About Brandan Robertson

Brandan Robertson is a noted speaker, author, and political activist whose message addresses the intersections of faith, civic life, and inclusivity. His political activism has taken him to Washington, DC, and it has situated him at the center of local politics around the issue of homelessness. Brandan is the author or contributing author of nine different books and has been featured in publications such as TIME Magazine and The Washington Post. When he is not giving a sermon at Mission Gathering, a local faith community that describes itself as being “progressive, inclusive, and Christian,” he might be found speaking at Oxford University or The U.S. Peace Corps Headquarters. I recently had the opportunity to interview Brandan after his return from a book tour in Europe. In our interview Brandan provides practical insights and a unique look at local and national politics.

Brandan Robertson, Lead Pastor at Mission Gathering San Diego.

You just returned from a book tour in Europe for your most recent book, correct?  

Yes, I just returned on Tuesday from a whirlwind, 10 day tour in the UK and Geneva, Switzerland. I got to talk about my book, True Inclusion, which is actually the book before my latest book. I spoke to a couple different churches and several colleges at Oxford University about what it looks like to be radically inclusive beyond the LGBT issue, about how we include people of all abilities and different socio-economic statuses–all of that. Radical inclusivity is a passion that developed out of my LGBT activism. I want to help us consider all the people we don’t think about who are looking for a place in our communities.

"So, regardless of what happens in the presidential election, I hope more and more of us will get involved in actually making our neighborhoods a little bit better."

—Brandan Robertson, Pastor of Mission Gathering San Diego

With all of your traveling, speaking and pastoring, what practices keep you healthy and motivated to do your work?

Honestly I’m not a great expert at being healthy and balanced, so I’m learning more and more about what I need to do. This year I’ve committed to three big things.

The first thing is, everyone I respect says “everyone needs a therapist,” so I committed about six months ago to go regularly to a counselor, to make sure that I have somebody that I can share my anxiety and frustrations with when I’m in the midst of tense spaces. 

I have also been working through this idea that we’ve been conditioned to in our culture that unless were doing, unless we’re creating, unless we’re working endlessly, then we’re not valuable. I’m trying to reverse that thinking in my own mind, so this year I’m intentionally cutting back on things I’m doing. You can’t be a good activist, a good teacher, or a good pastor if you’re always skating on ice, waiting for the breakdown. 

The last big thing I committed to this year was finding a few creative outlets. I really feel like the process of creating and just doing things that are fun for the sake of fun is something a lot of us have forgotten how to do. I know I definitely had, and so I’ve taken up singing in a local choir called The Gay Men’s Chorus. I also just started teaching myself keyboard. Instead of scrolling through email endlessly or being on Instagram endlessly, I’m trying to take my time and channel it toward creative, fun, expressive things that actually feed my soul and keep me grounded.

In the bio on your website, I noticed that you earned a Master of Theological Studies from Iliff School of Theology but that you’re currently pursuing a Master of Political Science from Eastern Illinois University. What’s your intention behind earning a second degree?

For me, my understanding of the role of organized religion has transformed a lot over the last few years, especially after becoming a pastor of a local community. I really see one of the roles, if not the primary role, of a local faith community as engaging in community organizing and the local political process. A few years ago I had the opportunity to work in Washington D.C. with groups like the White House Office of Faith under President Obama, and I got to see the ways that the political world and the faith world aren’t actually enemies. They actually have the ability to work really well with each other. The political process is trying to make our communities and our country work better for people, and religious communities are trying to help individuals figure out how their lives can work better and how we can collectively make the world better. 

I feel like I’m pretty adequately trained in the religious world. I can talk that talk and do the church thing, but I want to understand and be able to engage more deeply on the political side of things as well. I want to bring that knowledge into my local community so we can more effectively organize and be better activists. The hope is to create change here in San Diego and beyond, not in spite of but because of our faith.

So yeah, it’s another crazy degree, and it’s taking a lot of time and energy, but I do feel like it’s going to be necessary, especially as the world gets more tumultuous.

How do you feel about the direction San Diego is heading as a whole politically? What areas would you like to see improvement in?

