Faith-Rooted Organizing Introductory Training

Not long ago while at New York Theological Seminary to hear Kent Annan speak I had the privilege of meeting Lisa Sharon Harper, Executive Director of New York Faith & Justice, a Christian group committed to advocacy and community organizing for a more just society. She invited me to a training session to be held just a couple of weeks from that time, on a Friday. Although I had to take a day off work to be there bright and early at Judson Memorial Church, I did it. I’m glad I did.

Although I heard nearly 200 signed up online to participate, I have no idea how many were there. It was easily over 100, though, and 150 would sound completely reasonable from what I could see. The group was large enough to impede us from having 100% participation in all of the activities, but I don’t think that took anything away from the training at all. We all saw the methods and had everything clearly explained. Besides, it was really just an “introductory training,” the full, regular training takes a week.

The training was co-lead by Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, the executive director of C.L.U.E. (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice) and by Lisa Harper. From what I understood, the latter has been apprenticed to the former, learning the “faith-rooted organizing” methodology in order to teach it to others and implement it more fully in New York.

A few explanations need to be made before I share more about the day and the content of the training.

First, the difference between benevolence, community development and community organizing.

We’ve all heard the old saying: “You give a man a fish, he eats for a day. You teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.” Giving the fish is benevolence. Many churches do that with a food bank. Teaching someone to fish is community development. That’s what I’m talking about when I discuss teaching tech to poor and at-risk youth in Brazil. But, what if the man goes to the lake to fish, and there’s a wall keeping him out? That’s when community organizing is called into play.

Second, “faith-rooted” organizing seeks to call together people of like faith to take action. This may be as broad as interfaith or as narrow as a single faith, like Christianity. It is not standard, secular organizing with an “us vs. them” mindset. Faith-rooted organizing sees people and their institutions as fallen but redeemable. Rather than weakness in those viewed as adversaries, this approach calls for seeking common ground and common interests.

Third, understand that I do not endorse all that is called “organizing,” in much the same was as not all that is called “church” seems correct to me. Some agendas I simply do not endorse. The principles of faith-rooted, community organizing do find a basis in Scripture. No only do the prophets call for justice, but Jesus himself taught methods of non-violent resistance, as Walter Wink pointed out in several books, including in “The Powers that Be.”

What follows comes from my notes taken that day:

Components of Organizing

  • goal
  • analysis
  • strategies
  • recruitment
  • leadership development
  • leadership sustaining

Gifts of Faith to Organizing

  • vision
  • values
  • hope
  • practices
  • texts, symbols, rituals, music
  • holistic community

It was also noted at this point that this model is “open source,” meaning it’s open to adoption by other groups that can modify and adapt it at will for their purposes, so long as due credit is given.

Most community organizing begins with private pain in communities that goes public. Something in life isn’t right, some people deal with it alone, but then when it’s brought to light it’s found that many share that same problem. The community at this point has the right to define its own common values and goals. It’s seeking power for a purpose, and not for power’s sake. This is not only in solving the immediate problem, as power is a means to a much broader end. This “big picture” has been identified by some with the “kingdom of God” or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “the beloved community.” This is the much broader goal of more narrow, focused efforts.

A long view is needed. Even if in the short term we can’t solve everything with a particular injustice, we can and must do what’s possible now to contribute toward achieving it someday.

At this point a story was shared of women on a plantation who worked from dawn until dusk, received very low wages and had little to feed their children. They took some of the banana starts and planted them around their homes to provide extra food. The company, an American corporation, found out about this and sent men in to rip out the banana trees. A missionary who was there visiting this saw what happened and asked an organizer if this was worth it, if things would ever really change. She said, “Soon.”

“Soon? How soon?”, he asked.

“Soon. In the time of my daughter’s daughters, soon.”

One of the key lessons I took away from the training was identifying the lies in society. It’s a matter of framing the issue.

First, ask: “What is the lie that most people believe that justifies the issue?” Put differently, seek the core lie.

Second, “What is the spiritual truth in response to this lie?”

Third, “What are the clearest manifestations of these lies.”

Taking those steps helps clarify the issue and provides ideas for where to begin taking specific action.

Vocation was defined in the training as being “where the world’s deep hunger and your deep gladness meet.” Further, the point was made that during his earthly ministry, Jesus called individuals, not groups. Although there’s a place for a “general call,” we should really work to forming teams coherently and individually.

One of the more inspirational stories of the day, at least to me, was about Archbishop Desmond Tutu during the days of South African apartheid. He preached every Sunday against apartheid, and one Easter Sunday the government sent soldiers to surround the building. Clearly, it was an attempt to silence him on the subject. Would he speak against apartheid or not? People were afraid both that he would and there’d be violence, and that he wouldn’t and the government would win. Standing before the congregation, he began to hop and laugh. Laughter is infectious, and pretty soon not only the congregation but even the men with guns are laughing out loud. Finally, Tutu says something along the lines of, “Friends, we are celebrating. We see the day when we will be free, and we rejoice. Come and celebrate our freedom with us, because we have already won.”

There was no violence that day.

The point of the story is that there is prophetic power in hope, and hope involves bringing the future into the present.

While I have many more notes from that day, there is simply too much to share in one blog post. This is already too long for most people to read. Perhaps in the near future I can type up the notes and share them online. Even better would be if I could find a copy of the powerpoint slides from the presentation.

As I mentioned above, this one a one-day, introductory training session. There is talk of a full series of lessons either during a week or over the course of a few week in the summer. I certainly hope they opt for Saturdays so I can attend. There is much to be learned that can be applied on the ground in Brazil.

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