Community organizing as community investment

Julie Patterson, Paul Kelly, and Jill Kelly Koren at a MAARCH protest in Madison, Indiana. (Photo by Jane Stormer.)

One of my spiritual practices is community organizing. I never imagined I would find God in organizing work, or that I would find it so essential in small churches and communities, but I have experienced the ways in which my own spiritual life and the welfare of the community benefit from this deeply theological ritual. I continue to turn back to Jeremiah 29:1-7, remembering that God calls us to seek the welfare of the community where we have been sent, and that our community’s welfare and our own wellness are connected.

Aaron Stauffer, a professor who teaches broad-based community organizing (BBCO) as part of the Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Lifelong Learning Program, also describes community organizing as a spiritual practice and a tool that can enrich rural communities. “Rural churches are in communities that are often deeply relational. … Organizing helps congregations focus on the relationships as the basic fabric of the church — it’s the relationships that keep people coming back to church, and where we encounter Christ.”

Though Stauffer teaches at a divinity school, my training in community organizing wasn’t until many years after I graduated from seminary. I attended the NEXT Church Community Organizing training in 2019, and I have used this training in my everyday ministry. I have long felt called to social justice issues like food insecurity and houselessness but didn’t see the connection to community organizing immediately. I saw community organizers as people who did larger social justice issues in cities. Besides my seminary field education experiences, I have only served in smaller, rural areas of less than 10,000 people. During the early years of my ministry, community organizing didn’t seem like instruction that I would find useful.

When I attended the NEXT Church training, I lived in southern Indiana and served perhaps the most progressive church in the county. I was an hour away from Louisville. In the Spring of 2020, Breonna Taylor was murdered. Then George Floyd was murdered. People protested in the streets.

All of this was happening just after the pandemic began and we still had a stay-at-home order in Indiana. I sat in my backyard – my safe space, my privileged space, my comfort space during COVID – and watched the media report the horrific news. I felt I needed to “do something.” But, I wondered like many others, “What can I do?”

Jane Stormer, Paul Koren, Nora and Marcia Lair at MAARCH protest in Madison, Indiana. (Photo by Jane Stormer.)

I began using my BBCO skills to connect with local groups in the area. A small group of people who were interested in racial justice began gathering every Friday at the courthouse to raise awareness and start conversations; that group eventually became MAARCH (Madison Area Anti-Racism Hub). They also met every other week to review and then go back out to meet with people in the community. Their main goals were to change the name of a local school mascot, begin anti-racism conversation in the community, and to have the city do a racial equity audit.

As we had conversations with community leaders (and were turned down by many), we saw a need for education, including educating ourselves. So we also started a book group and followed Eddie Moore Jr.’s 21-day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge. This process was life-changing in identifying White supremacy and shifting our ideologies from White-centric and institutional to inclusive and diverse.

Since the summer and fall of 2020, I’ve taken a new call in rural Michigan, and I’ve found the need for community organizing present here as it was in Indiana. During my first week of work, I attended a city planning meeting to discuss whether the city commissioners should rezone a building. Rezoning appears to be an easy decision, but people were upset over who would live in the building. The building was originally created as an assisted living facility, but it had been empty for years because there was a lack of need in the community. Another organization reached out to the owner and wanted to use the space as a foster facility for refugee children. Some people were fearful because they did not want to allow refugees into the community. There was a misunderstanding of the process of immigration. There was racism and fear in the form of yelling, name-calling and interrupting city meetings — creating chaos.

Jill Kelly Koren at MAARCH protest in Madison, Indiana. (Photo by Jane Stormer.)

I learned of a group of concerned citizens who held meetings about equitable rezoning and connected with them. They were in the early stages of community organizing and were overwhelmed with their community’s need. BBCO is needed everywhere — small communities and large cities. But how do you organize in a smaller community?

