The Socialist Preacher

This article was first published in The Bias and also can be read on their site here. It is republished in full here by permission of the author and the publisher. 

By Fran Quigley

Andrew Wilkes’ epiphany had been coming for a long time.

When he was only 15 years old, and multiple knee injuries derailed his hopes for an NBA career, he began contemplating a life in the pulpit. After several months of study and prayer, in the midst of a worship service at Zion Hill Baptist Church in Atlanta, Wilkes first heard the call to preach. The family’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Aaron Parker, began training Wilkes for the ministry.

A decade later, Rev. Parker would ordain Wilkes. In the interim, Wilkes’ studies at Hampton University and his own voracious reading exposed him to the less celebrated side of the most famous Atlanta-based Baptist preacher of them all. When Wilkes went beyond the sound bites to read Martin Luther King’s sermons, speeches, and private correspondence, he found something that surprised him.

In a letter to his future wife Coretta, King wrote that “capitalism has outlived its usefulness,” and condemned “a system that takes necessities from the masses in order to give luxuries to the classes.” Wilkes dug further, studying King’s late-career focus on economic justice and repeated public musings about the value of democratic socialism. As he read, his epiphany grew closer.

Wilkes graduated from Hampton and began coursework at Princeton Theological Seminary. He expanded his reading to include the works of Cornel West, who he also met through his seminary studies. Wilkes was struck by West’s insistence that pushing back against capitalism must be central, not incidental, to the Black freedom struggle. West said that loving one’s neighbor, not competing with him for profits or scarce resources, was both a personal commandment and an ideal organizing principle for radical social change.

In West’s books and lectures and conversation, Wilkes heard a liberation theology delivered in the rich cadence of the Black Baptist preaching tradition. West, the grandson of a Baptist minister, reveres the Hebrew prophets and lifts them up as role models for transformative activism. For his part, West was a fan of Wilkes, too. “Andrew is one of the most talented organic intellectuals of his generation,” he says.

It was powerful stuff. In fact, Wilkes is surprised that his exposure to West was not what finally triggered his epiphany. “But sometimes you don’t see until you are ready to see,” he says.

The day Wilkes was ready to see finally arrived on a Sunday in January of 2012, when a 69-year-old economist named Richard Wolff stood up to speak in Riverside Church in New York City. His first words: “America can do better than capitalism.”

Wolff went on to dissect the capitalist origins of slavery and the ravages caused by the exploitation of workers and an endless cycle of booms and busts. It was a sophisticated explanation of political economy that Wilkes absorbed and later built on. But it was the professor’s simple opening line that struck Wilkes, and stayed with him. “I knew then,” Wilkes says. “We have to turn the page to a new economic system, rather than keep patching up the fundamentally flawed one we have.”

The process was complete. The Rev. Andrew Wilkes was a socialist.

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Wilkes’ childhood in Atlanta, like others of his generation, was steeped in the legacy of the civil rights movement. Legends like Representative John Lewis, the Rev. C.T. Vivian, and the King family were all part of the community. Standing at the center of both the legacy and the Wilkes household was the Black Baptist church. When the family attended Zion Hill on Sunday, they listened to the sermons of Rev. Dr. Parker, who during the week was a professor of philosophy and religion at local Morehouse College, King’s alma mater. 

When the teenage Wilkes tore his anterior cruciate ligament in one knee and cartilage in the other, the injuries ended more than just his hoop dreams. “They ruptured me right out of my peer community,” he says. Being forced into spiritual and career reflection earlier than planned led Wilkes to spend his free time either at the church or immersed in his Bible. Then, all at once, the vague idea of a career in the ministry became much more than a theoretical possibility. “It was in the middle of a worship service, and I heard it very clearly,” he says. “God said to me, ‘Now, I want you to preach.’”

So Wilkes threw himself into various ministries, organizing youth Bible studies and a Christian rap group called Warriors for Christ. At age 20, while a sophomore at Hampton, he earned his license to preach. Also at Hampton, he began dating Gabby Cudjoe. He still preaches, usually alongside his co-pastor, the Rev. Gabby Cudjoe-Wilkes. 

