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Erika Harold: Miss America for such a time as this

By John W. Kennedy

Just before she began her senior year in college in 2001, Erika Harold experienced a crisis of faith. She not only had lost the Miss Illinois title twice but she relinquished scholarships because of her outspoken conservative views on her chosen platform, sexual abstinence before marriage. Erika wanted to attend law school after graduation, but the loss of funds made her pessimistic about her prospects.

“I felt as though every time I stood up for my faith I not only wasn’t being rewarded, I was losing things as a result,” Erika told Today’s Pentecostal Evangel. “I didn’t feel God’s presence in my life the way I thought I would or should.”

Questioning personal faith is common for Christian students who attend secular universities. Erika wrestled with typical dilemmas such as why there is suffering in the world and why God allows Christians to face adversity.

“I wanted to make sure I believed in God myself, not just that I’d been raised that it was the right thing to do,” Erika recalls. Yet Erika says her father, Robert, effectively helped answer the litany of questions she had about the Bible. Her pastor, Gary W. Grogan of Urbana (Ill.) Assembly of God, gave her books by Charles Colson and C.S. Lewis to help answer faith questions.

Ultimately, God confirmed His existence to Erika when she earnestly sought Him in prayer and realized that faith requires being secure in God’s omniscience. “God told Job He wasn’t going to give him all the answers and Job didn’t have the right to demand them,” Erika says. After her choice, Erika says God began to manifest himself to her, beginning with winning the Miss Illinois title and culminating with being crowned Miss America 2003.

Through it all, Erika, now 22, has come to understand God’s timing. She is grateful she experienced a crisis of faith when she did.

If she had won the Miss America title at 19 when she first entered a Miss Illinois pageant, she says her shaky faith would not have enabled her to survive the rigors of public scrutiny. Because of perseverance and endurance through difficult circumstances, Erika is no longer easily rattled.

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Youthful struggles
Trials are nothing new for the new Miss America.

Although Erika’s intelligence, enthusiasm and popularity prompted her to be elected class president in ninth grade, a group of about 15 students began sexual and racial harassment (father Robert Harold is white and mother Donna Tanner-Harold is black and American Indian). Daily at school, these students called Erika obscene names, made vulgar drawings of her and sang songs with profane lyrics about her. The taunts escalated into vandalism of the family home and a muttered death threat at school.

Erika found the ordeal to be frightening and degrading. As the intimidation worsened, she became cynical, bitter and resentful. The turning point began when Erika told God of her anger at Him. Erika prayerfully asked God to show her that He hadn’t abandoned her. Subsequently, rather than responding in hatred toward her tormenters, Erika felt pity for those whose prejudice and ignorance had blinded them.

Her parents, who had urged Erika to seek God’s wisdom through the difficulties, arranged for her to be transferred to a different school in the middle of her sophomore year. The troubles dissipated, and through the experience Erika matured as a Christian and thrived academically.

Even when she struggled inwardly, Erika was never shy about defending God and the Bible. In high school, when few others eagerly took a public stand for morality and righteousness, some peers ridiculed Erika for her outspoken conservative views.

In her first year of college, Erika began working with abstinence-based curriculum organizations that make presentations in Illinois schools. By the time she won Miss Illinois last June, Erika had addressed 14,000 youth in Illinois schools about making proper sexual decisions.

But her stance on chastity almost resulted in her quitting pageants altogether.

As she competed in the Miss Illinois contest for the second time, at the end of her sophomore year in college, the interview portion turned into a debate on abstinence. Erika didn’t even finish in the top 10.

Dejected, Erika didn’t see a point in trying again and she skipped the state competition the next year. But with aspirations of attending law school, Erika figured snagging scholarships that go with the title would be her best opportunity to further her education. She gave the Miss Illinois pageant one more shot after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Unlike Miss America, where contestants can only represent their states once, an entrant can repeatedly participate in a state pageant. More than 12,000 women compete in local and state pageants annually.

“She prayed a lot about whether to even compete a third time,” recalls mother Donna Tanner-Harold.

“She hung in there when most people would have quit,” says Grogan.

Erika didn’t change her platform, selecting abstinence for the third go-round. But this time it was God’s time. When Erika won Miss Illinois last June, her sister Alexandra finished third. Between them they won 75 percent of the financial awards offered by the pageant.

Donna sensed that God confirmed to her that when Erika won Miss Illinois she also would take the Miss America crown.

Winning the crown
Erika says she experienced incredible peace the night of the pageant, September 21.

“Sometimes we have a tendency to pray, ‘Thy will be done,’ when we really mean, ‘if it’s my will,’ ” Erika says. “But that night I prayed I would be able to accept whatever God had planned for my life. If I didn’t win the money to pay for school that night, God would have provided some other way.”