The first step is simple: get involved. What organizations and nonprofits are involved in the cause you’re concerned with? Which of their strategies work well in achieving their goal? Where do they need help? Nonprofits usually need volunteers and people on boards. Become well acquainted with the local government. Attend public meetings and conduct relational meetings with politicians and representatives.

As you engage with the networks and needs of your community, you can educate yourself. Learning while acting is important in the world of community organizing. In Indiana, we found that our group of educated White people wanted to read and read and read. Presbyterians love information! The motive behind this is often that we want to “get things right” and don’t want to offend — which is important. Yet, too often, this leads to inaction, which is perhaps just as harmful. Community organizing means running actions, disrupting the “norm” and patterns. If we can’t disrupt our own destructive ways by educating ourselves, we won’t be successful in changing the ways of others.

Another central BBCO technique is to organize relational meetings — a 30-minute conversation with someone where you learn what they are passionate about. These focused conversations include questions such as: What brings you joy? Where do you see your gifts best used? What makes you angry? The point is to learn the issue someone is most passionate about and to find out the “why” behind it. Maybe they are concerned with disability justice because their brother is disabled. Maybe they focus on housing because they once lived in a shelter. Maybe they concentrate on domestic violence because their sister was in a toxic relationship. When you learn what someone is passionate about and why, organizing can begin.

What I have seen in both Michigan and Indiana is that communication is important, and many people struggle when talking to people with whom they disagree. If the group is not in a formal meeting (such as a session meeting or city council meeting that has its own rules for civil discourse), it is helpful to set up boundaries and ground rules for how to have those conversations.

The more I engage in BBCO, the more I learn about the intimate connection between community organizing and my understanding of God and church. I learn a better way to be a follower of Christ through my organizing work. Take the relational meetings of BBCO, for instance. As Stauffer says, “Strong church institutions depend upon a strong relational fabric grounded in sacred values, because relationships that are grounded in values are abler to withstand change and conflict. BBCO helps build stronger churches because it trains people in the practice of relational organizing. The upshot is a richer, more practical theological sense of what the mission and vocation of the church is — and how to go about it.”

Stauffer states that BBCO is one way that we can sense the Spirit’s movement within a community. Ministry is inherently relational and one-to-one meetings strengthen those relationships.

In her book, Brave Church, author and minister Elizabeth Hagan speaks about inviting authentic, honest conversations like you encounter in BBCO into the church. She speaks about moving from safe spaces, where people can feel safe talking about any subject without disagreement, to brave spaces, in which people talk, listen and learn with hopes of growing. Brave spaces mean tackling difficult topics like racism, mental health and infertility among others. These are topics so many people deal with but can rarely find a place to have a deep conversation about them. They often make people uncomfortable, but they are necessary conversations. When we can sit in our own discomfort, we can make meaningful connections and grow.

BBCO also teaches me about repentance. We study and learn at the feet of Christ, we go out into the world and do justice, then we return in community to repent of the ways we messed up and to reorient ourselves. This is the pattern of church and the sacred art of community organizing: We gather together, we educate ourselves, we repent of our sin, we support one another and we go out into the world to make a difference. If we don’t know how to repent of our sins, community organizing will fail. Just like church, community organizing brings us out of our comfort zone. Jesus calls us to do difficult things — challenge authority, question the oppressive systems, be willing to risk a bit of our own comfort for the equity of all people.

Lastly, community organizing reinforces the connection between self and community that the Bible teaches us through passages like Jeremiah 29:1-7. I’ve heard this chapter called the “bloom where you’re planted” passage. The Israelites were in exile when the prophet shared God’s instruction to settle in and build homes and families, to make the best of the situation. Community organizing – and this passage – reminds us not to settle, but to connect so deeply to the community that we realize our welfare and the community’s welfare are intertwined. When the community thrives, we benefit; everyone benefits. When we thrive, the community feels it, too. And so we continue this liturgical practice: listen to the community, gather in worship, repent of the ways we’ve harmed, listen for God’s word and then invest in the community. May you seek your refuge in God, and welfare within community.