Along the way, Wilkes followed in a noble tradition among Black ministers and activists: he tried to make capitalism work for the benefit of those who toil for a meager wage. Even as a teenager, Wilkes had been troubled by the economic injustices that his reading of King and West would underscore. He worried about the people making Air Jordans, Starter jackets, and the other popular consumer goods of the day. The way to improve their lives, he concluded, was to improve the existing system.

At Hampton, Wilkes majored in business management, eventually landing on a plan to be a social entrepreneur. “I embraced the ‘conscious capitalism’ approach, balancing a responsibility to the community and the earth with the over-arching goal of maximizing profit,” he says. Then, at Princeton, he discovered that he held a front-row seat for a high-profile experiment in leveraging corporate wealth for the good of those stuck at the bottom rung of the economic ladder.    

Wilkes’ seminary field placement was in Newark, New Jersey, whose mayor was the dynamic Cory Booker. Wilkes was impressed. “He talked about the unfinished journey of the American spirit, and I thought it was the most eloquent vision of Black liberalism that I had ever heard,” Wilkes recalls. Booker tapped into corporate connections at places like Goldman Sachs and Facebook, soliciting donations to revive city parks and boost social services. The process was thoroughly publicized, which helped boost the images of both the donor corporations and Booker, who would be elected to the U.S. Senate in 2013.

But the view from the neighborhoods of Newark, where Wilkes was spending his time, was less impressive. He could see that the community’s childhood poverty rate was still over 40% and that its residents were almost twice as likely to be unemployed as others in the country. It did not seem the donations were moving the needle much for them. “I think he (Booker) was sincere, and there definitely was a fleeting upside,” says Wilkes. “But there is a back end to that. There is a limit to a democracy where you decide to be a junior partner to capital in deciding what wages will be, who gets housing, and what the quality of life will be.” 

Then Wilkes heard Wolff speak at Riverside Church, which led to months spent reading the works of Black political economists like Cedrick Robinson and Black left activists like Claudia Vera Jones. He met Brian Jones, a public school educator and socialist who ran for Lieutenant Governor of New York on the Green Party ticket.

“Andrew was embracing the cause long before it was ‘cool’ to be a socialist,” remembers Jones, who now works at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “He was taking seriously the social democratic legacy that people like Dr. King merged with a religious outlook. And I didn’t know a lot of people who were doing that, much less doing it well.”

Wilkes enrolled in the doctoral program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where his studies focus on political theory, public policy and political science. His research centers in on what he calls “disruptive justice” from the grassroots: actions like rent strikes and housing cooperatives and protests against police violence. To Wilkes, these are necessary responses to a system that is intentionally, inevitably deficient at addressing people’s basic needs.

“When we have a health care system that does not care for millions, when we have vacant apartments sitting above people who are sleeping in the streets, we need to move  beyond just management of inequality,” he says. “We need to move beyond the belief that we just need to get out the vote to support the politicians that are not rabidly racist, who will pack the court with public-spirited, well-trained folks. We need to stop tinkering around the edges and expect the next busines cycle or election cycle will fix things.”

In 2014, Wilkes wrote a column for the Huffington Post, where he put a name on that vision. “Socialism, or something like it, is the settled conclusion of a society that values democracy,” he wrote.

*                        *                   *

That article caught the attention of Frank Llewellyn, former director of the Democratic Socialists of America, who reached out to Maxine Phillips, longtime leader of the DSA’s Religion and Socialism group. These were lean days for the DSA. Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly successful 2016 presidential campaign was still years away, and no one had yet heard of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The DSA had only a few thousand members. But when Llewellyn and Phillips met with Wilkes, they discovered shared hopes for not just a growing U.S. socialist movement, but one that could be buttressed by the faith community.

