Reverend Adriene Thorne Breaks Ground in Liberation Theology

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Reverend Adriene Thorne made history in 2022 when the congregation of The Riverside Church in New York voted her as its eighth ever senior minister. She is also the first Black woman to serve in the role and continues the church’s tradition of liberation theology. The concept of liberation theology was first named by Gustavo Gutierrez, a Catholic philosopher, and the crux of it is, you have to know the people you serve.

“One of Gutierrez’s big instructions was, you can’t serve people if you don’t know their names. And so often, when I’m doing the work that I’m doing, or working with people around activism or organizing, and they’re trying to help those people, I will say, ‘Do you know their names? Because if you don’t, then you’re not doing what liberation theology would suggest we should be doing, which is to be in relationship with affected communities,” Thorne tells AURN. 

The concept of liberation theology has been prevalent in history before it was given a name, and was especially present in Thorne’s life for as long as she can remember. She was born in the late 60s, and was an infant in April 1968, when MLK was assassinated on the same day her father started a sanitation company. On that fateful day in Memphis, MLK was there to support sanitation workers who were striking. It was an obvious blow to humanity, but it had a prescient and lingering impact on Thorne. 

“I don’t think I realized this until I was applying to seminary, the real impact that King’s assassination had on who I was, even though I was such a small child,” says Thorne. 

“I grew up with a father who, while he owned this business, he started in the beginning as it was just himself and a pickup truck and this sort of ethos of not looking down on laborers, on what he called the blue-collar worker. So my dad would always say, ‘Don’t look down on the blue-collar worker. They made this country.’” 

Thorne’s interest in theology was inspired by her mother, who was raised baptist, but converted to Catholicism as an adult. 

“My mother’s devotion to the church really shaped me as well. I don’t know that a lot of people know about the Catholic social tradition, but the teaching says that Jesus had a preferential option for the poor, a special place in his heart for the last, the least, and the left out,” says Thorne. “I was a part of Catholic school from 2nd through 12th grade, and we did a lot of service. We sang in nursing homes, we did marches and school dances to raise money for poor people, toy drives, all sorts of things, such that volunteering and service are very much a part of who I am.” 

Here, she shares some uplifting words about the work she’s doing with Riverside Church, and her radical existence as a Black woman pastor. 

AURN: I had never heard of liberation theology as a concept, but thinking about history, and even back to how the slaves were able to use the church for refuge or a roadmap to freedom, and then fast-forward to the civil rights movement you see how central it was. It’s all fascinating.

Reverend Adriene Thorne: I didn’t know anything about liberation theology when I was a kid, I think that notion of liberation and setting people free, knowing their names, sharing what you had, so when you mentioned the Underground Railroad, this notion that we would do for folks what we could, my mother’s older siblings helping her to get to and stay in college, my parents opening their house to receive family members or other people, aunties and uncles that you find out they’re actually not a blood auntie or uncle, but we called them that. Everyone’s your cousin, and if you’ve got some food, then the people who don’t have food will have food. All of those things that I think are a part of Black folks’ liberation story, that shaped and colored my picture of who Jesus is.

AURN: It feels like a lot of people, particularly politicians who claim to be so religious, do not have any grasp of the sort of charity that goes into Jesus’ story, especially when you think about how asylum seekers are being treated. 

RT: It’s crazy. We were just at a protest last week, the Right to Shelter, on Tuesday, trying to push [Mayor Eric Adams] and the governor to stay at the table, because they’re trying to eliminate that Right to Shelter law that would put these asylum-seeking families with children out on the street a week after Christmas. It’s like, who does that? You talk about you’re a person of faith. What are you doing?

AURN: Tell me about some of the overall work that you’ve been doing with Riverside Church, because you mentioned the protests, but I also know that there’s a long history of churches doing social justice work. 

RT: Riverside has a long history of social justice. It’s what the church is known for. Martin Luther King Jr spoke there six times in the course of his very short life. But Riverside has a food pantry that serves our neighbors in West Harlem. But because of the great need, we’re seeing people from all over the city coming even as far away as Staten Island. We have a clothing closet where people can also find clothes for regular living, but also professional attire for job seekers. We have had in the past, a shower program where unhoused folks are able to come and have a shower and have their physical needs met in that way [but] the pandemic lockdown has made restarting a lot of these challenging. We had a barber training program where we were able to train folks in our immediate neighborhood and help them to find placements in jobs as professional barbers.

Then, we had a safe haven shelter program for those who were unhoused. And that’s the one that we’ve really been trying to get going again, because the city’s been asking churches to help in the housing of migrants. So some of the work that we do outside the walls around that is working with the city to be more creative in what the requirements are. Because what’s happened for us in a lot of churches, our shelters don’t meet the city’s standards in terms of sprinkler systems, in terms of other codes. So we’ve got these spaces that are sitting empty, and not just us, churches across the city, that the city could be helping us to outfit in order to help house people, but that’s a Mayor Adams challenge.

I would say outside the walls, our partnerships are with a variety of organizations. We started working again with an organization called GreenFaith. That partnership, I think during lockdown, had also sort of waned, but GreenFaith does a lot of work in the ecosphere, like, I guess liberation of the planet and what we’re doing to reduce our carbon footprint, and our use of fossil fuels. GreenFaith has done a lot of work with different banks, many of whom invest in companies that are terrible with regards to fossil fuels, I think JP Morgan Chase being one of the worst offenders. So we partner with them.

