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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Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal

LambLamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Christopher Moore

This book was first recommended to me by a very good friend.  While I trust his book recommendations implicitly, I was still a bit hesitant about this particular book.  I hadn’t read anything by Christopher Moore before, but did know of books like The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove and Bite Me: A Love Story, which didn’t exactly sound like stories about the Son of God, you know?  Plus my to-be-read bookshelf is getting pretty full.  I was always going to read it, I just wasn’t sure exactly when.  Then I was up at an event for work and the table next to mine was run by the New Hampshire Bible Society.  The Director of the NH Bible Society is a nice guy, but horrible at outreach events.  He spent the entire time reading-including Lamb, which it turns out he was rereading.  I was a bit surprised to see it turn up at this event, but it did give me the kick I needed to finally check it out.

I’m sorry I delayed for even a second, and I should have known better than to sit on a recommendation from my friend.  Lamb is an absolutely fantastic and hilarious book.  I’m truly amazed by it.  It walks what is a very fine line, managing to be satirical and irreverent without being sacrilegious.  Written from the perspective of a previously unknown 13th disciple, Levi called Biff, Lamb primarily focuses on the lost years, Jesus’ life as a child and before he began his professional ministry, although the book does cover the other gospel years at the end.  The book is amazingly well researched.  Another review I read said that the book did its best when it was entirely made up by Moore, and strained itself a bit when it got to the end and had to follow the Bible.  I disagree, and enjoyed the book throughout.  Also, while Moore filled in a lot on his own, this ignores the fact that his description of Jesus’ childhood years is not entirely from his imagination.  He pulls from the non-canonical Gospels, and an extensive amount of research on what life was like in the Roman colonies about 2000 years ago.

Lamb is a hilarious book in its own right, and even funnier if you know enough about Christianity and the Bible to get all of the allusions–Moore recommends reading the Bible first to get all of the jokes, and if you can’t get a hold of one, just finding someone going door to door who can explain it to you.  I also thought it did a fantastic job of portraying a more human side of Jesus, who after all is believed to be fully human and fully God.  I also read this right after Silence, so Lamb’s alternative of what happened to Judas was a welcome counterpoint, although it’s merely a footnote in this book.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys humor, and anyone interested in Christianity and religious type novels.  Again, I’m sorry I waited at all to read it.  It really is an excellent novel, a lighter treatment of serious subjects, provides a new (although not entirely different) perspective on Jesus ministry, and a fantastically fun read.  It’s now one of my favorite books, and I expect it will make it into my regular rereading rotation as well.

Silence

41zs0ocj5gLSilence, Shusaku Endo

Sometimes I have trouble writing a review of a book I read because I just didn’t feel like there was a lot there. I’m left kind of “meh” and unsure how to stretch that out to a few paragraphs. For Silence it’s the opposite. I think I’ve started and scrapped this review 1000 times because this book covered so many different topics, and made me think so many different thoughts, that I’ve had trouble organizing them into anything coherent. I’ll give it my best try, though. Also, this is going to include some spoilers. I don’t think they take anything away, since this is a book that is about its journey, not the bare bones of the story, and I knew them before I read it, but I thought I’d give a warning for those who just hate spoilers in any circumstance.

Shusako Endo is a Japanese Catholic novelist. I was unfamiliar with him until someone recommended this book to me, but apparently he’s very well known in certain circles—based on what I’ve seen online I think it’s required that any article about Endo refers to him as the “Japanese Graham Greene”. Silence grapples with a lot of what I must imagine are complicated feelings for Japanese Christianity, highlighting as it does the tension between historical Japan and Catholicism. It highlights the journey of a Portuguese Jesuit missionary to Japan and his colleague in the 17th century, when Catholicism was banned and Catholics and anyone supporting Catholics was rather brutally persecuted. Throughout this very short, although very substantial, novel, the story touches on martyrdom, missionaries, different interpretations of Catholicism, and betrayal. And silence-the silence of God in the face of His people’s suffering, the silence of God to those who are trying to follow him.

What I loved about this novel was how much it explored these different concepts, and how willing it was to grapple with quite difficult issues for a Catholic to grapple with. The main topic of it is, as is highlighted in the title, Silence. Why does God not speak up, why does God not tell his loyal servant what to do, why does he not stop the suffering of His people? While I don’t want to negate this discussion, it is something that pops up in numerous theological discussions, and hardly a unique topic—although I did particularly appreciate and identify with what seemed to be the books’ answer. What I was much more interested in was the novel’s discussion of betrayal and Judas, a topic which I find fascinating. The Island of the Day Before, an Umberto Eco novel that I really need to reread since all of his novels take at least two read throughs to understand, touched on this as well. How much is Judas to blame? Without his betrayal, we do not have Jesus on the cross, we do not have the Resurrection, his action was necessary to the story. Did he have a choice? Was he forgiven? Was he punished? If he had not hung himself, could he have had redemption? Did his suicide in itself show that he felt guilt and wanted and deserves forgiveness?