On stage, she exuded a calm confidence. As she progressed through the stages of competition — including fitness, evening wear, poise, artistic talent, leadership and knowledge — she appeared both animated and composed.

While some Christians are opposed to the concept of a beauty pageant, Erika draws a parallel to Esther in the Old Testament. While humans picked Esther as queen because of her physical attributes, the Lord designated her to stand up for virtue in a hostile society.

“I am under no illusion that I won because of beauty or talent,” Erika says. “God has creative ways of using people to make a difference. We should never limit Him to traditional ways we conceive of ministry.”

Robert, 48, concurs. “On the one hand,” he says, “we couldn’t believe it when she won, but on the other hand we knew that, for whatever reason, God had determined that Erika was going to win and would be thrust on the national and international stage.”

Grogan, who has been pastor at Urbana Assembly of God for 15 years, believes there is a divine destiny in Erika’s sudden fame.

“As a church, we see the sovereignty of God in her selection as Miss America,” says Grogan, 51. “We believe that, as with Esther, Erika has been called to the kingdom for such a time as this.”

Within the first week of her reign, Erika appeared on the David Letterman Show, CBS’s The Early Show, The O’Reilly Factor, Good Morning America and Live with Regis and Kelly. She later sang the national anthem at Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears professional football games.

In the public eye
Because she has been a youth advocate speaker since age 18, Erika is accustomed to extensive traveling, early wake-up calls and late-night appearances. She travels approximately 20,000 miles each month during her period in office, changing locations every day or two.

But Erika is not as accustomed to having her every word monitored. Although Erika won the Miss Illinois title with an abstinence platform, state pageant officials last year required contestants to sign a contract that if they advanced to the national level they must adopt the cause of youth violence prevention. Erika agreed, figuring that her firsthand experience with bullying made such a platform a natural fit. But she also determined that a message of saying no to sex before marriage could be incorporated into youth violence prevention talks.

Miss America officials, who five years ago lauded Miss America Kate Shindle for promoting condom distribution in schools and needle exchange programs as her causes, didn’t applaud Erika’s idea. At an October appearance before the National Press Club, they ordered her not to mention abstinence.

Erika objected, saying she wouldn’t be true to her beliefs if she failed to advocate in talks to school groups that waiting for sex until marriage is best.

The tiff between a biblically conservative beauty queen and the 80-year-old Atlantic City organization caused a national firestorm. Pro-family organizations and conservative publications rallied to her side, including an editorial in The Wall Street Journal and a front-page article in The Washington Times.

After two days, the Miss America  organization relented, agreeing to allow Erika to include abstinence as a part of an expanded anti-teen violence platform.

“If you’re a Christian it needs to be manifest in every aspect of your life,” Erika told Today’s Pentecostal Evangel. “If you encounter any adversity in life, God can use it.”

The Miss America organization has vast control in determining Erika’s schedule, but she strives to attend events that are important to her, especially where young people are present. At the December 29 morning worship service at Urbana Assembly of God, Erika preached the message, sang special music and gave altar calls for those who have suffered abuse and those committing to purity.

Meanwhile, as she continues her reign, Erika is trying to ignore criticisms and focus on helping young people.

“Certainly there are going to be people who disagree with me on any issue,” Erika says. “If I get sidetracked debating and trying to change opinions, then I become less effective. But I won’t endorse agendas that run counter to my belief system.”

After the reign
Erika credits her parents, who married in 1976, with being the most influential people in her life. The couple’s heritage is the epitome of America’s 21st-century diversity: Robert is half Greek as well as German, Welsh and English. Donna, in addition to having black great-great grandparents who were slaves, also has Cherokee and Choctaw Indian blood plus Russian lineage. Robert is a satellite dish network dealer and Donna is a community college counselor.

They are cell group leaders at their church, which has an average Sunday morning attendance of 750.

Erika says her mother, who homeschooled her through fourth grade, taught her how to sacrifice. Although Donna says the family could have used the second income in those early years, she willingly and happily stayed home with her children. Daughter Alexandra is now a senior at Eastern Illinois University. Daughter Stacia is a first-year student at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Son Nicholas is a freshman at Urbana High School.

“I wouldn’t be going to Harvard Law School if it wasn’t for my mother,” says Erika, who delayed continuing her studies a year because of her Miss America duties. By winning the crown, Erika received more than $80,000 in scholarship assistance.

After becoming a lawyer Erika hopes to seek elected office. “The Miss America title is a wonderful training ground for political life in many respects,” Erika says, noting the daily interaction with media and being subjected to public scrutiny.

But for the moment, she is in the national spotlight, boldly and articulately espousing Christian principles.

“The Lord rewards those who stand for Him,” Grogan says. “Erika has been through the wringer, but the Lord has vindicated her. It’s one thing to be bold in church, it’s another thing in the public arena. She’s reaching more lost people in a year than the average preacher will in a lifetime.”


John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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