Out Reverend Naomi Washington-Leapheart could not be a better fit for the new role of director of faith-based and interfaith affairs in the Philadelphia Office of Public Engagement (OPE).
In addition to earning a master of divinity degree from Lancaster Theological Seminary, Washington-Leapheart has worked as faith work director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, served as faith organizer for the multi-faith, multi-racial network of congregations called POWER, and she worked as co-pastor and minister of music at Wisdom’s Table at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ. She was also named in the Root 100, a yearly list of the most influential African Americans between the ages of 25 and 45.
She teaches theology and religious studies at Villanova University as an adjunct professor. Living in and around Philadelphia for about 20 years, Washington-Leapheart knows the city well. She married Kentina Washington-Leapheart in 2017.
Washington-Leapheart’s work with the National LGBTQ Task Force translates well to her current role at the OPE — she built bridges between faith communities and government entities, organized faith tables and fought for LGBTQ equity.
“On a city level, we want to bridge the gap between faith communities and government,” Washington-Leapheart said. “We want to translate policy initiatives and activities for faith communities. We want to outreach to faith communities to get them engaged in various forms of city government.”
One of Washington-Leapheart’s primary goals in her position in the OPE is launching the Mayor’s Commission on Interfaith Affairs, the entity that will advise the mayor’s office on all faith-based issues. Somewhat unique to the Kenney administration, the commission may act as first responders in sensitive situations, facilitate faith outreach, report back from faith communities about faith-related undertakings: “...be the eyes and ears and voice,” Washington-Leapheart said.
Leapheart is enthusiastic about Kenney’s intention to make these entities mirror the diversity of Philadelphia, religiously and otherwise.
“We’ll have richer perspectives and... we’ll all agree that the dignity of every Philadelphian should be valued and prioritized, that every Philadelphian should be able to thrive,” she said. “There’ll be some shared understanding and shared values and shared goals and shared work, but we’ll all be able to be fully authentic at the table.”
The OPE is looking for referrals for the Mayor’s Commission on Interfaith Affairs and will make a formal application process available come the new year.
“These are faith leaders of all different traditions who are interested in offering their expertise and their influence in service to building a diverse religious voice that will advise the city on faith issues,” Washington-Leapheart said.
Saptarshi Dutt, Communications Coordinator for the OPE, is excited to have Washington-Leapheart on board.
“I think [her] experience and history with the city, knowing all the different stakeholders when it comes to faith and interfaith affairs — [she] kind of dove right into the position,” Dutt said. “It’s been two months, but it feels like I’ve known Naomi for a long time.”
Washington-Leapheart also intends to partner with local LGBTQ organizations, like the William Way Community Center and the Attic Youth Center, to facilitate more faith-based programming and establish faith-related resources. Even just making it known that LGBTQ faith leaders exist in this city would be a big help, she pointed out. She strives to act as a bridge between LGBTQ folks and spiritual communities, to connect people with some very welcoming local congregations, should they engage with them.
“What would it mean for us to be present and introduce ourselves to the community,” Washington-Leapheart said. “And say ‘Hi, we’re here, you don’t have to join my congregation, but you can know that I’m here, and I can be of spiritual resource to you.’”
She also strongly values intracity partnerships and plans to team up with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Office of LGBT Affairs. One of her priorities is to establish spiritual spaces for people who are grieving or who feel they are in crisis. On the heels of the death of Alicia Simmons, a transgender person of color here in Philly, the Office of LGBT Affairs held a community grief session, for which Washington-Leapheart stepped in to invite queer faith leaders. She hopes partnerships like that will continue.
“I’m excited to see each intersection of the different offices we have kind of work together and create programming that resonates with everybody,” Dutt said. “We have a lot of programming coming up already, so I’m really excited to see what we can do with the public.”
Connecting with LGBTQ youth is also an important part of these efforts.
“My experience as a pastor really compels me to want to show up in whatever way possible and get other folks to show up for young people who are feeling in crisis and don’t know where to turn,” she said.
“That was me — I wasn’t in crisis, but I also didn’t have anyone who looked like me, talking about what it means to be a grown person who was queer and out, and also a person of faith. And so, to the extent that we can model that, I want to try to curate the space for it.”