"That was protest — that was not an invocation, that was not a prayer"

By Sam Gillette
March 29, 2019 12:28 PM
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Credit: PA House

On Monday the Pennsylvania House of Representatives swore in its first Muslim woman. But the occasion was clouded by an alienating opening prayer from a fellow lawmaker who repeatedly referenced Jesus and asked for his forgiveness.

“That was protest. That was not an invocation. That was not a prayer,” the representative being sworn in, Movita Johnson-Harrell, tells PEOPLE. “It was a protest to the first Muslim woman coming to the House of Representatives.”

In a roughly two-minute prayer, Rep. Stephanie Borowicz stood at the front of the chamber before Johnson-Harrell and others and invoked Jesus by name 13 times. “God forgive us, Jesus, we’ve lost sight of you,” she said.

“God forgive us, Jesus, we’ve lost sight of you,” she said.

“I, Jesus, am your ambassador today,” she said.

At the very end of her prayer, Borowicz quoted the Bible: “Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess, Jesus, that you are Lord.”

Johnson-Harrell says the verse Borowicz referenced is considered a “condemnation” of non-Christians. “That was saying if you are not Christian then you are damned to hell,” she says.

Borowicz, who did not mention Islam or Muslims specifically, ended her prayer after a brief touch from House Speaker Mike Turzai, who was standing next to her. A representative in the chamber also shouted “object!”

Johnson-Harrell, a Democratic representative from Philadelphia, tells PEOPLE says that both Democrats and Republicans lawmakers have since apologized to her for Borowicz. (Reached on Thursday, Borowicz’s office said they would be providing a statement to PEOPLE about the incident but have yet to do so.)

However, Borowicz told one local reporter that “I don’t apologize ever for praying.”

“That’s how I pray every day,” she said, according to Andrew Bahl.

Pennsylvania Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell (left) being sworn-in on Monday
| Credit: Pennsylvania House of Representatives

Johnson-Harrell says she initially welcomed the opening prayer from Borowicz and stood and bowed her head — but then Borowicz began speaking.

“It started being ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus’ over and over again,” Johnson-Harrell says. “Then she started talking about the forefathers, some of whom have owned slaves, and I said, ‘Something is not right here.’ ”

Johnson-Harrell says that she tried to make eye contact with Borowicz but Borowicz avoided her.

Borowicz, a Republican, also mentioned President Donald Trump and thanked him for his position on Israel and his support of its right-wing government.

The reference to Trump-Israel relations “was a direct slam at Islam,” Johnson-Harrell says. Borowicz’s repetition of “Jesus” also felt like a personal attack because “most people do not understand the significance of Jesus in Islam,” she says.

“She talks about President Trump, she talks about Israel … and I said, ‘This ain’t no prayer,’ ” Johnson-Harrell recalls.

Borowicz and two colleagues rushed out of the chamber after her prayer, Johnson-Harrell says.

“At that point the focus was no longer on her,” Johnson-Harrell says. “It was on my family and my guests.”

It was on the behalf of her 55 guests that she was truly “offended,” Johnson-Harrell says: Members of her interfaith group were there to support her as well as her 92-year-old grandmother and other family members — many of whom are Muslim.

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While her induction didn’t start out as planned, Johnson-Harrell says she has received “overwhelming support” from the Democratic caucus and many of her Republican colleagues. Even some of Borowicz constituents have apologized, Johnson-Harrell says.

At a reception with supporters following her swearing-in, Johnson-Harrell says she told them, “We were not going to let that occurrence ruin our day. … This actually created an opportunity for learning, an opportunity for teaching and an opportunity for dialogue that should be happening in the State House.”

Johnson-Harrell charges President Trump with normalizing Islamophobia. The president campaigned on banning all Muslims from entering the country, citing abstract security concerns, and once in office he moved to stop immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries.

“[People] are feeling comfortable to attack others,” Johnson-Harrell says.

Johnson-Harrell describes herself as “privileged to be colored and covered” (referencing her hijab), and says she will not be dissuaded from her work. She decided to seek office after her 18-year-old son, Charles, was fatally shot in 2011; she is also the founder of The Charles Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps at-risk children.

“I’m going to continue to fight for marginalized and disenfranchised communities,” she says. “I’m going to continue to fight for inclusion and equality and equity. And my presence creates that conversation.”