold onto power.

I know, because I spent nearly six years working for them.

In the former ISIS-held town of Batnaya, Iraq, 15 miles north of Mosul. April 2017 (Photo: Ben Irwin).

Ifirst encountered Jeremy Courtney at an evangelical conference in Washington, DC.

From the stage, Jeremy spoke of fatwas issued against him by clerics in Iraq. Arab babies with life-threatening birth defects, airlifted to Israeli doctors in Tel Aviv. People who should have been enemies working together for peace.

It was compelling stuff.

A few years later, I was back in DC, this time as Preemptive Love’s head of communications. I was there to meet one of our key partners: a remarkable Iraqi woman named Hala Al Sarraf, founder of the Iraq Health Access Organization (IHAO).

Hala Al Sarraf (third from right), with representatives of IHAO and Preemptive Love, meeting an advisor to former Vice President Mike Pence in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. April 2018.

Hala was one of Preemptive Love’s first partners in Iraq. During the war with ISIS, Preemptive Love worked with IHAO to deliver countless boxes of food to fleeing families. It was largely Hala’s team who went to the frontlines, distributed the food, and dodged the sniper fire. They were sometimes accompanied by Preemptive Love staff (who faced many of the same dangers), but IHAO did most of the work and took most of the risk.

Yet Preemptive Love got the applause for being on the frontlines. We cultivated a reputation for being fearless peacemakers, willing to say and do hard things.

Initially, we shared some of the spotlight with Hala’s team. Jeremy would occasionally thank them in donor videos. Before long, however, he adopted a new policy: no mentioning partners — anywhere, ever. He didn’t even want us using the word partner.

The official reason, when asked, was that naming partners might compromise their safety. But the real reason seemed to be that Jeremy wanted people to think Preemptive Love was personally on the ground, even when we weren’t. “On the frontlines, not the sidelines,” as the organization’s core values say. It was only after intense scrutiny of our work in 2017 that Jeremy reluctantly allowed me to publish this blog post acknowledging that Preemptive Love relies on local partners for almost all its work in Syria.

Plausible deniability

Preemptive Love has long claimed to “build up local organizations, not our own.” But as early as 2016, the Courtneys were starting to focus more on building a brand for themselves, even if it meant playing fast and loose with the truth.

In May of that year, Iraqi forces launched an offensive to retake Fallujah from ISIS control. Tens of thousands of people fled for their lives.

Ruins of Batnaya, north of Mosul, Iraq, after it was liberated from ISIS. (Photo: Ben Irwin)

While Hala Al Sarraf’s team risked their lives bringing food to fleeing families, Jeremy was in his office 250 miles away, in the relative safety of northern Iraq. (That’s one detail often left out of his story of dropping into Iraq in the middle of a war: he landed in one of the safer parts of the country, Sulaymaniyah.)

I have no doubt Jeremy would have been in Fallujah if he’d been allowed to go. But as Hala’s aid workers sent back footage of their work, Jeremy looked for a way to put himself in the story. He went outside and evidently found a backdrop that, to the undiscerning viewer, made it look as though he was in Fallujah, in the same place where Hala’s team was handing out food.

He later wove that footage of himself with footage of Hala’s team, pretending to narrate events in real time, as if he was personally there.

Mind you, Jeremy never actually said he was in Fallujah. But he let you think he was. Plausible deniability is Preemptive Love’s ultimate sleight of hand.

Two clips from Jeremy’s 2016 Fallujah video: on the left, the food distribution in Fallujah; on the right, Jeremy at a location 250 miles away, chosen to make it look as though he was in the same area.

I remember the uneasy feeling I had watching the edited video. I knew I should say something. I also knew Jeremy didn’t tolerate dissent well. I knew the price you could pay for questioning him.

I didn’t say anything. I chose to believe there had to be some reasonable explanation and put it out of my mind. It’s a decision I regret to this day.

Jeremy, for his part, continued taking liberties with the truth when Preemptive Love expanded into Syria later that year. By then, he’d built so much of his brand on the idea that he was on the frontlines that many of his high-profile supporters assumed — and publicly claimed on his behalf — that he was personally there.

He was not.

Jeremy didn’t officially set foot in Syria for two years after Preemptive Love began funding work there. Yet he was loath to correct people, and rarely stated up front that he wasn’t personally on the ground, even when people assumed he was.

The ruins of a home in post-war Iraq. April 2017. (Photo: Ben Irwin)

Jeremy’s story is filled with bullets and bombs, near misses and brushes with death. It’s hard to know which accounts are real and which are exaggerated, even for some of us who worked with him. Because Jeremy has been in active war zones. Yet he is also prone to sensationalizing his experience for the marketing value.

