When Angela Cowser, cochair of the recently launched Institute for Christian Socialism, talks about her life experiences, she uses the word “dissonance.” A lot. It starts with her childhood in a middle-class black family in Memphis, Tennessee and continues with her years at an Ivy League school. The same goes for her time as a community organizer, and now her role as a Presbyterian minister and seminary dean and professor.
She talks about the dissonance between the wealth-sharing examples of the Bible and the grinding poverty lurking right outside the doors of comfortable church sanctuaries, and the dissonance between the rhetoric of the American dream she learned in school and the racism and sexism she and others experience every day.
“For much of that time, definitely when I was a child, I had no language to explain it,” she says. “I just knew it didn’t make any sense to me. Starting with: Why did I end up in a middle-class home and healthy community, when I could see so many children did not?”
In the Cowser home, her father, a band director at a public school, instilled an appreciation for music that led to her playing violin at a concert level. Her social worker mother made it a point to bring home white colleagues to join the dinner table — not exactly the norm in 1960s Memphis.
The family attended an Episcopal church that catered to economically comfortable black families like theirs. But that church was located in the middle of the Foote Homes public housing complex in a deeply poor neighborhood. And the pastor was a white man, even though the pews were filled with black worshippers.
As she absorbed the message of the Scriptures read inside that church, her inner conflict only deepened. “The Gospels always resonated with me. Jesus always resonated with me. I always sensed that women could talk with him, that children could talk with him. That poor people — even though they were not in our church — could talk to him, and he would understand.”
Cowser was eight years old when Dr Martin Luther King Jr was killed at the Lorraine Motel, just a few miles from that family church. As she grew up, she struggled to make sense of the assassination. She learned how unpopular King’s economic justice and antiwar messages were in his last years. White Memphis fiercely resisted the campaign he died supporting, a strike by the city’s mostly black sanitation workers for safe working conditions and living wages.
“Dr King was talking about race and economics, and he was preaching nonviolence, which is what Jesus talked about,” she says. “But he was shut down and misunderstood by the majority of white people, who were mostly Christian. I had to wonder: Do those two words, ‘white Christian,’ even go together?”
As Cowser and her sister Valerie entered their teenage years, their parents insisted they work part-time. Cowser got a job at a restaurant, serving food and cleaning up alongside white working-class colleagues, serving the city’s gay community in the wee hours, and enduring sexual harassment and discrimination. When Cowser, a star student and now a violin virtuoso, went away to Brown University, she continued to work to pay the bills, this time at the school cafeteria, the Ratty. Meanwhile, her fellow students flew to Switzerland for the weekend, or to one of the three or four vacation homes owned by CEO parents. John F. Kennedy Jr was a classmate.
“For me, that was when the rhetoric around meritocracy and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps all collapsed and fell apart,” she says. “My roommates were jetting off while I was heading to work in the kitchen, and I knew I was not dealing with a level playing field.”
At Brown, women’s studies professors introduced Cowser to the concept of socialism. As she began to read Marx and Engels, it reminded her of the biblical messages she grew up with. She was not surprised to learn that Marx came from a long line of rabbis.
“By then, I had spent several years realizing that things were not right in our society. And now I saw there were other ways to organize an economy that reward people for their work and enable them to sustain themselves. Capitalism was doing that for some, but it was leaving a whole bunch of other people to suffer and die. And I learned that these class issues could not be divorced from race and gender.”
After graduation, Cowser worked in a variety of jobs — managing symphony orchestras, programming computers for hospital systems, helping run a nonprofit that served the homeless — and earned a master’s degree in international relations. She had left the church when she went away to college, repulsed by the disconnect between the Gospels and the world she saw in the workplace, the classroom, and the halls of government.
“I was an active Christian, though,” she insists now. “I still followed Jesus. I just wasn’t in a church.”
By the time she found her way back to church, it was back home in Tennessee. Cowser was hired at Tying Nashville Together (TNT), a grassroots advocacy organization tied to Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. As she helped TNT push for after-school programs, improved public housing, and transportation, Cowser discovered she had a gift for organizing people.
She was especially effective with people in the faith community that constituted TNT’s power base. “Angela was and is a hard person to say ‘no’ to,” says Ray Sells, a retired United Methodist minister who volunteered with TNT. “She knows how to ask people to do things . . . and, if need be, to demand they do them.”
Some of the congregations TNT sought to mobilize were led by pastors who were already eager to engage with political activism. Others took some convincing.
“Angela would build relationships with people in the congregation and serve as an on-the-ground teacher about how faith principles demand action to address injustice,” Sells says. “Eventually, their pastors realized that they had to work with her.”
TNT became known for pulling together large crowds of people to confront lawmakers in public settings, for framing its demands in moral and faith language — and for winning. Both the city council and chamber of commerce made significant concessions to TNT’s demands, including establishing a youth outreach worker project and a Neighborhood Justice Center that mediated neighborhood disputes, restructuring the Nashville bus network, and securing $250 million in new funding to improve public school infrastructure.
Cowser returned to school to earn a doctorate at Vanderbilt University. She is an ordained Presbyterian minister and serves as a professor and associate dean at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary; she wrote a book and numerous scholarly articles.
But her colleagues say she is still an organizer. Through the United Methodist Church, she is organizing anti-poverty, pro-justice campaigns in eastern Ohio at the neighborhood, congregation, and community levels. And she pushes her seminary students and colleagues to transform the socially powerful churches those students will be leading into institutions that challenge income and racial inequality.
“Angela does not put up with idealistic fluff, either from her students or her co-instructors,” says one of those co-instructors, Tim Eberhart. Eberhart taught alongside Cowser at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, before she took on her associate dean position at Louisville Seminary.
Cowser insists that all social and theological discussions be grounded in the lived reality of people who struggle, Eberhart says, and she is not shy about invoking her own life experiences as examples.
“She makes it clear: we need to organize people, money, and institutions. That is how social change happens.”