Phillips remembers being struck by Wilkes’ fearless embrace of socialism at a time when few others were doing so, especially since Andrew and Gabby both served on the pastoral staff of the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York at the time. “What I admired was that this young man, who was working for a fairly mainstream and large church, was willing to be publicly identified as a democratic socialist before DSA had any name recognition outside the left,” she says. “I was in the room when we asked Cornel West to join, and I was happy to be in the room when we asked Andrew, too. It's not always easy to persuade religious people to throw in with what is often perceived as a militantly secular left. But they both made that choice, and they have drawn so many others to the cause.”

The religious socialism cause was certainly not a new one. In Christianity, for example, there is evidence that socialism is as old as the faith itself. “All the believers were together and had everything in common,” the Acts of the Apostles says. “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”

A robust European and American tradition of Christian socialism included a 19th century Anglican clergy-led socialist movement in England. It was preceded by a French movement so Catholic-connected that priests were known to drink toasts to “Jesus of Nazareth, the father of socialism.”  In the U.S., several generations of Christian socialists include Baptist minister and Social Gospel leader Walter Rauschenbusch, Episcopalian Vida Dutton Scudder, and a multitude of African American clergy like George Washington Woodbey and Reverdy Ransom. 

Many were close allies with Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, who famously concluded that “Socialism is Christianity in action.” Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement colleagues included openly socialist Christians like A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Episcopal priest Pauli Murray, Ella Baker, and James Farmer. King borrowed his “beloved community” vision from his studies of Rauschenbusch, who popularized the term coined by philosopher Josiah Royce.

Jones sees the potential for Wilkes and other modern-day believers to build a new socialist movement—starting by fixing the image problem Christianity has with young people and progressives. “Right now, one could be forgiven for thinking that Christianity is squarely on the other side, with the white evangelical movement so aligned with Trump and white supremacy,” says Jones, who is not Christian. “But there is a lot in the Christian tradition that speaks with the same voice as socialism. And Andrew is so fluent with both the Bible and political theory that he makes those connections effortlessly.”

Wilkes left his meeting with Llewellyn and Phillips committed to joining the DSA’s religious wing, and he contributes to its publications and hosts webinar events. It is a multifaith group, and Wilkes peppers his conversation with references to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam--healing the world, and to Islam’s wealth-sharing mandates and the role that the Hindu strategy of satyagraha played in the civil rights movement.

“The stories and symbols that religions provide us have a way of capturing hearts and imaginations,” he says. “After all, faith movements toward a more egalitarian world have been around a lot longer than the socialist movement has.” History shows that the community built in congregations can allow them to serve as anchor institutions for new social orders, he says. More tangibly, Wilkes points out, faith organizations demonstrate every day the feasibility of operating hospitals and housing and food programs for the common good, not for profit.

Once Wilkes began including his socialist world view in his speaking and writing and preaching, he learned first-hand why King stopped short of publicly declaring himself a socialist. There has been no shortage of advice that a promising young Baptist preacher and scholar should not be openly pushing for radical system change. “Yes, I have been counseled by some well-meaning people that this is not a wise choice, or even a career-deadening path” Wilkes admits. 

But that is becoming a harder case for Wilkes’ doubters to make. A majority of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 now say they prefer socialism over capitalism. Their support helped Bernie Sanders win more votes in 2020 than any socialist presidential candidate in the nation’s history. DSA membership has swelled from 5,000 members in 2015 to over 70,000 now.  Polls show 65% of Black Americans holding favorable views towards socialism, and many of the millions of people in the streets demanding dramatic change as part of the Black Lives movement are making demands that could have been lifted straight out of a Reverend Wilkes sermon.

The political scientist in Wilkes knows that those demonstrations and the economic upheaval of the COVID pandemic can serve as trigger events for seismic change. But he also knows that outcome is far from guaranteed, especially given the inevitable push-back from property class interests. During a DSA-sponsored July webinar conversation with women’s rights and Muslim activist Linda Sarsour, Wilkes talked about the role of faith and socialism in supporting a long-game agenda that builds on the surge of anger at racism and police violence. When he talks about the current moment, Wilkes invokes the idea of revolutionary patience, a term coined in the 1980’s by German feminist theologian Dorothee Soelle, who herself was active for many years in the DSA’s religion and socialism organizing.

