Monday, September 3, 2012

Faith-Rooted Organizing with Sojourners

I first came to know about Sojourners because of NY Faith & Justice. NY Faith & Justice (which worked with Bronx Health REACH back in 2010-2011) was born out of an inspiring conversation that Lisa Sharon Harper, Rev. Dr. Peter Heltzel, and others had during a Sojourners conference, after a deep faith-rooted visit in Congressman Rangel’s office in Washington, D.C. back in 2006.  NY Faith & Justice was formed to unite the church & speak out for social justice in NYC.  Other Faith & Justice networks were formed in other cities, such as Boston, Ohio, and Portland.  The faith leaders who formed these justice networks all remained connected to Sojourners.  They have also formed partnerships with many other organizations such as college campus groups like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and national associations of various Christian groups. One notable partnership has been with CLUE (Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice) in Los Angeles, CA.  CLUE, and Alexia Salvatierra in particular, has developed a model of organizing and working with elected officials that is rooted in the core of our faith called Faith-Rooted Organizing.  CLUE staff travels around the country and the world conducting these trainings that leave participants feeling empowered and hopeful. 

In spring 2011, NY Faith & Justice organized one of these faith-rooted organizing trainings in NYC at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan.  This was a one-day training where faith leaders from all over NYC were able to attend and learn the nuts and bolts of faith-rooted organizing.  Then, in fall 2011, NYFJ organized another faith-rooted organizing training, this time at Walker Memorial Baptist Church in the Bronx, which was an entire weekend-long training, including Friday night, all day Saturday, and Sunday afternoon, culminating in an “action” on Monday morning.  Since then, Lisa Sharon Harper has left NY Faith & Justice to work full-time for Sojourners in Washington, D.C., as the Director of Mobilizing.  Now, in summer 2012, I recently had the opportunity to attend a faith-rooted organizing training at the Sojourners national office – the “Organize2Mobilize” training. 

For those of us who have no formal community organizing training, the faith-rooted model is quite refreshing.  As a group, we define faith-rooted organizing and how it differs from secular organizing.  We answer questions such as, What are the ways that faith can contribute to the larger movement for justice in our world? and, What are the gifts of faith that we can bring to the table?  Through scripture study, analysis and reflection of stories of others in the Bible who organized and spoke prophetically about justice, we learn how to apply those same approaches to the social realities we experience today.  We learn to identify our own faith-rooted motivation, to tap into the power of faith and story-telling that is abundant in marginalized communities; to minister to people with power and to see recruitment through God’s eyes. But first we learn to identify the core “lie” that society is blindly feeding us about a particular issue, the Biblical antidote to the lie, and the clearest manifestation of the lie. 

While these ideas have been codified by Alexia Salvatierra, Lisa Sharon Harper and their colleagues at CLUE and Sojourners, they are not new. They’ve been around for years… and have been the method by which some of history’s most renowned justice seekers have approached their work.  Gandhi saw an injustice in his country as the British colonialists outlawed cloth spinning so they could take the techniques they learned in India back to Britain, and sell it back to India at an inflated price.  Taking this skill and trade away from the natives was the clearest manifestation of the “lie” (that colonization was “good”).  Gandhi took the nonviolent resistance approach (a Biblical antidote, as we see in Jesus’ teaching to “turn the other cheek” or “walk the extra mile” (Matthew 5:38-41)) and told people to spin their own cloth, despite what the English said to do.

In a similar way we see Rosa Parks’ effort as a faith-rooted approach.  The lie, that it was okay to segregate people of color, was most clearly manifested in segregation on the bus, because blacks were only allowed to sit in the back of the bus.  The spiritual antidote is that all people are created equal.  Hers was also one of nonviolent resistance.  

The Occupy movement clearly identified the lie that accumulation of wealth does no harm, pointing out that corporations are (and should not be) treated as people, and that the public sphere is owned by private corporations.

Antonio Torres from Bronx Health REACH and Christ the King Catholic Church pointed out the core lie that the church is believing today, that it’s not the place of the pastor to cross the line into discussing social issues. Another similarly connected lie is that money is the only force that can create substantive policy change, while the spiritual truth is that people power can be an effective counterweight to money’s loud voice. 