For example, in 2017 Jeremy was in Mosul, Iraq, during the final days of the battle there with ISIS. He returned from one trip claiming he’d almost been killed in an airstrike while filming outside the al-Nuri mosque—and they had caught it on film.

Jeremy did not send the footage to me or my production team to edit, as was our usual practice. Instead, he produced a video himself to show how close the strike had been. One minute, you see Jeremy smack in the middle of filming a message to donors while standing in the rubble. Then he stops, looks up at the sky, then a loud boom, and then… the screen goes black. A few seconds later, Jeremy reappears, having taken cover somewhere else, debris falling from the sky as he tells you an airstrike hit “a couple meters” away.

A few years, I came across the raw footage from that video. In the unedited version, Jeremy looks up at the sky, but there is only a distant thud. No loud boom nearby. No airstrike “a couple meters” away. The explosion you hear in the edited version was added in post-production.

In the original clip, Jeremy never takes cover, because there is nothing to take cover from at that moment. You can see two of IHAO’s aid workers standing behind him, filming on their phones, visibly unfazed. You can hear someone laughing off-camera.

Jeremy was in an active war zone that day. There was danger. But it seems he manipulated the story to sensationalize that danger — and put himself at the center of it, instead of the people we were there to serve.

Bridges burned

Jeremy and Jessica Courtney have burned a lot of bridges on their way to making Preemptive Love what it is today. In my experience, you either show the Courtneys absolute loyalty, or you are cast out. Erased and forgotten.

Their career began in the early 2000s as Christian missionaries in Turkey. After struggling to win any converts, Jeremy had a religious epiphany (as described in his book Love Anyway), in which he heard God tell him to stop proselytizing. Leaving behind the evangelical world they grew up in, Jeremy and Jessica moved their family to Iraq.

They continued taking money from their evangelical base. Many donors to this day think Preemptive Love is a religious charity doing religious work. The organization is often praised for its “ministry.” An FAQ page on Preemptive Love’s website notes that they are not religiously affiliated—but aside from this, the Courtneys don’t always bother to correct the record.

Plausible deniability.

Over the years, Jeremy and Jessica have churned through staff and partners. Dozens of former colleagues from every level of the organization, in the US and Iraq, have left because they were verbally abused or mistreated. I’ve seen the Courtneys mercilessly berate coworkers in front of others. At the main office in northern Iraq, the Courtneys rule with an iron fist—according to some accounts, deciding who is allowed to socialize with whom outside work.

Jeremy and Jessica claim their wartime experience in Iraq gives them authority to speak into other kinds of conflict, including the Black Lives Matter protests in the US in 2020. Yet they can exhibit profound racial insensitivity.

For example, when they asked one of my colleagues to develop a curriculum for peacemakers, Jessica Courtney rejected the content she wrote to address racial injustice, on the grounds that it would make white people “uncomfortable.” Jessica was more concerned with making these gatherings a “safe space” for white women than for members of marginalized communities.

During one staff call shortly after the murder of George Floyd, Jeremy instructed everyone to close their eyes and meditate on the details of Floyd’s agonizing death. “Think about how long it took for that police officer to strangle that man on the ground,” he said. He gave no thought to what it was like for our Black colleagues to be told to visualize the racist violence they live with every day.

Earlier in 2021, Jeremy tried to organize a panel event on what he saw as Black complicity in the surge of anti-Asian violence during the Covid-19 pandemic. “There’s a whole conversation we’re scared to engage about violence against Asian-Americans,” he said in a voice memo, “which, anecdotally I’m hearing from Asian-American leaders, and statistically I’ve seen some stuff that seems to bear this out, is carried out more by Black people and brown people than it is by white people.

Spoiler: it’s not.

Jeremy never shared any evidence to support his claim, because there wasn’t any. It took a concerted effort to stop this event from happening. Even after I shared research showing the exact opposite of what he claimed — namely, that Black people are less likely than whites to commit violence against Asians — Jeremy stewed for months over the lack of support for his idea.

Meanwhile, the Courtneys at times seem to gaslight their own donors. Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, Jeremy announced he would forgo his $165,000-a-year salary to avoid any cuts to programming or staff. He quietly reinstated his pay three months later. Preemptive Love took a $494,400 PPP loan in 2020, which it had forgiven several months later, despite being well on its way to its best fundraising year ever.

That year, Preemptive Love raised $15 million. The amount they spent on real, tangible programming—specifically, grants to local partners or their own emergency relief and job creation efforts (not including salaries and office expenses claimed as a programming cost)?

$1.6 million.

(Here is a deeper dive into Preemptive Love’s financials.)

Screenshot from a 2020 fundraising video.

The Courtney’s cult-like behavior

Most of the Courtneys’ influential friends who gave Preemptive Love a boost in its early days no longer go to bat for them. Many of their original partners are no longer affiliated with them.

