Faith Rooted Organizing

faith-rooted organizingFaith Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World, Rev. Alexia Salviterria and Peter Heltzel
Up until about 6 months ago, my entire professional life has been working in a faith-based context, either directly at a congregation or working on faith outreach for an advocacy organization.  So I’ve read a lot on the topic and attended a lot of trainings.  And this is, I think, the best book on congregation based organizing I’ve read.  It’s certainly my favorite, at least.

Congregation based/community organizing is actually a pretty basic concept.  It’s the idea of bringing people together to advocate for change.  Usually political, trying to get more money for a homeless shelter or bus routes that better reflect the trips of the people who really need them, but they an also be to stand with people who aren’t usually listened to to get badly needed changes in their lives.  So, for instance, one of the “actions” taken by a community organizing group my church is a part of was to have other community members-including white, middle class folks-join residents of a broken down, low-income rental building in confronting their landlord about needed changes, or even joining them for the walk through with maintenance.  Other organizations have banded together to challenge banks about their lending to minorities.  The idea is that congregations are called to do more than just serve others through a food pantry, and to also advocate for change in the world.

Almost every aspect of congregational organizing is based on the tenants laid out by Saul Alinsky when he started the Industrial Areas Foundation in the 1930s.  Anytime one studies up on congregational organizing, Alinsky, IAF, and other organizations that came from that model come up.  This isn’t too surprising, since they are amazingly successful and Alinsky may be the first person to really create a system of community organizing and lay out some rules.  Salviterria also originally comes from that model and has worked with the PICO National Network, one of the organizations, alongside Gamaliel Foundation and DART, that was built in the IAF model.  While they are successful, though, I’ve always been uncomfortable with aspects of these organizations, and Salviterria had a lot of the same criticisms.

The issue I have with the typical model is two-fold.  Firstly, while some organizations, such as Gamalial, try to be more tied to faith, for a lot of the traditional model they’re not really faith-based.  They work out of congregations out of practicality, because in some areas of the US and in some communities they’re still the only trusted institutions, and because in all parts of the US, despite the “rise of the nones“, there are tons of congregations.  I don’t really mind this, I can respect pragmatism and practicality and it’s not as if the organization tries to remove faith from what they do-everything I’ve been to that was hosted in a congregation still started with a prayer.  But for someone looking for a truly faith-based organization, this is not that.

The second, and larger, issue I have with them is that I have never enjoyed working with them.  Everything I’ve done with the IAF has seemed overly confrontational, and with a distinct lack of respect for the members, although I know others feel differently.  There is such as strict model that they stick with because of the past success, but they strongly discourage anyone from veering from it.  While they say over and over again that they’re built on relationships and power-sharing, I’ve always felt that they don’t share power, or rather, they’re only built on raising to power those who are willing to follow everything  that they say about what should be done.  And their relational meetings have felt rote to me, not really respectful or about building relationships.

I want to emphasize here that there are a lot of people I know who do not feel this way, and have really enjoyed being part of IAF or similar groups.  I think some of my criticisms, particularly about their resistance to change, are valid objective critiques, a lot of them are likely more of a mismatch between my personality and the organization.  They’re not for me, but that doesn’t mean they’re not for anyone.

Back to the book!  Faith-Rooted Organizing aims to keep a lot of the practical aspects of the usual models of congregation based organizing.  There was a lot in this book that was very familiar to me from a logistical standpoint.  But she also tries to adapt it to an explicit faith, not just congregation, context.  As one of my co-workers used to point out, if you want people to stay engaged at something at their church, you have to give them a reason to do it through the church, not just some other volunteer group.  After all, there’s a lot more competition for civic life these days.  I also found that she was a bit better on how to actually accomplish things logistically, and what she had done in the past, than some other organizing books which are heavy on the concepts and light on the applications.

Tied into this is that Salviterria evidently had some of the same problems with traditional organizing as I do.  The book emphasizes respecting one another, and argues for cooperation over “power.”  A lot of the differences are subtle, but I got the sense from her book that when she talks about authentic relationships, she means it.  IAF talks about the organizing coming from relationships, but it also talks about everything being about shared self-interest, and, again, in my experience, every relational being has been about how to get something out of it, not just getting to know someone.  And yes that’s part of any meeting when you want a volunteer, but when you’re conducting a relational meeting to check a box it’s always going to be a bit more rote and about how you can use someone.

I find myself struggling to explain the book better, because a lot of what I liked about it was the subtle differences between it and other organizing manuals, and it’s really getting into the weeds of a subject and a world that I’ve been heavily involved in for over a decade but that most people don’t even know exists.  I will sum up, though, that if you are interested in getting your congregation involved in advocacy, either with politics or just in the community helping some members stand up to a local slumlord, this is the book I’d recommend.  It’s comprehensive on both the how and the why.  And if you like the concept of congregation or community organizing but have been turned off by other organizations, give Faith-Rooted Organizing a try.  It just might appeal to you where others have left you cold.

 

 

 

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