Sunday, May 15, 2016

Should Christians Engage in Community Organizing?

(This post is a response from my Faith-Rooted Organizing course at Fuller Theological Seminary.)

My elevator response to the question posed in the title of this entry would be: “a hesitant yes,” as I’ve found it is critical to have these kinds of responses of late.  Sitting down over a meal, though, I would start by considering Robert Linthicum’s distillation of Jesus’ sermon on the mount in Transforming Power, provided that our definition of Christian means follower of Christ.  If we claim Jesus as our model for living, then we Christians should also tirelessly work to set captives free, recover the sight of the blind (in both a sense of physical healing and the metaphorical sense of blissful ignorance vs. authenticity), set at liberty those who are oppressed, and proclaim the good news to the poor by reframing systems towards Jubilee economics.  Community organizing practices, as Alexia Salvatierra notes in class, are historically proven to achieve systemic change, and if we are to disrupt modern slaveries and get to the economic roots of poverty, we will not do that by praying alone.   

If, however, by Christian, we are referring to a dominant culture group of the United States, a label insidiously touting religious superiority, and one of the shorthand terms often used in the media to reference conservative legalists, then my answer becomes far more complicated.  The way the word "Christian" itself has fluidity, as well as how we see ourselves in that range of definitions, truly matters.  Are we organizing to win political points on hot-button issues and just “get our candidate” into office by any means necessary?  Or, are we actually invested in the welfare of the whole, the work to find all of the lost sheep, to recognize that we, too, are lost sheep without our entire flock together?  Can we rise to the challenge of living into the 3,000 verses by Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel’s count in Faith-Rooted Organizing, or 10% of the entire text of the Bible, calling us towards a Shalom sense of justice for all?  For almost 20 years, I have struggled with the potential difference between being a Christian (too often a form of taking the Blue Pill, √† la The Matrix) and following Jesus (the Red Pill) while I wrestled to understand the purpose of my own white-centered privileges.  Thus, before one steps into faith-rooted community organizing, especially one who hails from a place of economic and social power, it is necessary for deep awareness building and listening before jumping into the audacious role of working for systemic change.  To shed light on my personal walk, I will employ Adam Taylor’s framework in Mobilizing Hope for public narrative and testimony by touching upon a story of self, how that connected to a story of us, and a story of now.   We must understand our authentic selves, which I believe is best achieved in vulnerable community, what Salvatierra might call familia justicia, and then we must work with others to see how that is linked in a greater modern story. 
I grew up Catholic in suburban Detroit.  With some important exceptions, most church-goers in my community seemed comfortable with a country club model.  I avoided being misused by any priests, but I did have a babysitter who inappropriately explored his sexuality on me.  With an angry alcoholic grandfather, a veteran of the front lines of both campaigns of WWII (who did make wonderful changes during his final years, noted in my last post), and a father who seemed too quiet for my liking, I grew up more or less detesting men.  I also was teased by an African American classmate who saw my vulnerable sensitivities as a clear indicator that I was a “faggot,” and he found no lack of opportunities to publicly declare that after cornering me in fight after fight.  Fast forward to college, where I figured, well, since many people think I’m gay anyway, might as well test out the theory.  Maybe I hated men because, deep down, I actually was in love with them.  What followed was not all bad, and in many ways unearthed some really important sides to my personality.  Though it also became a sort of sex addiction, which brought its own baggage of degradation and despair.  God was an afterthought at best, and when I thought on God actively, I was mostly angry and certainly couldn’t stand the Christians on campus that kept telling me I was going to hell. 

Adam Taylor recounts a forced mountaintop moment where he screamed out to God in anger, and as I read this in on the bus today, I laughed out loud with full recognition.  A decade after my college days, the dread of my desperate need to find love through sex, which I had come to see as a need to love myself, as a man, had found too many dead ends.  Before I knew it was a religious clich√©, or at least a motif, I climbed up to the top of Runyon Canyon to ask God where the hell had he been all this time?  Immediately upon uttering the words, I fell on my knees, and forevermore understand being slain in the Spirit. 