The Courtneys stopped funding Hala Al Sarraf’s Iraq-based team shortly after they helped Preemptive Love secure its registration with the Iraqi government, giving the Courtneys the ability work anywhere they wanted in Iraq without relying on local partners for access. Yet Preemptive Love still claims that it “builds up local organizations, not its own.”

Dozens of colleagues from every level of the organization have left because of verbal abuse and mistreatment — this on a team that numbered 12 people when I started in 2015.

In my experience, what the Courtneys are most committed to is building their own empire. Making themselves the hero of the story. And they don’t let anyone get in their way.

They run Preemptive Love in ways that feel more like a cult than a peacemaking organization: stifling dissent and debate, frequent loyalty tests, the erasure and demonization of almost anyone who leaves. Younger, less experienced staff are underpaid and overworked, so they can’t afford to quit and don’t have the bandwidth to look for another job. Weekly staff meetings occasionally feature quasi-religious meditations led by Jeremy. On a May 2021 call, he suggested Preemptive Love’s “community of peacemakers” (that’s what they call their monthly donor program) might someday become an alternative to the church and other religious organizations.

The Courtneys claim to welcome discussion and debate from their staff (another of Preemptive Love’s core values). But in practice they demand absolute, unquestioning fealty. Jeremy has told me and other staff that he and Jessica are “the only ones who know the rules [at Preemptive Love] well enough to know when to break them.” He has said that if you question his integrity on any matter, you will be done at Preemptive Love — fostering a culture of fear that discourages people from speaking out.

Over time, I grew accustomed to the periodic loyalty checks. When a former colleague posted a veiled critique of Preemptive Love on her Instagram, Jeremy interrogated me for an hour-and-a-half about who from our staff had liked the post and why and what it meant about their loyalty to him and the organization.

I’ve seen Jessica Courtney dress down entire teams for “living in a posture of fear” when they didn’t immediately jump on board with her agenda — while at the same time telling staff that they’re supposed to “believe the best about each other.”

A now-deleted Instagram post in which Preemptive Love sought to raise money off the 2021 Haiti earthquake that killed nearly 1,500 people, despite having no operations there.

In 2021, Preemptive Love launched a costly new campaign, mailing “peacemaker packages” to thousands of monthly donors, containing expensive, designer-quality shirts. When staff raised concerns, Jeremy assured us that no donor money was used to fund this initiative. At one point, he claimed a “private donor” was covering the cost. Later he said that he was the private donor. Still later, he said the Preemptive Love board and founders (that is, he and Jessica) had “allocated” $150,000 to pay for the packages, without sharing how this allocation was financed.

None of his explanations accounted for the full cost of these packages: more than $208,000, according to the invoices that I saw.

That was in addition to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a glossy print magazine and more than a half million dollars on a film project that failed to come even close to paying for itself.

Staff who voice reservations about these expenditures and other leadership decisions quickly become targets of reprisal. In less than one week in June 2021, three members of the executive team were purged. One resigned under duress and two were fired, including the only two women in executive leadership other than Jessica, and the only woman of color. One of the individuals in question had filed a formal whistleblower complaint two days before she was terminated.

Since then, Preemptive Love’s head of human resources has also resigned. Of the original seven executive leaders, the only ones who remain are Jeremy, Jessica, and their longtime friend, JR Pershall.

I’ve spoken to former staff in Iraq who were let go after raising concerns about how money was spent or how people were treated. Those who leave, willingly or otherwise, are threatened into silence. “You came into our organization a respectable person,” one colleague was reportedly told. “Make sure you leave that way.”

Jeremy once suggested he wouldn’t hesitate to fire every last person at Preemptive Love, except for him and Jessica, if that’s what it took to hold on to power. Based on what I witnessed in my nearly six years there, he meant it.

With Preemptive Love staff and program participants in Mosul, Iraq. November 2018.

Isaw good and bad times at Preemptive Love. I made lifelong friends. I believed in the vision.

Despite a toxic environment, much of the actual work done by frontline staff is meaningful. There are families in places like Iraq and Venezuela who’ve gotten food to eat because of Preemptive Love and especially its remaining local partners. There are refugees who have jobs and agency over their lives again. Some of the staff at Preemptive Love are among the most brilliant, dedicated people I have ever known.

But I’ve seen far too many colleagues gaslit, abused, and driven out by the Courtneys. I’ve experienced their abuse myself. Several of my former coworkers have had to seek counseling after their time with Preemptive Love. Many current staff live in fear today, afraid to speak out because of the reprisals they know will come.

I stayed quiet far too long—hoping, believing things might get better. Telling myself I could help make things better if I stayed. Eventually, I realized that staying only legitimized the Courtneys’ abuse of power. I was complicit, especially because of my leadership role.

So I left. I stopped being silent.

