Faith-Rooted Organizing -- A Review

FAITH-ROOTED ORGANIZING: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World. By Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel.  (Downers Grove:  Inter Varsity Press, 2014).  207 pages.

                Barack Obama is likely the world’s most famous community organizer.  It was as a community organizer that he came to faith and entered politics.  Because the President ended up in politics many equate politics, especially liberal politics with organizing.  While community organizing has political implications, it is much more than that.  This is especially true of faith-rooted organizing. 

                Modern community organizing is linked to Saul Alinsky (died in 1972), whose work in Chicago led to the formation of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), an organizing effort that provided a model for future collaborative such as PICO (through whom I have received training) and Gamaliel.  His book Rules for Radicals provided the ideological and practical foundations for this work, including the central principle – the appeal to “self-interest.”  Organizers are directed to appeal to the self-interest and anger, and then use that to gain power to change one’s circumstances through nonviolent collaborative action.  While Alinksy did not have a religious affiliation, many organizing efforts, including the Civil Rights Movement, have been faith-based.     

                As time has progressed Alinsky’s model has remained the dominant form of organizing, but many have adapted and reworked his principles to better reflect their own context and vision.  Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel offer us a faith-rooted alternative model, one that is less dependent on self-interest.  The authors of Faith-Rooted Organizing are rooted in evangelical Christianity, though both are affiliated with mainline Protestant denominations.  Salvatierra is ordained by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and serves the executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), in California.  Her co-author is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and associate professor of theology and director of the Micah Institute at New York Theological Seminary.  Their vision, expressed in this book, is to mobilize (organize) the entire church for service to the world.  For faith communities seeking to be missional, this book will prove invaluable.  I should note that I read this book as a founding member and current president of a faith-rooted organizing collaborative in Metro-Detroit.  Therefore, the message of this book is of great importance to me and the coalition that I help lead.

While the authors acknowledge Alinsky’s importance, and build on his model, they want to push Christian communities to go deeper, and root their action in the Christian traditions, especially the biblical tradition.  In doing this they move from a faith-based model to a faith-rooted model.   Rather than simply being a ready source of organizers, the church acts upon the vision expressed by the prophets and by Jesus.  These principles include shalom justice and radical inclusive love, principles exemplified in the work of Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez.  The goal is not simply empowerment; it is the creation of what Dr. King called the “Beloved Community.”  Both King and Chavez rooted their work in their faith traditions, and in doing so appealed to the better angels among their opponents.

As with Saul Alinksy, the authors of the book recognize that effective organizing cannot be single-issue oriented.  Issue-based efforts ebb and flow, but organizing is focused on empowering people to achieve a just community, which is bigger than individual issues.  Salvatierra and Heltzel build on Alinsky’s model of empowerment, by taking up a larger vision – the Kingdom of God.  In doing this, they have as their starting point the “call of the poor.”  This involves paying attention to those living on the margins and letting them set the tone for reading the biblical story, including Jesus’ kingdom message. 

As we prioritize the voice of the poor, the idea of self-interest becomes problematic.  Many who are engaged in this process are not poor.  Indeed, in trying to organize suburban congregations using one-on-ones (the primary way of discerning self-interest in community organizing); we discovered that most suburbanites had a hard time identifying their self-interest, and if they did, then this often conflicted with the call to justice.  A better model, in my mind, is solidarity, which the authors offer solidarity as a faith-rooted alternative.  This model is especially helpful for suburban congregations to organize around than self-interest and anger. 

Alinksy viewed solidarity as a weaker basis for organizing, but Cesar Chavez used it quite effectively.  He appealed to people of faith to act justly, even at the sacrifice of their own self-interest (supporting boycotts of table grapes).  The authors write that “solidarity recognizes that in order to attain a just world there must be a radical shift of power relationships even within the movement for justice; if there is not justice in the process, there will not be justice in the end” (p. 56).   This isn’t easy, and takes “a spirit of love and grace” (p. 57).  It also requires recognizing the presence of spiritual gifts – among all involved – women as well as men; children as well as adults. 

Community organizing is focused on building power, but what kind of power is this?  Salvatierra and Heltzel identify two kinds of power – serpent power and dove power.  Organizing requires both, but they are different.  Serpent power is, the authors write, measurable.  It involves force, wealth, social influence, and numbers.  As long as it is used with integrity, it can be utilized for the work of God.  But, if that is all we are using, then we have lost the key element that faith-rooted organizing provides.  That power is rooted in love.  It requires that we “take seriously the best in people, the reality of the image of God in each of us and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit” (p. 74).   It is a form of power that takes into account prayer and recognition that the opponent is a person whom God loves.   This form of power is “gentle, but it is not soft.”  It also requires courage and hope.

Community organizing requires collaboration.  You have to organize your base and then seek allies.  For faith-rooted efforts, it’s important to recognize that some of these allies, perhaps many of them, will be secular in orientation.  Success requires building relationships beyond the faith community, but doing so in a way that conforms to the core values of this faith-rooted group.  These values include humble service, prophetic boldness, and the centrality of Christian community.  While congregations can provide leaders and activists, they are also links to those in need.  Additionally, it is important to recognize that work of the organizer is exhausting – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.   The authors write that “the forces of injustice are often ruthless and so well-funded that they have replacements ready to go each time a foot soldier tires.”  The community, therefore, provides a place of support and spiritual sustenance.  Faith-rooted organizing is holistic in that it involves activism and worship.