A vision shone like a slow lightning bolt, a thread of memories divinely organized to make sense of a swirl of emotional narratives.  This would be the start of moving my story towards a story of us.  First, I saw my bully, but it was that odd moment in 9th grade where he approached me, one-on-one, to apologize.  At the time, I was afraid he was luring me close to trick me, but he was absolutely sincere.  In fact, he told me that he was having a hard year at home and he was looking for people to blame.  A moment of repentance and reconciliation from my bully, as he never threatened or bothered me again.

Then I saw Levi and heard his huge belly laugh, the lifer in a maximum security prison in Michigan who I now see is like my Paul, and I am his Onesimus.  In college at the University of Michigan, my friendships started to gel around activism.  I grew up very disturbed by the reality of the dividing line of Detroit and my hometown 5 miles away.  Some, but not all, of our neighbors were exceedingly racist, and often talked about what “black people do when you give them nice homes like the ones in downtown Detroit,” (the implication was that they burn them down or board them up.)  So, along with declaring my gay status, I started volunteering with the Prison Creative Arts Project.  I came to fall in love with this work, and if I’m honest, it first came from a sense of defiance and becoming a sort of white savior.  When I explained to friends, Christian friends, about regularly visiting prison and doing improvisational theater work, they all looked at me incredulously and said that, “Jesus didn’t mean you actually had to visit prisoners, that was more of a metaphor.” A metaphor for what, I always wondered?

It was Levi who hugged me every visit; Levi who always asked how he could pray for me; Levi who loved me unconditionally and took it upon himself to be my vocational advisor.  Levi entrusted me with his story, a new layer every visit, and told me to become a teacher.  He also asked me to share the good news of who he actually was, the Vietnam vet who came back with PTSD, had trouble holding a job, resorted to selling drugs, ended up a lifer because of a manslaughter that occurred on a season of parole when he was protecting his niece.  Levi who said that Jesus died for him as well as me, and that the world will be the ones who suffer more in the end if they can only see him as “murderer.”  Levi, the man I missed most when the Michigan Department of Corrections shut us down and ensured I could never communicate with him again. 

From there, I tasted the gumbo and Pho, the meals I had with families in New Orleans upper Ninth Ward.  Because of Levi’s guidance, I joined Teach For America.  While I didn’t fall in love with the rigors of academic administration as a sixth grade teacher, I did fall in love with hearing the stories of families in New Orleans East.  I thought I was coming to help them, and in many ways, I did.  The joy of Facebook is that many of my former students, now 26 years old, keep in touch and cite my love of teaching poetry as pivotal in their lives.  But I intimately learned the reality of the school to prison pipeline.  I became a natural advocate for parents who were too often blamed for “not caring” because I had personally heard story after story of parents, many of them single, needing to hold both a job at Wal-Mart alongside multiple weekend cleaning gigs to make ends meet.  Attending a parent-teacher conference very likely meant that they could lose a job.  I started calling parents on a regular basis to hear their concerns, their hopes and fears for their children, and from that, was often invited to dinner.  Many parents made me a special pot of “vegetarian” gumbo (I had become vegetarian to impress a girl in college, and I carried that with me to New Orleans), because their children remembered that detail from my classroom introduction.  Of course, in the deep South in 1999, vegetarian meant it only lacked red meat or sausage; chicken and shrimp were still plentiful.  This is not the hospitality of a people who “do not care”, and God reminded me that I made a choice to eat what was before me, not to raise an objection to the technicalities of vegetarianism, and how that moved us to deeper relationship.  How they prayed for me, often, by the light of a television on mute, and how I had never fully understood community before those meals. 

So I came down from my mountain humbled, open, and ready to learn more, much like Taylor describes.  Who were the most profound incarnations of God in my life?  Folks from the margins, clearly, in both an economic and a social sense.  A black bully who taught me about repentance and reconciliation.  A lifer who taught me the truth of the Gospel.  A chorus of African-American and Vietnamese families in New Orleans East, the area that would become most decimated by Hurricane Katrina, who took southern hospitality and launched it into a glimpse of the Beloved Community.  And yet, even with all these moments that God reminded me precisely “where the hell he had been,” I still had years ahead of me of coming to terms with the privileges of my particular whiteness.