To all my friends and former colleagues who’ve been hurt by Preemptive Love, I am sorry. I see you. I believe you.

To the remaining leadership and board: Preemptive Love says it wants to remake the world. But first, it needs to remake itself.

NOTE: This post was originally published on Medium. You can view documentation for some of the claims made in this post here. 

Sanctifying bigotry: why the Episcopal Church is wrong to host Donald Trump’s inaugural prayer service

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The Episcopal Church has been my spiritual home for seven years now. It breathed new life into my faith at a time when I wasn’t sure I wanted any more to do with church.

Its liturgies, its willingness to engage the world, its ability to embrace orthodoxy without rigidity, its commitment to welcoming all people—these are just a few things I love about the Episcopal Church.

Add to this our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, who’s brought renewed passion for a big, robust gospel—for what he likes to call the Jesus Movement.

There is a lot to love about the Episcopal Church.

And yet.

My denomination is about to welcome Donald Trump into the presidency with a prayer service in his honor at the Washington National Cathedral.

We’re about to sanctify a man who exhales hate, arrogance, and greed. Whether we mean to or not, we’re about to legitimize a president whose conduct stands in direct opposition to the final words of our baptismal covenant: “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

I’m not OK with that. Here are three reasons why.

1. This will change the church more than it changes Donald Trump.

The Episcopal Church has always had a complicated relationship to power. We’re an offshoot of the Church of England, a state church whose supreme governor is a monarch, not a priest.

While the Episcopal Church enjoys no such formal alliance with the American state, 11 of our nation’s 44 (soon to be 45) presidents have been Episcopalians. We claim George Washington, James Monroe, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR as our own.

Many ceremonies of national significance have been held at our national cathedral, where the service for Trump will also be held this Saturday. The funerals of Eisenhower and Reagan. Inaugural services for previous presidents including FDR, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. The 9/11 memorial service.

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So who do you think is changed more by these entanglements of church and power?

Who do you think will be changed more by Saturday’s encounter between the Episcopal Church and Donald Trump? The 1,700-year history of church entanglement with the state doesn’t give much reason to be hopeful.

2. Hosting a prayer service in Trump’s honor will inevitably normalize him—and what he stands for.

The only impact the event will have on Trump himself will be to normalize him. I’m sure that’s not the intent, but it’s the inevitable outcome.

The Episcopal Church should play no part in legitimizing an unrepentant racist who boasts about sexual assault, demeans and threatens his opponents, and uses his rhetoric to incite violence against already marginalized communities.

There will be no sermon at the prayer service—at Trump’s direction. He will allow nothing that might make him the least bit uncomfortable. There will be no speaking truth to power.

There is nothing remotely prophetic about hosting Donald Trump at this gathering.

“The faith community should be a center of resistance against Donald Trump’s vision in America,” as the Rev. Gary Hall, former dean of Washington National Cathedral said. We should not be lining up to kiss his ring.

3. Hosting Trump undermines the Episcopal Church’s commitment to welcome all people.

Donald Trump has attacked and belittled Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, blacks, women, and others. The Episcopal Church, for all its flaws, has been a prophetic voice for respecting those of other faiths, for empowering women, for welcoming immigrants as the prophets commanded, for acknowledging and addressing systemic racism, and for embracing LGBTQ persons as full members of our community.

All of that is undermined by legitimizing the man who climbed to power on their backs.

Now wait a minute, you might say. “All people” has to include Donald Trump, doesn’t it?

Yes, it does. That’s why many Episcopal churches will begin praying for him weekly, starting this Sunday. And rightly so.

The oppressed and the oppressor are both welcome—but not on the same terms.

God is always on the side of the oppressed, and we must be too. As Diana Butler Bass writes, “Yes, God’s table is open. Good hosts, however, do not allow people to come to the table with the intention to destroy it.”

The oppressor is welcome, but only if he lays down his arms, only if he renounces oppression, only if he repents—something Donald Trump has never been a fan of doing, by his own admission.

//

This is not about Donald Trump’s party affiliation or political platform. I would much rather the Episcopal Church got entirely out of the business of rubbing shoulders with presidents and hosting national events like these.

Pursuing power—or even just proximity to power—always ends up compromising the church’s prophetic witness.

Especially when the man in power is the embodiment of every value the church is called to resist—greed, pride, bigotry, exclusion, and authoritarianism.

So which will it be, Episcopal Church? Donald Trump’s puppet or Jesus Movement?

Because it can’t be both.

//

UPDATE (1/18):

The dean of the Washington National Cathedral has issued a new response addressing criticism of their decision to host the inaugural prayer service. You can read it here.