During this particular training I found the outlining of the Thresholds of Recruitment to be one of the most thought-provoking and useful exercises to go through.  Lisa started off this session by telling her own narration of some of the key turning points in her life which brought her to Christ.  But politicians are people too, and we can be part of their journey of transformation by using the moral authority that our faith provides us, to help expand their ideas of what it means to have courage to give a preferential option for the poor. In the best cases this will not just influence the way the politicians vote on bills, but also the way they talk to other legislators. People of faith have the power to move legislators to speak prophetically about the importance of treating all people with equality. By returning to the Commandment to treat your neighbor as yourself, to be your brother’s keeper – we can remind legislators what it means to make sure that we take care of kids even if they are not our own.  To take care of people living in areas that might be disproportionately affected by a potential new industrial site that emits excessive pollution; that are disproportionately affected by climate disruption (the US has 4% of the world’s people but emits 25% of the world’s greenhouse gases); or that cannot properly benefit from programs that were set up to supposedly help lift people out of poverty, because of unaddressed barriers and red tape keeping people from utilizing these resources most effectively.  To make sure that our agricultural policies are not set up in such a way that undermines the economies of other countries, destroys the naturally renewable resources God has provided for us, and promotes diet-related diseases disproportionately among the poor because subsidies make unhealthy products much more affordable than healthy foods.  If we can get Congressmen/women and other legislators to see the human and on-the-ground realities of what their policies look like in communities, this will bring them closer to understanding specifically what they need to advocate for when they are developing and voting on policies.

During the training we heard from several cutting edge social justice thinkers of this country, one of which was Tom Perriello, former US Congressman from Virginia, who advocates use of moral authority and believes in people-powered politics (he didn’t take lobby money as a Congressman).  He’s worked on and taught justice-based security strategies, and has helped lead a resurgence of moderate and progressive faith leaders advocating on issues of poverty, economic fairness, tolerance, and environmental stewardship. He helped launch Faith in Public Life,, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, and Catholics United.  Perriello currently serves as the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress (CAP) Action Fund and Counselor for Policy at CAP.  CAP is a nonpartisan political think tank and advocacy organization that works to raise the level of policy debates through commonsense communication, such as its coverage of the Nuns on the Bus Tour and criticism of the Ryan budget.

Perriello’s words of wisdom for working with legislators include helping them realize what will be good for people while also making the legislators look good; using facts and moral authority; and asking legislators why they came into public office.

We also heard from Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, President of the Skinner Leadership Institute who has served as the Executive Director of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as many other boards, including the Christian Community Development Association.  Dr. Williams-Skinner is an advocate of going in to visit elected officials with prayer, as the spirit of compassion helps to humanize the legislators one is addressing.  She suggests adopting Jesus’ indignation about how poor/low-income people are being treated, and speaking with a posture of “I don’t agree with your position, but help me to understand it.”  Many times legislators want the best for their constituents but often times their facts are missing or wrong.  We can work to correct this misinformation by telling our own stories and providing factual information.

Sharing a panel discussion with Dr. Williams-Skinner was Larisa Friesen Hall, Director of Major Gifts at Sojourners.  Larisa stressed the importance of identifying what posture we address people with – we should try to understand where the rich politicians are coming from (75% of people in Congress are millionaires) such as by watching Fox.  We must emphasize that budgets are moral documents and that it’s righteous to be concerned about people.  While there is a lot of dirty money in Congress, the act of redemption is possible, if politicians decide to take money from something bad and turn it into something good.  Resources she suggested to look into further include Bolder Giving and The Spirituality of Fundraising by Henri Nouwen

Tim King, Chief Communications Officer for Sojourners, and Eric Sapp from the Eleison Group led a session on “Messaging to Move Legislators.”  The Eleison Group leads educational campaigns to align what’s right with what works politically and economically, and empowers progressive activists to connect authentically with the faith and values of vet voters.  They’re proponents of approaching faith in the public square from a place of humility. The Eleison Group specializes in media messaging – targeting messaging for specific audiences (not the “general public”), getting to the root of what people’s values are. For example, in Texas, anti-corruption is the message, not anti-corporation.  At the end of the day there are ways to reach the same policy goals, but just using different messaging tactics.  

Sapp advocates for making sure values are integrated into our messaging, and that people can answer the question, Why do you believe what you believe?  People make decisions with their hearts, not with their heads.  He noted Obama’s moving campaign speech in 2007 (which spoke to people’s hearts) when he was a Senator vs. his transactional, verbiage-heavy approach used when he became President (which spoke to people’s heads).  While the “what” of policy can be complicated, the “why” (message) should be simple.  Messages should be communicated in terms of right and wrong, keeping the end goal (telos) in mind. When communicating with legislators, we need to stay humble and honest, and keep our messaging memorable and simple.  It was suggested that environmental advocates reframe the message being used in advocacy, because the current messaging isn’t working.  Some politicians will shut us out if we mention the words “climate change” (which raises disputes about scientific validity) whereas “creation care” hits at the same issue but touches on the moral imperative to be stewards of the Earth.  Our messaging should also include a way to make the leader look good.  It’s important to point out that the poor pay the greatest price for our actions relating to the environment; however, what will appeal to many electeds is to let them know that America is losing out on an economic future (as China takes over the solar panel industry, for example).*

Tim King added that public figures that make public statements should be held publicly accountable.  We should critique people we often agree with to keep pushing them forward.  (“People are too nice to Obama.”)  As Tim says, it would be nice if Obama gave a heartfelt faith-based account for the poor. 