“This is a time where we have to think big, to simultaneously work toward the immediate reforms we need and the long-range vision of creating a world that is better than the racist capitalism we endure today,” he explains. In times like these, embracing the revolutionary half of the Soelle approach is the easier task. Maintaining patience and persistence while aiming for systemic change can is the bigger challenge.

“But we are starting to put the meat on the bones, with mutual aid societies and community land trusts and macro approaches like the Green New Deal and modern monetary theory,” he says. “We are not there yet. But creative, fertile theological frameworks can help us get there.”   

*                        *                              *

When he launches into a detailed discussion of history and policy and economic theory, the political science doctoral student Andrew Wilkes can sound like a lot of socialists past and present. But he is keenly aware that, in the U.S., at least, most of those socialists failed to achieve the change they sought. So the Rev. Andrew Wilkes, Baptist preacher, has some advice for his fellow policy wonks: to win the struggle, socialism has to be more than economic analysis and grim duty.

He brings up the famous quote attributed to Oscar Wilde, complaining that the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings. The saying is likely apocryphal. But it invokes an image that is quite real to anyone who has been a part of a social movement: endless hours spent in stale meetings, listening to debates over arcane points of procedure and someone’s rambling forty-minute discourse on a point that could have been made in a one-paragraph email.

By contrast, there is no reading of the minutes at the services of the Double Love Experience. A new Brooklyn-based church community created by the husband-and-wife Ministers Wilkes, “Double Love” refers to Jesus’ command in Matthew 22 to love both God and our neighbors as ourselves. Its mission statement promises “a Jesus movement committed to black lives, an equitable political economy for all God's creation, and a Spirit-led mysticism that prioritizes personal and public health.”

Bibles in hand, both ministers Wilkes lead services featuring their passionate, rhythmic preaching, where they invoke an ever-changing mix of scripture, scholarship, and current events. The sermons are buttressed by modern up-tempo music and eyes-closed, fists-clenched prayer. Summer Bible study was conducted as a “stoop ministry,” live-streamed from the steps of a Brooklyn brownstone. The Wilkes call on their congregation to reflect on their individual struggles and to aim for personal growth. When the spirit is flowing, all of the faithful are encouraged to embrace unabashed, true joy.

Wilkes wants to call people to socialism just as he calls people to Jesus. And he doesn’t see why the approaches should be different. “There is something gloriously individual about figuring out how to be true to one’s own self and finding your place in the wide stream of history and tradition,” he says.

Jones, the non-religious socialist, admits that he did not always see the value in Wilkes’ approach. “There is tension within the socialist movement between how we relate to very small, individual improvements and big, structural changes. Me picking up and recycling this plastic bottle is not the change that needs to occur—we need to stop producing plastic,” he says. “But it’s also true that many people who end up committing to big change begin by locking in on their own personal growth and smaller issues close to home.”

Jones recalls watching Wilkes host a discussion group of people who Jones recalls as being “socialist-curious.” “From my perspective, I thought these people should start by digging into some serious reading—the Communist Manifesto, Das Kapital, and so on. You got to study. But Andrew’s approach was to start with a conversation, to find a common language of voices or political ideas that grabbed hold of people not ready for the deeper dive. Sometimes that’s the Bible, but he’ll use it not as end to itself but as a jumping off point for talking about our common humanity.

“I think he is finding ways to reach bigger audiences, and I applaud him for that.” 

To Wilkes, an appeal to a full realization of our own best selves is the only way he can authentically make his case. After all, the path to an epiphany may include the community, but it is a deeply individual experience at its core. His own journey proves it.

“I think it’s important to make the project of socialism not just about collective struggle but also captivating and hope-filled on a personal level,” he says. “At the same time we are trying to renew society, we need to renew ourselves, too.”

The question for the socialist movement is: Can he get an Amen?

Photo courtesy of Rev. Andrew Wilkes