I appreciate the spirit of their response—and that of earlier responses from Presiding Bishop Curry and DC Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde. But I disagree with the substance. In his latest response, the Very Rev. Randy Hollerith said:

“I believe our job is to work together to build a country where everyone feels welcome, everyone feels safe, everyone feels at home. We will need all people from across our nation to be a part of that process, and we cannot retreat into our separate quarters if we have any hope of accomplishing this task. We must meet in the middle, and we start through prayer and song.”

The problem is, you don’t make survivors of sexual assault feel safe by hosting an inaugural prayer service for an unrepentant perpetrator of sexual assault. You don’t make immigrants feel safe by holding an inaugural prayer service for someone who wants to deport them. You don’t make people with disabilities feel safe by hosting an inaugural prayer service for someone who mocks them. You don’t make Muslims feel safe by holding an inaugural prayer service for someone who slanders their religion.

The cathedral still seems to be operating under the assumption that this is all just normal politics—that Trump is a normal politician and that opposition to him is just normal partisan bickering. It’s not. And this assumption is a threat to our prophetic posture.

The bottom line is, we can (and should) meet in the middle with people of different political persuasions and party affiliations. But not all politics are equal. Not every political posture is reconcilable with our baptismal covenant.

And no, we do NOT “meet in the middle” with hate. We do not “meet in the middle” with racism or xenophobia. We do not “meet in the middle” with misogyny.

Some things are just too important.

Photos by Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0,  Daniel R. DeCook / public domain

Donald Trump’s Muslim registry: If one group is marked, we are all marked

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Remember a couple years ago, when #WeAreN went viral and the letter ن started popping up in profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter?

That was because ISIS was going door to door in Mosul, Iraq, marking the homes of Christians with the Arabic letter ن (n) for “Nazarene.”  Christians in America adopted the letter as a sign of solidarity with persecuted Christians in Iraq.

Now that Donald Trump is pursuing the idea of a Muslim registry, there are two things you should know:

(1) This is exactly what ISIS did to Christians in Iraq.

There is no difference between the actions of ISIS toward Christians in Mosul and the proposed actions of Donald Trump toward Muslims in America—or in their desired effect.

When ISIS marked Christian homes in Iraq, the intended message was clear to everyone who saw it: The people who live here—they’re not us. They don’t belong. 

The goal was to intimidate, so that Christians would leave. And they did.

That is the sole purpose of Donald Trump’s proposed registry. To set Muslims apart. To identify them as “other.” It is a thinly veiled pretext for saying to millions of Americans: You don’t belong.

(2) Also, that #WeAreN hashtag? That movement to show solidarity with persecuted Christians in Iraq?

That began with MUSLIMS.

Long before it was coopted by Christians in America to show solidarity with people they perceived to be “their own,” #WeAreN was a statement of solidarity across religious lines. Muslims in Iraq, who saw the persecution of their Christian sisters and brothers, were the first to voluntarily mark themselves, saying, “No. If one group is marked, we are all marked.”

Muslims, putting themselves in harm’s way to defend their persecuted Christian neighbors.

Muslims, standing up to the forces of bigotry and hatred and violence, even when someone else was the intended target.

That’s where this symbol, this self-sacrificial act of solidarity, came from. If you posted a #WeAreN profile pic or marked yourself with the Arabic letter ن, know this: a Muslim did it first.

Which leads to one big question…

Will we return the favor?

When Muslims are targeted and marked, will we stand up for them? Will we say “We are Muslim” the way they said “We are Christian” when it was our people being persecuted?

There can be only one Christian response to Donald Trump’s plan to register all Muslims. And that’s for all of us to register as Muslim. To say, “If one group is marked, we are all marked.”

Muslims did it for Christians in Iraq two years ago, in the face of an even greater threat.

Will we do the same for them when they are targeted?

As my friend and colleague Jeremy (who made #WeAreN go viral two years ago) writes, if you’re not outraged by Donald Trump’s Muslim registry, if you’re not prepared to act, then you don’t get to complain about religious freedom ever again.

To be a Christian—to be a follower of Jesus—is to do one thing: love your neighbor.

Well, here’s your chance.

So what will it be? When the voices of hate turn their venom toward our Muslim neighbors, will you say #RegisterMeFirst?

Take the pledge.

Image: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

I told my daughter she can do anything. She didn’t believe me.

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Tonight before bed, my 6-year-old daughter was telling me about a boys-vs-girls competition at school today, which the girls won. I responded by saying, “Yay, girls rule!”

She cheerfully joined in at first, but then she stopped. Her expression grew more serious, and she said, “But not now, because Donald Trump rules.”

I told her Donald Trump doesn’t rule over everything, and he certainly doesn’t rule over her, and that someday a girl WILL be president.

She didn’t believe me.

She looked at me with an expression I have never seen from her before: a lack of faith.

I’m sure it can change. I’ll do everything I can to see that it does. I hope it’s enough. But right now, my daughter doesn’t believe girls rule. She doesn’t believe a girl can be president. She doesn’t believe women can do anything.