 Faith-rooted organizing prioritizes the voice of the poor, because God hears their voices and acts upon their cries for justice.  To be faithful in this work, the organizers must keep this voice front and center.  However, prioritizing this voice doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t be concerned about the non-poor.  The authors speak of faith-rooted organizers being chaplains to both the poor and the powerful.  For this reason they reject the use of the word target to apply to persons in power.  This connotes a sense of violence that this non-violent work eschews.  The goal is the moral conversion of the person in power so as to see the needs of the poor.  They share stories of how organizers were able to succeed because they appealed to the faith affirmations of corporate leaders.  Thus, the organizers are at work ministering to those in power.  They write:
Advocate chaplains are not primarily concerned with passing a specific policy but rather with effectively calling the policy maker to create and champion policies that accomplish God’s will for the most vulnerable and promote the common good.  This requires an ongoing relationship with the policymaker that is deep and value-based, not a brief visit when a policy campaign is “hot” (p. 111).  
While doing this, the organizers also serve as chaplains to the poor by organizing them into collaborative of power and by walking them during difficult moments.    

 As one might expect, one of the most difficult parts of faith-rooted organizing is recruitment.   Traditionally, organizers appealed to self-interest and anger, but while this can lead to action, it tends to be unsustainable.  For faith-rooted organizing, there must be a reliance on the Holy Spirit and the witness of scripture.  With this as a foundation, organizers can appeal to spiritual motivators such as compassion, gratitude, joy, legacy, and divine mandates (the injunctions of faith traditions to act justly).

It isn’t enough to recruit; organizers must nurture the gifts of the people.  In this model, unlike traditional organizing, which focuses on natural leadership abilities, faith-rooted organizing recognizes that every member of the community is gifted and can contribute in unique ways.  This means looking for unexpected sources of leadership.  It also requires a prophetic spiritually that nurtures the soul, through the arts, worship, singing, community fellowship. It also keeps in mind the children in our midst – both as activists and in need of our care.   Ultimately, the source of empowerment and strength is rooted in one’s faith in God.     

As a leader within a faith-rooted organizing effort, I found this book to be a blessing.  It offers words of guidance that I’ve longed to hear.  It offers an understanding of organizing that is workable within my context.  Solidarity and compassion are more appropriate to my context, and can better sustain the movement than appeals to anger and self-interest.  Although the authors write for a Christian audience, I believe that the principles inherent in their vision are translatable to other faith traditions.  What is most interesting to me is that they appeal to an evangelical community that has been, of late, more in tune with conservative political visions.  They speak the evangelical language, calling them to take up the cause of the poor and the marginalized.  They don’t shy away from the political implications of this work, but they make it clear that this isn’t a political effort.  It is a faith-rooted effort, with the common good of all creation being at stake.  Indeed, this pursuit of the common good is an expression of the reign of God.

I believe that this is a must read for Christians who are engaged in community organizing (we have purchased copies of the book for all the clergy involved in our coalition).  It offers a vision that will revolutionize our work.  But, it’s also must reading for those who see organizing as a left-wing political venture that is foreign to the gospel.  I believe that the authors have carefully dispelled that notion.  So, take and read and be a blessing to the nations.



Unknown said…
Bob, Thanks for your reflections. The congregation we serve is a member of IAF (Alinsky) and I want to correct some lingering erroneous assumptions. The way things were is not the way things are. Our values are very much part of the work we do, not only protestant Christian, but Roman Catholic, Jewish, and democratic-from unions. It is not all about self-interest; the work is around what we have energy for because we can't do it all. Leadership is developed among people who have the energy to lead. There are people in our own congregation who didn't think they meet with political leaders and government officials who do so now with confidence. There are people in other congregations who didn't believe they could speak in public who now lead meetings. The power we build is relational power. IAF is very clear about building relational power. Case in point - in our first meeting with LA County Sheriff, he almost walked out because his staff didn't clearly communicate the protocol of the meeting. However, because being in relationship is of higher value than being right, leaders negotiated on the spot and he stayed. He even committed to meeting regularly. PICO instead chose to hold a protest rally at the sheriff's office and never initiated a relationship. Having a relationship gives our two IAF organization in LA County access (power) to local sub-stations and capacity (power) to have our concerns heard and addressed and in this case the concerns are mostly around the safety of immigrants.
We choose to be in a broad based institutional organizing network because it puts us in relationship with people whose values are similar AND dissimilar. If our society is to have a hope and a prayer, it is in the coming together of diverse groups, not Christians alone. As you no doubt can tell, I am frustrated to have the work that is slowly transforming the city in which our church serves, be mis-represented which I feel your review does. We have been with IAF for over 10 years and the way things were in 1970 is not the way things are today. Thanks for reading. Julie
Robert Cornwall said…

Thank you for your reflections on my review. I didn't mean to suggest that IAF didn't reflect religious values, and things have changed over the years. I was part of an effort here that originally was working with Pico and has more recently connected with IAF. The difference here, has to do with orienting focus. Traditional community organizing has started with self-interest, which the authors of the book acknowledge. But, they suggest that faith communities, especially ones for whom self-interest is not a motivating factor, can engage in fruitful organizing on the basis of solidarity.

Having done organizing in the suburbs of Detroit, we found it more difficult to use traditional forms, as identifying self-interest could get in the way. Solidarity seemed more fruitful for us. But both emphasize relational power. I've worked with this a bit in my recent book Out of the Office: A Theology of Ministry. I'm a strong believer in the kind of work you are doing, and I'm thrilled that Pomona has found IAF a fruitful partner.

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