Saturday, April 28, 2018

sharing about inter-faith organizing for justice, compassion and contemplation...

Today began early: I joined a colleague leading a workshop on: "Organizing from the Heart: Justice, Compassion and Contemplation in a Confusing Time." It was a joy to do - and the 13 people in our workshop were wise and open-hearted. We listened to shared stories at the start of this event asking: when have you experienced the intersection of your faith and the work of justice and peace? In anticipation of that question, I wrote out a summary of my own history in this realm.

I am a happily married, straight, old middle class, white guy with too much education – the proud father of two powerful and creative daughters – and two life-changing grandchildren. Professionally I just retired after 40 years of ordination as a clergy person – serving 4 different congregations – in Saginaw, MI; Cleveland, OH; Tucson, AZ and Pittsfield, MA. Educationally I took my BA in Political Science at San Francisco State University, my Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in NYC and my Doctor of Ministry from San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, CA. I have organized with Cesar Chavez and his farm workers union in their boycott movement as well as in contract administration in CA. I also organized in rural Mississippi with the Mississippi Woodcutters Union in the 80s. I’ve been trained in faith based community organizing by both the IAF – Industrial Areas Foundation of Saul Alinsky fame – and the Gamaliel Foundation in Chicago, IL. Each of my congregations have participated in faith based organizing networks. And, I was twice elected to the Cleveland Board of Education as part of an inter-racial reform team in the 90s working closely with then Mayor, Michael R. White. These days, however, I mostly play upright and electric bass in a small local band – serve on the 4 Freedoms Executive Committee – and volunteer in the L’Arche community of Ottawa, CA.

Next, we noted that three broad theological assumptions shape our commitment to interfaith community organizing.

+ Justice means listening before acting as well as discerning what belongs to another and returning it. We are called and inspired to hear one another's stories in our search for right relations between people and all of God's creation. Interfaith justice work, therefore, is about the restoration of land, dignity, hope, power, etc. 

+ Compassion is all about solidarity: sharing one another's suffering as well as our celebrations is at the core of life. It is living as those who choose to be nourished in community from a common loaf rather than isolated and alienated individuals.

+ And contemplation is consciously taking a long, loving look at reality and holding competing truths together. Non-dual consciousness trusts that we have more in common than we realize. But it takes work to be silent and still enough to let these deeper truths fill our hearts.

Finally we offered the nitty-gritty essentials of building a local inter-faith network based upon the experience of Saul Alinsky, Fred Ross and Marshall Ganz. The bullet points include:

+  Identifying local leaders and listening to their stories and concerns about what matters most in their lives. Leaders are not just titular officials, but also those whom others turn to for insight and assistance formally and informally. As Cesar Chavez used to say: a leader is someone who gets things done. This is called a power analysis and a one-on-one campaign.

+ After a significant number of 1 on 1 conversations take place, it is time for a house meeting campaign: bringing friends and neighbors together in a safe place.  Three things must take place at a house meeting:  a) the concerns of the one-on-one conversations are shared in a summary way; b) the group talks together to discover resonance; and c) the host or organizer asks for a decision of support. This might include time, money or hosting another house meeting, but the "ask" is always non-negotiable. A decision to be engaged is how ordinary people challenge organized money on behalf of restoration and solidarity.

+ Usually house meeting campaigns are for a discrete period - 30 days is common - after which an issue or goal is "cut" and an action planned. Cutting an issue includes: a) summarizing the essence of the house meetings; b) doing research on who are the key players shaping this issue; and c) crafting an action that is clear and win-able. 


+ A date for the action is then set, planning and preparation take place, and the action is embodied: it might be a demonstration, a confrontation, or a public gathering seeking political support for solving a problem. Actions are public. They have a clearly defined goal that can be measured. And they are highly structured. At the close of any action, everyone involved must be able to see what was accomplished: public officials are put on record and held accountable to the grassroots, religious leaders are compelled to stand for or against the common good, etc.

+ Then an internal evaluation takes place: did each of the participants in the interfaith group deliver?  If you committed to bring 7 people, did they show up? Organizers and members of justice and compassion groups have to learn that "maybe" always means no. Internal accountability and leadership development is a learning process. Not only do we learn to be realistic in our responsibilities, but we learn the difference between selflessness, selfishness and self-interest.

To be sure, this was a stream-lined introduction to organizing. There was no training, rather just the whetting of an appetite for more. It was also a chance to share an alternative vision of how faith communities can engage the world of politics: we are never narrowly partisan but always advocating for healing, hope, restoration and right relationships. It was important for me to do this one more time as it is likely my last public act of this type in the Berkshires. I love having a chance to work with Mark. And celebrate the work of the Four Freedoms Coalition. But it is now time for me to deepen my life with L'Arche. It is also time to find new forums to explore music-making, story-telling and feeding the heart. I give thanks for a great day knowing I am ready to fully shift gears. 

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