I told her there is nothing a boy can do that a girl can’t.

But she didn’t believe me.

To be clear: we haven’t talked about the election since I first broke the news to her that Donald Trump won. Our family has carried on as we normally do. And most of the time, my daughter is her same, normal, free-spirited self.

But it is there—the pain of being told that girls don’t measure up. That girls are second-class, less than, subordinate. And not just because of Tuesday’s election. I wish that’s all it were. But really, that’s just the latest thing.

My daughter is only six years old, and she’s already been told by the world around her that there are some things she can’t do, simply because she’s a girl. That she must take a backseat to the boys in her world.

This seed was planted long before a p*ssy-grabbing misogynist named Donald Trump received 60 million votes. But the lie dug itself a little deeper into my daughter’s heart this week, and it kills me.

So I did the only thing I could think of. I told her that I believe in her. That I am for her. That I will always be on her side. And that I think she’d make a wonderful president someday.

I’m with her.

Image: Charlotte Cooper / CC BY 2.0

What I told my daughter the morning after election night

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Yesterday I took my daughter with me to vote. She held my hand as we colored the circle by Hillary Clinton’s name together. As bedtime approached, I promised to wake her up so she could watch if Clinton won.

This morning I got out of bed at 5:30 and wondered what on earth I would say to her when she woke up.

She came downstairs a couple hours later. We told her about the election results; then we all stared blankly at the TV for a bit. (Cartoons, not the news. Anything but the news.) As we went back upstairs to get ready for school, I told her, “I’m sorry Hillary didn’t win.”

Then I asked if she understood what this meant. She said just two words.

“Bully president.”

I asked if she knew what else it meant that Trump had won, and she said, “He’s going to destroy the world?”

I didn’t know what to say.

To the best of my knowledge, she didn’t hear this kind of thing from my wife or me. Either she picked it up somewhere else, or she came to it entirely on her own.  Either way, my 6-year-old is now afraid for the future of the world.

Thanks for that, America.

I didn’t have the heart to tell my daughter that Clinton appears to have won the popular vote by a narrow margin, but that we have this inane, anachronistic system called the Electoral College which has thwarted democracy now for the second time in a still-young century.

I can only expose my daughter to one cruel, absurd injustice at a time.

So instead, we sat down on her bed, and I tried to explain how not everyone who voted for Trump is a bully or a racist. How some people voted for him because they were scared or angry about the way they thought the country was going.

But because Donald Trump bullies women, minorities, gays, and immigrants—there are some people now, I told her, who will think it’s OK for them to do the same. And that’s why it’s more important than ever for us to stand up to bullies, to stand up for those who are being bullied, to speak out when we see someone being mistreated.

I told her that Donald Trump has a lot of power now—a lot more than I’d ever want a man like him to have. But he doesn’t have absolute power. We still have the power to choose how we respond.

I said this partly to encourage her, partly in the hopes of convincing myself.

Then I held her, while wondering out how the hell to get on with pretending this is an ordinary day. Normally at this point, I’d be getting her school uniform ready while coaxing her out of bed. Today, I couldn’t move.

After a few moments of just sitting together, holding onto each other, she quietly got up, went to her closet, and picked out her uniform.

Our country is not worthy of her.

What I learned about male privilege the night I talked to my daughter about the election

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I thought I was prepared the other night, when I talked to my first-grade daughter about this year’s presidential election.

I was ready for her questions about Donald Trump—“the mean one,” as she describes him. At just six years old, she’s already discerned what has somehow eluded 40-45 percent of the American electorate: Donald Trump is a bully.

I was ready to talk about Hillary Clinton—how, if elected, she will be the first woman to serve as our president. “Yeah, yeah! Go girls!” my daughter shouted at one point in our conversation.

I was prepared to talk about what a big deal this year’s election is. I was prepared to talk about shattering the glass ceiling—because even at six years old, my daughter has already encountered the twisted, perverse notion that there are some things girls cannot do, simply because they are girls.

But I wasn’t prepared for her reaction when she asked me who I was going to vote for. I wasn’t prepared for the apprehension in her voice. I wasn’t prepared for the relief that swept across her face when I told her that, yes, I was going to vote for a woman to be our next president.

It was as if the world had already planted in her heart the idea that boys will only ever vote for boys.

I wonder where on earth she got that idea.

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I wasn’t ready for it to come up again later that evening, as we were saying goodnight. Still not fully convinced, she asked me, “Daddy, have you ever voted for a girl before?”

Thanks in part to Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan, I at least had a decent answer to my daughter’s question.

But I still wasn’t ready for what she was about to teach me.

Next, my daughter asked what it means to be president or governor—what it means to be “in charge” of an entire country or state. (As far as bedtime stalling questions go, that was a pretty good one.)