While the primary character in Silence, Fr. Rodrigues, does meditate often on Judas, the representation of him here in this book is as a Japanese man who seems to be torn between helping the Christians and his own fear. The question posed by the book, and never exactly answered, is how much this man, Kichijiro, can help himself. Is it fair for him to be judged by the situation he is put in? Is this a man who is going to be condemned for eternity because of his betrayals when in a different time, a different society, one where he isn’t faced with such challenges and persecution, he may have gone about his life in an unremarkable way, going to Mass, going through the motions, never failing because he has never faced such a hard test? It is uncomfortable to think about, and in its own way, although I don’t think this is the point of the book, it almost raises the specter of predestination and how much we do have free will, and if our character is really our own.

I disagree to a certain extent that we aren’t tested. I think we are tested constantly throughout our lives, although most of us, for which I am exceedingly grateful, are never tested in such harsh ways. And we can make our own choices and do have a capacity for change. Do we support having a homeless feeding station in our church, or do we only support feeding the homeless when it’s done far away from the places we frequent? Are we willing to accept refugees or let our fear guide us? Do we stand up for someone who’s being picked on, do we look away, or do we join in? The question of where this puts our eternal soul is a larger one, one that I am eminently unqualified to answer as I am not God, but I don’t think that the lack of large tests-a lack, once again, that I am extremely grateful for-means that we are not tested on whether or not we are true to ethics and our morality in our own ways on a regular basis.

The book seems to make a distinction between betraying God and betraying others, though, and while some have compared the lead figure to Judas because of his betrayal of Jesus at the end—a betrayal he perpetrates in order to end the suffering of those he’d come to minister at the end—I don’t see how that can be the interpretation. Fr. Rodrigues betrays his faith, at least visibly, by stepping on the fumi-e, an image of Christ. But he does it after Jesus’ silence is finally broken, after he hears Christ tell him that Christ has come to take upon our sins and our suffering, and to be trampled. Immediately after, a cock crows, confirming that this is a betrayal, yes, but immediately changing Fr. Rodrigues from any possibility of a Judas figure into a Peter. I have difficulty even seeing Fr. Rodrigues as Peter, though, who denied Christ out of fear and to save himself. Fr. Rodrigues betrays his own faith and denies Christ not to save his own skin, but to stop the suffering of the Catholic followers, taking on a sin in order to end the suffering of others. I find it difficult to condemn this choice in the moment.

Where I disagree with the book, and some of the subsequent discussions of it, is on its discussion of whether or not Japanese Catholicism is “true” Catholicism. The original priest who apostatized, who Fr. Rodrigues and his colleague were there to find, defends his decision to not only deny his faith but assist the Japanese authorities in denouncing Christianity because Catholicism didn’t *really* take hold in Japan, even if the practices of it did. I don’t see in anyway how this could be any different from every other society, though. Catholicism always adapted itself to local areas and customs. It’s how we ended up with an Easter that is entirely divorced from the timing of Passover and based solely on the moon and certain good, old-fashioned fertility celebrations. A popular theory is that the Celtic cross has its circle because St. Patrick combined it with the symbol of the Sun God to make Christianity more accessible to the Celtic pagans. And as for deeper, theological considerations, I guarantee most Catholics, even the most devout ones, couldn’t necessarily explain all of the intricacies of Catholic doctrine and the trinity in a way that was 100% non-heretical. (Especially since the non-heretical explanation of a lot of the doctrine is, “It’s just the mystery of faith, okay?”)

Ultimately, this is a hauntingly beautiful novel that has stuck with me since I read it and I expect will stay with me for years and years and years. Its ultimate description of Jesus as one who is not here to end our suffering, but to suffer with us and for us, is one deeply appreciate. Silence’s meditation throughout—again, one that I thought was never answered, although perhaps others disagree—on what really does make us good, what makes us loyal, how we are judged by our different circumstances, is wonderfully, beautifully, and, what’s more, sympathetically rendered. I don’t think anyone can read this and not have their world view challenged, and at least make us all explore our inner lives more deeply.