Haley Lerner, the campus minister for the Presbyterian Student Center at the University of Georgia, stands outside of the center on South Lumpkin Street in Athens in March 2020. Lerner guides UGA students on topics of faith and social justice here each day. (Photo Courtesy/ Presbyterian Student Center at UGA)

Haley Lerner’s Presbyterian Faith Calls Her to Seek Justice

Haley Lerner discovered that social justice is rooted in her Presbyterian faith when she was in college. Now, just a few years later, she guides college students toward this same discovery.

 Why It’s Newsworthy: Haley Lerner began her role as a campus minister at the UGA Presbyterian Student Center this semester. In her role, she leads new social justice initiatives to confront racism in her church and community, all of which are based on her faith.  

 

Lerner, a Philadelphia native, moved to Atlanta in 2016 to pursue her Masters of Divinity at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. She later joined the Presbyterian Student Center at the University of Georgia as a Waddel Fellowship intern, a yearlong position where she helped students in the Athens area to explore their future careers in Christian ministry.

“Within the first week I thought, ‘This is an incredible place that’s doing awesome social justice work, which is really important to me,’” she said.

This fall, she joined the PSC as a full-time campus minister where she serves as a preacher, pastor and theologian.

“She is so deeply loved that, had she wanted to move somewhere else at the end of her internship, I don’t think the students would have allowed her to,” said PSC Executive Campus Minister Rev. Will Norman.

In this COVID-19 world, Lerner can likely be found leading worship or connecting with students over Zoom from her home office 一 as most of the PSC’s programming has moved online 一 wearing a flannel shirt while her cat meanders across her keyboard.

Lerner’s work is driven by her faith’s call to be a place of belonging for all people. To spread this message, she educates students about social justice topics like racial justice and LGBTQ inclusion through a faith lens.

Our scripture is a call to action to love our neighbors and to do justice,” she said.

Lerner serves as the pastor for Coffee & Queeries, an arm of the PSC’s ministry that meets each Wednesday as a safe space for students to discuss the intersection of their sexuality and faith.

Lerner and Norman co-lead the Journey Toward Justice Program, launched in the spring of 2020, which focuses on combating internalized racism within their community and church.

“How do we be better white people?” and “How do we address our internalized racial superiority and the racist systems we are in?” are some of the questions they address.

Lerner hosts the Journey Toward Justice book club each Thursday during which students engage with secular and theological anti-racism books.

Her commitment to justice requires actively confronting issues rather than simply being “nice white people in a book club.” This summer, Lerner organized student groups to attend protests organized by the PSC’s partner organization Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement. The group also conducted a racial bias training at the PSC one afternoon last spring.

For Lerner, justice encompasses everything from racial justice and LGBTQ inclusion to immigration and environmental protection. Her lifelong commitment to her faith comes with an equal commitment to justice.

“We are called to do this and to be change seekers and to be disruptors,” she said, “so that’s why we are part of this and will continue to be a part of this even when the media isn’t talking about it.”

Andrea Giordano is a senior majoring in journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

 

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