So I began to explain, using the best 6-year-old language I could think of. And without even realizing it—without meaning to—I defaulted to masculine language.

He decides what laws will be passed.

He makes sure we have good roads and schools and things like that.

He works with the leaders of other countries, to make sure we get along.

It didn’t go unnoticed. After a few seconds, my daughter corrected me:

“Or SHE, daddy.”

(For those of you who think so-called “generic masculine” language is harmless.)

There it was. My white male privilege, on full display in front of my beloved 6-year-old daughter.

I believe the term is “busted.”

Me, a supposedly enlightened “progressive.”

Me, using language that centered myself and my gender. Language that automatically assumes people in power will look exactly like I do.

My daughter noticed. And it spoke volumes to her.

White male privilege is insidious.

This sort of language—the language I used with my daughter the other night—is an essential part of how we’ve kept marginalized groups—women, blacks, the LGBTQ community—from gaining more than a few token seats at the table, if that.

If I say “he” every time I talk about our elected officials, my daughter will grow up believing leadership is a masculine trait.

If she doesn’t see women leading our churches, running our businesses, serving in the highest offices—in other words, women being “assertive” and “ambitious” and all the other things women are told they aren’t supposed to be—then nothing, NOTHING, will ever change.

To put it another way, one female president isn’t nearly enough. Our job isn’t even close to being done until the day when there is nothing remarkable about women, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ community serving as commander-in-chief. Or running a business. Or standing in a pulpit.

Why have we made so little progress advancing the cause of women and other marginalized groups? Maybe it’s because people like me are clinging to a narrative that keeps us at the center.

When I cast my ballot tomorrow, I will take one small step toward changing that. But it won’t be the last.

Top image: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

5 Things You Need to Know About the Accusations Against World Vision’s Gaza Director

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Last week, the Israeli security agency Shin Bet accused a World Vision staffer of funneling millions to Hamas. Mohammad El Halabi, who ran World Vision’s Gaza branch, was arrested back in June.

I used to work at World Vision. For the past eight years, my wife and I have sponsored a child in Gaza. Which means it’s not just their money at stake. It’s ours. And I don’t want a penny of it falling into Hamas’ hands.

Guess what? Neither does World Vision. It would be their ultimate nightmare scenario—which is why it’s hard to imagine they’d be so careless as to allow $50 million to be stolen right under their noses.

World Vision is not perfect. They can be big and bureaucratic. They make mistakes. (Show me an NGO that doesn’t.)

But they are not stupid. One of the things I came to appreciate when I was at World Vision is just how perilous their work in Gaza is—and they know it. Not just because their staff is at risk every time there’s another war. (Though they are.) But also because even the slightest criticism of Israel’s government can lead to a backlash. It could cost them the ability to work in the Palestinian territories. They also risk antagonizing a good share of their American donor base, which is largely conservative, evangelical, and very pro-Israel.

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So, money falling into Hamas’ hands? That’s something World Vision would work very hard to avoid. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t (or didn’t) happen. But there’s big, big difference between “alleged” and “proven.”

So what about the allegations against Mohammad El Halabi? Consider the following…

1. Israel detained Halabi for 50 days before bringing any charges.

They also denied access to a lawyer for at least 21 days. During this time, Halabi was interrogated without anyone present to safeguard his interests or legal rights.

2. The security agency detaining him has a history of using torture to extract confessions.

Israeli courts prohibited the “systemic use of torture” in 1999, but Shin Bet continues to use sleep deprivation, physical violence, and other means widely viewed as torture to get information out of suspects. And by the way, if you think that’s just “Palestinian propaganda,” it’s not just Palestinians who complain of being tortured. Right-wing Israeli activists have also accused Shin Bet of torturing Jewish detainees.

3. Right after the story broke, Israeli diplomats launched a propaganda war on social media.

Wanting to turn public opinion against Halabi and World Vision before any conflicting evidence could be presented, Israel’s Foreign Ministry instructed its officials to spread the accusations far and wide, treating them as if they were already establish fact. This not-subtle attempt to have Halabi declared guilty in the court of public opinion undermines his right to a fair hearing in an actual court.

So you’ve got denying access to a lawyer, a track record of torture, and using your diplomats to try the accused on Twitter. Any one of these is evidence of a disregard for the rule of law.

But there are two more things to consider…

4. Like most reputable NGOs, World Vision has safeguards in place to keep this kind of thing from happening.

In World Vision’s case, these include a recurring audit by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC). Now, it’s true safeguards can be bypassed. But the burden of proof remains on the accuser, not the accused. It’s up to Israel to document the money trail and back up the numbers they’ve been throwing around.