We also had the honor of hearing Jim Wallis (founder of Sojourners) speak.  He spoke about the power that the faith community can hold in Washington, D.C., and gave the example of Sojourners’ role in organizing evangelicals which ultimately led to a change in immigration policy.  At the end of his captivating speech, he said that the difference between events and movements is sacrifice and asks, “Where is your moral courage?” 

Beau Underwood, Campaigns Manager at Sojourners, provided some tips on planning our Capitol Hill visits which would occur the next day.  A few pointers which are useful for any visit with an elected official:  time is limited, so be sure to control the agenda; make a clear ask; and determine follow-up.  In the actual meeting, be sure to introduce yourself & explain why you’re there, have a storyteller speak who can offer a reflection (ideally from personal experience), and lay out the issues and share your faith-informed perspective.  In accordance with the National Mobilizing Circle, we were to ask Congress not to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.  Supporting data is valuable and should be presented, but people of faith are not expected to be policy wonks – the strength of people of faith lies in our ability to make moral arguments.  But as for the supporting data: according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, extending tax cuts for those who make between $250,000 and $1 million would cost the US $366 billion over ten years, making programs (i.e. relating to health, environment, social services, foreign aid & other programs for the poor etc) very vulnerable to cuts.  

Wendy Tarr from Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice in L.A. provided some additional tips for faith-rooted advocacy.  It’s important when speaking to our political representatives that we foster relationships with them. Relationships can open doors, change minds, and ensure our voice is heard.  After the visit, note what the member/staff said and any commitments made. Develop a plan for following up and providing any additional information requested by the office.

One tenant of faith-rooted advocacy is using religious symbols in delegations.  The one we used with Senator Gillibrand’s and Schumer’s offices was that of milk and honey (making a just decision) vs. bitter herbs (making a decision which perpetuates injustice).  (While the food analogy from the Old Testament is nice, I took it a step further by saying that policies which promote cheap, unhealthy food in the American diet is more like feeding poor people a bag of Doritos instead of a piece of fruit.) 

Now what?
Organize2Mobilize was a very informative and spiritually nourishing training, and this post only begins to reveal the valuable components of faith-rooted organizing.  Here are a couple of ways to get more involved:

Sojourners will be coming out with a new film in October: October 2nd will be the livestream premiere of the film “Poverty in America,” which highlights stories of people in poverty across the country.  They suggest using this film as an organizing tool, because nothing is more powerful than stories, and there is no easier way to tell stories than through film.  (Janee Woods Weber from Everyday Democracy added that EvDem has study guides on poverty that could complement the film screening nicely).

Sojourners also seeks for faith leaders and organizations to join their National Mobilizing Circle which calls out the budget as a moral document and implores legislators to treat it as such.  

Another way of recruiting legislators into a relationship and guiding them into becoming champions for justice is to start with inviting them to “Come and See” what’s happening in your own community.  Tell them, “before you vote to cut funds, come and see what exactly you would be cutting.” 

Soon, there will be a faith-rooted organizing training in NYC at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies for organizing around local policy issues.  More details to come! 


Additional suggested resources include:

*In delving a bit further into messaging for Creation Care with Alycia Ashburn, we concluded that it’s important to talk about creation care in the context of its interconnectedness with other issues: i.e. climate justice is hunger justice.  When people do not have basic necessities such as clean water, wars and spread of infection ensue.  Therefore, environmental issues are linked to national security and are a threat multiplier. In addition, war is costly, and Republicans care about saving money: former Navy Brigadier General Steve Anderson saved the Navy $1 billion by insulating tents.  Another costly budget item is healthcare: we can argue for reducing healthcare costs by investing in clean air, clean water, and healthy food as preventive measures. But whatever we do we must not pit social justice issues against each other!  Many Democrats are guilty of this.  The Department of Defense has plenty of money that can be reallocated to programs which will help protect the poor and the environment.

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