Faith-based community organizing has a fine history. I’m talking about Gamaliel, the faith-based network that trains community organizers nationwide to work on immigration, health care, and transportation issues. I’m talking about the Jeremiah Project, which calls young adults into faith-based service projects in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I’m talking about Brooklyn United Methodist Church, and its provision of care to the sick and elderly in New York. I’m talking about PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) and how it puts faith values into action. There are more faith-based initiatives than I could possibly name.
But the “time famine” has deepened for many clergy, who are the gateways to so many congregations. It is time to switch direction. Instead of going from internal parish strength to external extra-parochial action, where we add value to the community from the value we have privately and internally, we need the community’s help. We need the community’s energy to assist parishes so that parishes may assist communities. We need outer to touch inner. This shift in direction is already happening due to necessity and the extraordinary pressures on parish clergy. Now it’s time to pursue this direction intentionally, as well. The churches saved the arts during the Middle Ages. Today, growing numbers of ministers think, the arts need to save the churches.
Resources to Combat Despair
I came to this realization slowly, with some resistance. I often felt used by the rent-a-collar approach of many community and labor organizations. I often felt I had something different to give from what they wanted. They wanted “my” people in their picket lines. They wanted numbers. I increasingly had decreasing numbers in my congregations, and most of the strongest congregants were also experiencing their own time famine, working three jobs, raising children, and trying to keep their mortgage payments above water. I realized that to be of use I had to get the numbers of people up in my pews before I got them up in their picket lines.
Plus what I really had to give was not numbers but spiritual support. Organizers felt so burnt out to me, so despairing, so uselessly utilitarian. They wanted something from my congregants and me that we couldn’t give, while ignoring what we did have: resources to combat despair. They wanted a contractual arrangement. What I had was covenantal. Now when organizers knock on my door to have yet another “one-on-one,” I tell them to come to church. I invite them to worship. I ask about the state of their soul. I don’t promise to produce numbers.
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