Faith-based

The Crisis Evangelist

How one preacher built a career on ministering at sites of racial unrest, from Ferguson to Minneapolis.

Jonathan Tremaine Thomas, wearing sunglasses, speaks into a microphone.
Jonathan Tremaine Thomas Civil Righteousness

Jonathan Tremaine “J.T.” Thomas arrived in Ferguson, Missouri, on the day of Michael Brown’s funeral in August 2014. He was living in Indianapolis and had recently had a supernatural experience after reading about the teenager who was shot by a white police officer in suburban St. Louis. In the vision, Thomas saw himself typing an email with the subject line “Meet me in Ferguson.” Thomas, a Black evangelist and entrepreneur, was deeply disturbed by Brown’s killing. But he was also disturbed by the fury of the protesters who gathered to demand accountability for Brown’s death. He saw himself as a figure who could bring peace to both sides. When he arrived in Ferguson, he joined a large prayer meeting and spent time observing the growing street protests. “There’s rage in the streets, the police are militarized, but God is here,” he recalls thinking. “In church circles, there’s been this desire for [spiritual] awakening. I said, ‘Oh, my goodness, it looks like awakening has come to America in the form of chaos.’ ” Two months later, he and his family moved to Ferguson permanently.

Thomas now makes it his job to chase the “chaos” that drew him to Ferguson. He sees himself as a full-time missionary to sites of American racial unrest. After white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine worshippers at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Thomas says he quietly traveled there with a team of volunteers and set up a tent where they conducted prayer services and handed out food to homeless people. In Charlottesville, Virginia, after the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017, he conducted a training session for local churches on “how to be peacemakers and mediators.” He has spoken on top of the Confederate monument Stone Mountain in Georgia.

Through his nonprofit, Civil Righteousness, Thomas now marshals a loose network of volunteers and like-minded evangelists who are always ready to mobilize. He compares members to a SWAT team. “We live a lifestyle of readiness,” Thomas said. “George Floyd happens, and almost within hours of the video going viral, people were texting me: Are we going to Minneapolis?

They were. Thomas said he typically gives himself about a week between an incident and “deployment.” He uses that time to gather his thoughts, pray “until I feel like I’ve gotten a strategy from heaven,” and calm down: “I saw the Floyd video and I was ready to go burn something down,” he said. “I was angry. But I was like, if I go ‘in my feelings’ I am not going to be helpful.” When Thomas and his team of 15 or 20 volunteers arrived in Minnesota, they helped build a stage for preaching and performance near the place where Floyd was killed, which had by then become an ad hoc memorial. They also conducted a demonstration called “the wall,” where demonstrators place tape over their mouths and stand in silence as a gesture of repentance for “division.” Andrew Chalmers, a white filmmaker from Georgia who followed Thomas to Minnesota this summer, said the first thing Thomas did was make connections with local leaders on the ground. Chalmers sees Thomas as having a unique ability to “engage with people on both sides.” In particular: white Christians who may have “never even engaged the conversation.”

Civil Righteousness was far from the only organization to view the place of Floyd’s death as an opportunity for Christian evangelism. So many ministries flocked to the site that the intersection became a kind of stage of its own for any aspiring leaders who wanted to display that they were at the physical center of an urgent national conversation on race. Evangelists at the scene included local Black pastors and Black evangelists from out of town, like Thomas, but also roving white evangelists like Sean Feucht, who ran for Congress as a Republican this year in California.

Thomas knows that local leaders often bristle at evangelists parachuting into town to preach for a short period after a crisis. But he sees the work as in keeping with the approach of the earliest Christians. “The biblical context is apostles going to minister to people who aren’t their own in cities that aren’t their own,” he said. “You can’t read the Bible and not see that God calls people to ministry in other places.”

He attends protests but does not see himself as a participant, exactly: He believes that his organization’s very presence—praying and talking with people on the ground—acts to tamp down unrest. “When our teams are there, we have seen the entire atmosphere change,” he said. “And the moment we leave, we see chaos break out.” Tami Flick, a white activist who has worked with Thomas in Michigan and Missouri, said she recently attended a Black Lives Matter protest in Kalamazoo, inspired by Thomas’ work. Her group prayed out loud on the street, moving to where tensions seemed particularly high at any given moment. When she went home that night, she wasn’t sure what she had accomplished. But the next morning, she read that the protest had stayed peaceful. “And it was like, Oh, that was [a] success,” she said. “I don’t want to shut protests down. But I do want to shut down violence. Even when people are chanting, ‘F the police,’ that’s violent language.”

Flick, now the head of an organization called the Kalamazoo House of Prayer, first saw Thomas speak in 2011 at a large prayer rally in Detroit organized by conservative activist Lou Engle. A few years later, Flick had a dream: She was on a bus and had to take the wheel to save the people on board, which she interpreted as having something to do with “a biblical version of a justice movement.” She decided to go see Thomas in Missouri and eventually joined his leadership team. In 2017, she helped organize the first Civil Righteousness conference, which took place in Kalamazoo. At this year’s conference in mid-March, there was a “time of lament” where participants came to the microphone to voice their grief about the state of the world in general; Flick shared her fear that she can’t leave her 12-year-old daughter alone in the car at the grocery store because she fears the girl could be kidnapped by human traffickers. Flick said she admires Thomas and his movement because of his way of talking about “really tough issues” but looking at them through a spiritual “lens of hope.” Or in Thomas’ words: “In moments like this, everyone is hurting and everyone is guilty,” he said. “There are serious issues in policing that need to be addressed, but also the police officers are human.”