One of the things we’re looking at now is where we put our money, because, again, if we invest our money in banks that are then investing that money in fossil fuels, they’re undermining the work that a lot of churches are trying to do. And that’s a big lift, and it’s going to take a lot of work because, of course, everyone’s wanting the best return on their investment, but we also don’t want to be supporting institutions that are undermining the work we do. So that’s one area.

We do work around democracies, so phone banking and letter writing in parts of the country to get progressive or officials elected that support our perspectives. There was one LGBTQ justice. We were very involved in making New York a safe state for trans individuals and their families, that passed last legislative session. And then I think what we’re active in right now outside the walls are two big initiatives. One is the right to shelter, making sure that asylum seekers, but what’s also underneath that, unhoused New Yorkers, that they have a shelter that is safe and affordable, because New York is in a housing crisis right now. Just regular New Yorkers are not able to afford housing, which ties to the other work we do. That initiative is called Public Land, or Public Good. You may have read that the governor just announced 2800 affordable housing units in Queens, and a former psychiatric place called Creedmoor. So we’ve been working with churches across the city to push for more affordable housing, because the governor has only built 45 units in her time as governor.  

AURN: What are some of the unique challenges that churches are facing today in terms of attracting and retaining people who want to worship and/or just be involved in the activities?

RT: I still believe that the church has what the world needs now. I think our thousands-of-year history that connects, as you suggested, faith with liberation, going back to the time of our people’s enslavement, I think we still have a history and a tradition that is useful for liberating in other arenas. I think the challenge, and I’m learning this as I’m working with my colleagues in the affordable housing arena. People are working so hard to live in this city, that it’s difficult to get to church, to physically get there, but also to have the time and the leisure to volunteer. The folks that I see at a lot of our protests are older retired folks who perhaps own their properties or are in apartments that they have had for 40 or 50 years, so their rent is locked in at a very low price.

But our young families, our young adults are struggling. They’re working all the time, some of them, second jobs just to be in this city, and they’re not free to come out to a protest in the middle of the day or even on the weekends, because they’re working or they’re exhausted. So that’s the one big issue that I see is that people don’t have the space to be a part of faith communities and the good work that I think they care about, because they’re working so hard to pay for housing or to support their children’s education or extracurricular activities, and church and volunteering seems to become a luxury.

AURN: Let’s discuss your radical existence. You are a Black woman pastor, you champion LGBTQ rights, and I mean, Riverside Church had a Beyonce mass, and these are all things, but I’m sure you get so much pushback from people. Discuss the concept of one, the intersection of woman-ism and faith, but also how do you push back against the pushback. 

RT: That’s a great question. You can certainly find things in the Bible that suggest that women should not be in the position that I am in. But I think you also have to look at the context of where those statements are being made. They’re being made by Paul in his letters, and I’m sure my brothers who make those comments who are clergy themselves know that Paul was trying to hold together a ragtag group of people who were living under the Roman Empire and that had women in leadership even after Jesus’s departure. And so he would say things, I think, to keep them under the radar of an empire that could crush this ragtag movement.

I think what is true now, and what I believe is that whoever God has called is called regardless of the package you come in, racial ethnic background, your gender, your body parts; if you’re called, you’re called. What is also real in the church is that the majority of folks who make up churches are women, and the majority of students in seminary are women. So I think we are starting to see a shift in the church, and I imagine that it is uncomfortable for people.

What’s also true is that the role of clergy is not the regarded and respected role in the twenty-first century that it was in centuries past. And when that happens, often those opportunities start to open up for women. When opportunities are well paid and celebrated, they’re generally held by men. Men used to be secretaries, and when women started to take on those jobs, they weren’t paid as well, and they weren’t held in such high esteem. You see that in many other fields, and it is starting, I think, to happen in the church, as well. So yes, I get a lot of pushback, but I would say in my career, the majority of my pushback has been from women and generally women of color, which I think says something about just how we have ingested sexism and racism in this country, that we like other groups will start to monitor and check and push back against each other.

I just see that as our own hurt and pain with how patriarchy has treated us. And I try not to give it too much energy. I would say that the majority of the folks that I’ve worked with in various churches, including at Riverside, have been enormously supportive, enormously encouraging, and there are lots of Black women who just could not be happier, could not be prouder, which is why at my installation, I actually had all the Black women stand up, because I said, “I’m here because of you,” and people reach out to me on social media, send me emails, send me letters, people I do not know, saying, “I’m praying for you,” “We’re praying for you. I got a group of women. We pray every weekend. We pray for you.” There are older women, mothers of the church at Riverside who tell me, “Pastor, I pray for you every day.”

That is some power. I mean, when my mother would say to me, “Your grandmother’s praying for you,” I was like, “I’m good.” So I’ve got all these grandmothers praying for me every day. So I feel like there’s no way that I cannot succeed when I’ve got grandmama prayer energy supporting me, supporting me daily. And as I said, the majority of the community at Riverside is excited about the future and the direction we’re going in and the healing work that we’re doing. So I try not to give too much energy to the naysayers. I give a little energy, because you have to keep an eye on it, but I try to lean into the joy and the goodness and the sense that I’m where I’m supposed to be and I’m doing what I was called to do.

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity. 

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