That began, of course, by realizing that I had been trying to do it all alone, that I was proudly going to figure it all out without anyone else.  Because God also sent someone to help me process all of those visions, a Christian man who, for all intents and purposes, might be called gay by some (in the most basic, shorthanded modern definition).  Also African-American, I believed myself to be in love with him, though he framed our relationship around addressing my privilege and my codependencies.  He wanted me to pay attention to my pride.  He wanted me to be honest and own my frenetic self-righteousness and self-centered determination.  He told me that, from his point of view, he saw a white kid trying to save the world but deeply unable to love his own self.  He called my sexual explorations with men a form of narcissism, that at heart, I was trying to find myself as lovable and attractive.  That conversation, another moment of being slain in the Spirit, quite literally saved my life.

I learned of ex-boyfriends who fell into lifestyles completely revolving around crystal meth.  I learned of ex-boyfriends, whom I may have sought to reconnect with, contracting diseases that may never leave.  And, I was encouraged to explore my attractions to women again, which led to my beautiful and complicated marriage to Darcie, and the chance to start the lives of two amazingly sensitive justice-seeking daughters. 

So when I finally read the Bible, cover to cover, in four unique translations, I realized the sheer breadth of what all the books and notes are concurring: God deeply cares about the link between justice, love, compassion, mercy, and redemption. Each of these concepts requires a separate, but related, call to action. God cared about all of this in the Old Testament, and Jesus creatively adjusts it all to fit the contexts of the New Testament.   And God cares about that as much now as in ancient days.   So what do the marginalized folks in downtown Detroit have in common with my gay brothers, especially those who engage in a slow obliteration-through-massive-medication?  How is the school to prison pipeline functioning now, as my connections to former students through Facebook gives me access to joyful moments along with news that many classmates are in prison just like Levi.  How am I to use my privilege to reveal the misuse of the Gospel and the vital value of the perspectives of the many folks God has put in my path?

  Linthicum’s celebration of the "end of the story" reminded me of a moment during my eight years with DOOR where we heard from the Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE).  He preached that Revelation 21 comes to a moment in the glorious new city, the penultimate beloved community, where all the nations gather together and celebrate, not losing any of their unique splendors, the victory of God achieving true justice, true reconciliation, the fullness of Shalom. If that’s the case, then our diversity must be valuable and purpose-filled to God.  And if that’s the case, then what Salvatierra and Heltzel point out, that the dominant, often wealthiest sectors of our modern society will view sacred texts through a very limited lens, so that we might truly need the perspectives of those who don’t benefit from privilege to really understand who God intends us to be.

In my life, those perspectives have directly saved my life while slowly reshaping my limited mindsets.  I believe, wholeheartedly, that actively working to practice justice will heal us all, as Taylor concludes.  Community organizing, especially faith-rooted organizing, has the potential to open us up to these critical perspectives, open our eyes and ears to grasp the reality of the times we have been given.  This starts though, especially for those of us who could easily slip back into the privileged bliss of “taking the blue pill,” in the humbling process of listening to people as they are, not as we predefine them.  It also demands that we learn from them, that we trust that they might have the best ideas to achieve their own liberation, and that those ideas might actually have implications in our personal liberation from oppressive systems.  It requires that we see Jesus as much more than our personal Savior, but that our salvation’s purpose is to be active agents in marching toward the ultimate vision of God’s Creation.  Yes, Christians must engage in actively seeking justice.  Yes, some may be front-line protestors, and some may be writers working hard on challenging oppressive mindsets.  Yes, some people may need years of coming to terms with the inherent comforts of their privilege, and, yes, that might mean having to own their ineffectiveness until they do so.  Yes, it is not work rooted in personal prosperity gospels, but it is the patient and painstakingly long haul work intended for the prosperity of all. 


Yes, Christians should engage in faith-rooted community organizing.  By coming alongside a diverse community of Christians doing the very same thing.  Together, we march forward towards the Beloved Community.  - +Matthew John Schmitt @matthewjschmitt

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