This outlook has its critics in religious circles. Some say that ministries like Thomas’ prioritize comfort for white people over justice for Black people. Starting in the 1990s, many conservative white evangelical churches in America began acknowledging their historic racism and ongoing failures negotiating racial issues. The goal was often “racial reconciliation,” which emphasized forming interracial relationships, and rituals of public apology and forgiveness. Organizations like Civil Righteousness may be more tuned in to issues like police brutality and present-day racism than the first generation of similar evangelical ministries were. But Danté Stewart, a theology student and former consultant on racial issues to white evangelical churches, called organizations like this “the next generation of the racial reconciliation movement.”

“These movements today are being recapitulated with Black faces,” he said. “You have on the one hand the optics of Black authenticity, but you also have this rootedness in white evangelicalism. … I’m always leery of people who place themselves in center stage in a story of triumphalism and optimism.” He feels that many Black evangelicals “have been used by white evangelicals to suppress Black liberation.” “In the evangelical framework,” he said, “there’s no room for Black anger.”

Thomas, for his part, points out that the Bible describes Jesus himself as “reconciling all things.” He argues that justice for Black people has always required buy-in from white people. “At some point there had to be white folks with resources and a godly conviction that slavery was evil,” he said, “to use their privilege to serve and fight and risk everything to do their part to see slavery ended.” He doesn’t personally see any tension in situating himself in the lineage of both the civil rights movement and traditional evangelism: His great-grandparents were Methodist circuit riders, he told me, and his grandmother was a sister of singer and activist Nina Simone. “In my life it’s been a mixture of those two streams I inherited,” he said. “It’s caring about transformation externally, but also we’re seeing the restoration of our mental, emotional, spiritual state of mind.”

Thomas was born in North Carolina and raised in a predominantly Black Baptist church. In college, he started training as a missionary. But the “mission field” he was interested in was the United States. He spent his early career, in Tennessee and Indiana, as what he describes as an “urban entrepreneurial missionary.” He felt the spiritual calling of a missionary. But it was harder to raise money to do missionary work inside the United States—as opposed to an “unreached” population overseas—and it’s even harder to do so as a Black man, he said. So he had to get creative, starting a small video production company along the way. In Missouri, Thomas held a job as a teaching pastor at a large nondenominational church in St. Louis until January, when he left to work on Civil Righteousness full time.

As recently as the early 2010s, Thomas seemed drawn to traditional conservative causes. He spoke on behalf of the National Black Pro-Life Coalition and was photographed at a Tea Party rally against Obamacare, where he told a reporter, “I find hope in the fact that more people are finding a voice in a movement—this one or others.” Thomas now uses terms like systemic racism, but he also tells largely white audiences that “we’re in a protest culture” and that protesting is insufficient to address the country’s real wounds. When I asked who exactly is his ministry’s imagined audience, he essentially demurred. “Jesus came for all,” he said, listing “young angry activists,” “the white conservative evangelical who doesn’t believe there’s any issues,” and “the Black liberal progressive who’s in the 50s or 60s and has been angry their whole lives” as figures he hopes to reach.

Thomas’ actual audience—at least away from scenes of protest—indeed consists of many conservative white evangelicals. His appearances in Minneapolis were covered positively by politically conservative sites like the Stream (“WATCH: On Streets of Ferguson, This Pastor Responds to ‘Unholy Rage’ With Peacemaking”) and Fox News (“Ministries Hold Daily Services at Site of George Floyd’s Death: ‘From Hatred to Healing and Hope’”). Feucht invited Thomas to participate in a conversation for his own popular Instagram account, and Chalmers made a short documentary this summer about “what God is doing in the midst of all the pain and turmoil,” as the filmmaker put it on Facebook. The documentary, which heavily featured Thomas, received favorable coverage from Pat Robertson’s 700 Club talk show.

And now Civil Righteousness’ profile seems to be rising. This Saturday, the group will host what might be its most ambitious event yet. For “Pray on MLK,” activists will gather on streets and boulevards named for Martin Luther King Jr. in at least 300 cities in 48 states. The gatherings will begin with an hour of silent prayer and conclude with an hour of “hopeful proclamation.” “It’s a prototype for another form of protest,” Thomas said. “For at least 50 years, [protest] is the only model we’ve known to provoke action and get attention in corridors of power. … But if we’re going to pursue justice in the corridors of power, we also have to have righteousness in the corridors of our hearts.” It’s language that echoes the careful neutrality of the statement of belief on Civil Righteousness’ website, which refers to “justice” and “the historic Black Civil Rights Movement,” but it lists no particular political demands or desires. “Our goal,” it reads in part, “is to engage the justice issues of today with prophetic clarity and apostolic grace.”