I think San Diego is a unique community in the sense that we’re here in what’s traditionally understood to be “liberal Southern California,” and yet we have a pretty mixed and moderate political climate. I think that’s a blessing on one hand–we get to work across the divide–however, I think I’m growing more concerned. Our own church has been at the center of controversy around homelessness, and because of that I’ve gotten a chance to interface with some of the prominent politicians running for office. A lot of them are running on plans dealing with homelessness, and honestly I don’t think any of them have a compelling, realistic, or hopeful plan for how to address homelessness in San Diego.

I say that because, for instance, our church was operating the only homeless youth shelter in all of San Diego County, and the City of San Diego shut it down. The city came in and said it was an issue of safety and basically said that churches can’t open up their properties as places for homeless people to sleep, yet we have a bigger homeless population in California than any other state in the country.

I think San Diego needs to figure out ways we can engage the whole community in addressing the crisis of homelessness, and that means relying on faith communities and non-profits rather than trusting the government to provide these services. We already know that San Diego-run homeless shelters are terrible. The Union Tribune did a report just a year ago that showed that shelters operated by the city didn’t have proper electricity, water or heating, and they were infested with cockroaches and rats. 

Our church was a much better place for homeless folks to be sleeping than city shelters, yet politicians would rather keep homeless people out of neighborhoods because they’re worried that property values might go down. So, the homelessness issue is the one I really feel a lot of passion about. The solutions aren’t far out of our grasp. It’s just going to require us to put aside our greed and our desire to have whatever a “nice neighborhood” means and figure out how we can be better neighbors to those who don’t have what we have. 

It sounds like what you’re describing is, at least in part, an empathy problem. How do we help build empathy and encourage people to see the humanity in others?

Totally. I don’t think there are easy answers to that. I’ve been so disturbed by comments on the Nextdoor app. I think it’s one of the worst apps that’s been created. I’ve read comments on the app from neighbors in North Park saying things about homeless people like, “They’re worthless” and “I would want to see them dead,” terrible things. It really does reveal that we’ve lost our common humanity, we’ve lost the ability, like you said, to empathize. Any one of us could easily get one big medical bill that would bankrupt us and put us in a situation like those experiencing homelessness. 

I think it’s lifting up their stories, having communities like Mission Gathering. I say this not to toot our own horn, but if you come on a Sunday morning, we have about 20 people who are experiencing homelessness sitting next to people that make six figure incomes. I think it’s in those spaces where we can do life together, where there is no division, where people have the opportunity to build empathy. Without empathy, there is no hope–we’re just going to keep creating policies around our own greed and our own comfort, rather than actually help those who are in need.

With the presidential election ahead of us this year, how do you feel about the current political climate? Do you have hope for the future?

Yeah, that’s hard. I’ve been pretty deeply involved in the presidential campaigns. I’ve consulted the Pete Buttigieg, Marianne Williamson, and the Warren campaigns, so I’ve been in that circle for a while. I really do believe that were in a period that’s so divisive and that unless the Democratic Party can actually figure out a way to unify a bit, we’re not going to be able to come together and confront the existential crisis that is the presidency of Donald Trump and all the values that represents. 

So I’m both hopeful and a little cynical in these moments. I see this far left wing of the Democratic Party that I think has a lot of passion and a lot of really good values but is also really coming into conflict with the more moderate wing of the Democratic Party, which also has passion and good values. If we can’t figure out how to come together and make compromises I’m worried that we are not going to actually be able to make the changes that we really need in order to keep America moving in the direction it was moving a few years ago. I’m perplexed, I’m hopeful, and I’m cynical all the same time. I think at the end of the day it’s not about what happens in Washington that’s going to matter–it’s what’s happening on the ground in our own communities. So regardless of what happens in the presidential election, I hope more and more of us will get involved in actually making our neighborhoods a little bit better. I think that’s really where the change needs to happen. 

You’ve authored several books and written or contributed to a number of major publications. For someone who’s interested in reading your work, where should they start?

The place where all my work is aggregated, BrandanRobertson.com is a great place for finding all of my work. Book-wise, I think that if people are interested in the political and social organizing side of things, True Inclusion is a good starting place. If people are interested in my vision for nomadic spirituality, a humble spirituality rooted in curiosity, my book Nomad is really where I pour my heart out about that.

Photography by Patrick Fore