AIPAC 2014

At AIPAC, preaching the gospel of a wider tent

Policy conference turns into church-like revival as organization seeks to highlight members’ diverse backgrounds

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Chris Harris and members of his Bronzeville church singing 'Walk With Me,' at the AIPAC convention Sunday. (screen capture: AIPAC)
Chris Harris and members of his Bronzeville church singing 'Walk With Me,' at the AIPAC convention Sunday. (screen capture: AIPAC)

WASHINGTON — Storm clouds gathered outside, and the phalanx of protesters who had chanted opposite the Washington, DC, Convention Center dissipated as the sun set, but inside the cavernous room where AIPAC held its plenary sessions Sunday, it was getting hot.

Over 10,000 delegates stood and clapped, with VIPs and college students alike dancing and shouting amen as the Bright Star Church of God in Christ’s Pastor Chris Harris asked if he could take delegates to church. “I just want to church you like we’d church you at the Bright Star in Bronzeville.”

Harris, a passionate supporter of AIPAC, led church members from the Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville – and AIPAC delegates – in the song “Walk With Me” in a rousing finale to the day’s events.

“I’m beginning to feel like I’m at home,” Harris told the enthusiastic crowd, who jumped to their feet when Harris discussed the growing ties between the African-American and Jewish-American communities and responded enthusiastically when he asked if he could “get an amen.”

“I’m at Bright Star in Bronzeville now. I’m am thoroughly convinced that God brought me to AIPAC. It’s getting hot in here,” he cried out.

Harris is the pastor of a popular Bronzeville church, and has partnered with AIPAC since 2012. After a trip to Israel’s south, he decided that the model of community-based trauma care and support that was used in places like Sderot could also be applied in crime-torn Bronzeville. Since then, he has teamed up with both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University hospitals, as well as other community leaders and the United Way, to develop the Bronzeville Dream Center, which seeks to apply the Israeli model in the South Side.

He drew a round of laughs from the audience when he told them that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel visited him, and recounted Emanuel’s reaction when he told Emmanuel that he was on AIPAC’s national council. “He said, ‘you have my attention.’” Emanuel’s attention, said Harris, turned to support when he told him about the Dream Center and his plans for community engagement.

Delegates danced in their seats, but behind the lessons learned from Sderot and Bronzeville, the Emanuel quip and the Bright Star Ensemble’s performance was a moral for AIPAC supporters and observers alike: AIPAC has invested serious effort into broadening the demographics of its base.

Reaching out to Latino and African-American communities has been one of the organization’s priorities in recent years, and the results were visible on the plenary stage.

In the morning session, University of Oregon student senator Lindy Mabuya told delegates that as a South African, she was deeply offended by comparisons between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa. Mabuya said that she had experienced the impact of apartheid firsthand. She was born to a mother who was forced out of school and into domestic labor by the apartheid-era laws, and her mother was willing to allow a different family to raise her in order to avoid the same outcome for Lindy.

Speaking off the record, AIPAC officials have highlighted the diversity of this year’s conference. Among the organization’s 2,200 high school and college delegates were students from 59 of the 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, 19 institutions defined as “Hispanic-serving campuses” and 25 “Christian-centered” colleges and universities.

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