Harold: Miss America for such a time as this
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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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
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
Donna sensed that God confirmed
to her that when Erika won Miss Illinois she also would take the Miss America
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
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
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.
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
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
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
“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.
E-mail your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.