Which they may not be able to do, because…

5. Israel’s numbers appear not to add up.

Israeli officials have variously claimed the following amounts were diverted to Hamas:

  • 60% of World Vision’s entire Gaza budget
  • $50 million since 2010
  • $7.2 million per year

There’s one problem. World Vision’s entire Gaza budget is reportedly $2-3 million per year. Over the past decade, they’ve allocated $22.5 million to Gaza. That’s far short of the amount Israel claims was funneled to Hamas. Even if 100% of World Vision’s budget had been diverted, it wouldn’t amount to what Israel says was stolen.

Israel also says Halabi has been diverting large sums to Hamas since at least 2010. But according to World Vision, he was only put in his current position in 2014—prior to that, he only had control over a small part of the organization’s Gaza budget.

These are big discrepancies in Israel’s story. Which begs the question: how is Halabi supposed to have diverted more of World Vision’s money than he had access to or than even exists?

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The only evidence offered by Israel so far is a confession reportedly extracted from the suspect—Halabi’s lawyer disputes Israel’s claim that he confessed. Halabi has not been allowed to present his side of the story. World Vision still has not been given evidence to corroborate Israel’s allegations.

Whatever you think about the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel’s handling of the case against Halabi raises more questions than answers. Accusations like these could be used as a pretext for shutting down vital humanitarian work in Gaza, one of the few remaining lifelines for people trapped there. Even if the charges are eventually discredited, the damage will have been done—for World Vision and for the people they are there to serve.

World Vision should give a full accounting—and their latest statement outlines the steps they’re taking to do just that. If any amount of money fell into Hamas’ hands, the organization should act to make sure it never happens again.

But Israel’s disregard for the rule of law and the apparent holes in their case against Halabi should give us pause. At the very least, we should not accept their version of events without careful scrutiny.

For the people of Gaza more than anyone else, there’s too much at stake.

Related: World Vision’s August 4 statement on Mohammad El Halabi’s arrest
Update: World Vision’s August 8 statement

Images (top to bottom): Zyklon Nargis, World Vision Deutschland / CC BY 3.0; ISM Palestine on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0; Physicians for Human Rights on Flickr / CC BY 2.0 

A question for those who won’t say #BlackLivesMatter

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Two years ago, the Iraqi city of Mosul fell to ISIS. Christians living there became targets of persecution. ISIS would mark their homes and businesses with the Arabic letter ن (N, for “Nazarene”) and give them four options: leave, convert, pay a “protection” tax, or die.

The world responded—Christians and Muslims together—by saying #WeAreN. People wrote the Arabic letter ن on their hands. They changed their profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter. They stood up in solidarity with this one persecuted group in one corner of the world.

So tell me: did you object to saying #WeAreN two years ago, the way you object to saying #BlackLivesMatter today? 

Did you respond, “All lives matter!” then as you do now?

Did you argue that it’s unfair to single out one group for concern, as if saying #WeAreN somehow minimizes the value of other groups—some of whom, in the case of Iraq, arguably suffered more at the hands of ISIS than Christians? (Pro tip: google the term “Yazidi.”)

What meaningful difference is there between saying #WeAreN in solidarity with those in Iraq and saying #BlackLivesMatter in solidarity with our black sisters and brothers in America?

If none of you took #WeAreN to mean and no one else matters, why do you take #BlackLivesMatter in this way? Why do you assume it means what it categorically does not mean, and ignore all evidence to the contrary? Did you listen to those who started the movement before you drew your conclusions about it?

Is there, perhaps, another, deeper reason you don’t want to say #BlackLivesMatter?

Are you afraid of what these words will force you to acknowledge—that racism is still very much alive in this country?

That you really don’t want to give up your power and privilege? (I know I’d rather not give up mine, if I’m being honest.)

That you don’t really want to “value others above yourselves,” as the apostle Paul once put it?

That you’re not prepared to face the implications of living as if black lives truly matter to us?

If you were one of the millions who said #WeAreN two years ago, but cannot abide saying #BlackLivesMatter, how is that not the very definition of hypocrisy?

Photo: Gerry Lauzon on FlickrCC BY-SA 2.0

What if ALL we did was tell our kids the story?

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Years ago, during an ill-advised—and short—career in youth ministry, I found myself teaching a junior high Sunday school class.

The denominationally approved curriculum didn’t exactly light a fire under my kids. (Not to worry: it wasn’t an Episcopal curriculum!)

One day I realized none of them were able to say why they were Christian, despite having been baptized and confirmed in the church. None could articulate the gospel story, much less tell David from Abraham.

I felt like I was losing them a little more every week. And I came to believe that, as one evangelical leader famously said, it’s a sin to bore kids with the gospel.

So I chucked the curriculum and simply started walking us through the story of the Bible.

Read the rest on GrowChristians.org.

Image: Michelle Tribe on  Flickr / CC BY 2.0