The Contexts of Faith-Based Community Organizing an excerpt from “Making Moral Citizens”
The following is an excerpt from Making Moral Citizens: How Faith-Based Organizers Use Vocation for Public Action by Jack Delehanty, which is available now wherever books are sold.
The Contexts of Faith-Based Community Organizing
The streets were full of police as I walked south through Philadelphia toward Center City. With the pope due to arrive in town later that day, security was tight, with officers on every corner, yellow rope blocking off streets, and National Guard troops roaming. Approaching Center City, I realized the street closures were funneling people into a small number of security checkpoints. It took me a while to find my way around the blockades, but soon enough I found a checkpoint, complete with metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs, and was allowed through.
The security clampdown was prompted by the arrival of more than 3 million people in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, a triennial Catholic event traditionally headlined by the pope. I was there for a smaller subsidiary event called the Faith Matters in America summit, a national convention of faith-based community organization (FBCO) leaders from across the country. Gathering in the Sheraton Hotel, they hoped to use the energy sparked by the papal visit as a springboard for a nationwide revitalization of faith-inspired public action.
As I got my bearings inside the third-floor foyer in the Sheraton where the Faith Matters group was assembling, I ran into Rick, and we sat down on a sofa to chat. An athletic-looking white man in a red polo shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes, Rick had recently retired from a career teaching English as a second language. He was one of about a dozen parishioners from St. Martin’s who had arrived on an overnight bus crammed with sixty people from ELIJAH-affiliated congregations. With every hotel room within thirty miles booked and seats on the ELIJAH bus in high demand, Alissa, the executive director, had told me I was welcome to join the group in Philadelphia, but I had to find my own way there and secure my own place to stay. Fortunately, I’d found a cheap plane ticket and a friendly graduate student from the University of Pennsylvania with a spare couch. Rick, still stiff after getting off the bus a couple of hours earlier, said I was lucky to have been spared the long, cramped, sleepless ride.
Gathering in the Sheraton Hotel, they hoped to use the energy sparked by the papal visit as a springboard for a nationwide revitalization of faith-inspired public action.
After hotel staff put out an early lunch buffet, Rick and I filled plates and wandered into the adjacent ballroom. About forty tables, each with eight places, were arranged in front of the stage. We sat down next to Cyrus, a Black man in his seventies, also a member of St. Martin’s. Already sitting at the table were Armando and Tess, a Latinx couple in their forties who were also Catholics from ELIJAH but attended a different parish. Cyrus introduced them to us as his “new friends from the bus.” As the tables around us began to fill, I recognized quite a few faces I knew from ELIJAH amid the visibly multifaith crowd.
As people settled in, they ate, talked, and paged through their welcome folders. Rick, Armando, and Tess were commiserating about the uncomfortable bus ride, so it wasn’t long before Cyrus, who has little appetite for negativity of any kind, pushed his plate aside, picked up the large drum he takes with him everywhere—even on overnight bus rides—and started leading songs. Hearing the familiar spirituals, people across the room joined in. Soon, more than half the room had abandoned their lunches for singing and dancing. A group hopped onto the stage, grabbed the microphone, and started leading songs in Spanish. Cyrus climbed up to join them, joyfully drumming and doing his best to hum along despite not being able to sing in their language. About 300 people, well over half of Latinx descent, were in the room, enjoying the camaraderie under the watchful eye of a life-size cardboard cutout of Pope Francis. The atmosphere was full of excitement about the three days ahead. There would be trainings and group discussions; a protest march; a visit from Cardinal Peter Turkson, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (and a favorite for the papacy before Francis’s surprise election); and all sorts of events associated with the World Meeting of Families. The weekend would culminate with the papal Mass on Sunday afternoon.
The singing and dancing continued for about half an hour until Kate, a Latina in her forties, took the stage for the welcome address. Speaking enthusiastically in Spanish, then repeating each phrase in English, she told the group that she was the chief of staff for People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO), the national network of FBCO federations that had organized the gathering. She said she had begun her organizing career in Oakland, and asked if anyone in the room was from there. A group in one corner cheered loudly. Kate said that in Oakland, she’d grown up in a Latinx community, but at a young age she learned she was a little different from many of her friends. She remembered asking her mom why she didn’t go to catechism on Wednesday nights like the other kids. Her mom told her, “Kate, it’s because we’re Protestant. We’re not Catholic like they are.” This was her first taste of religious difference, Kate said, and she had often wondered during her childhood why she was different from her friends in this way. Once she started organizing, she learned another lesson: how small that difference really was. Today, she added, she was honored and humbled, as a Protestant, to be gathered with faith leaders from different traditions and from all regions of the country to witness Pope Francis’s message of love for the world.
It was obvious from Kate’s words that despite the venue, this was not a Catholic gathering. Instead, it was a multifaith convention designed to augment a sense of unity and common purpose across geographic, racial, and religious difference, and turn this into a basis for action. Kate described it as “a once in a lifetime opportunity” to launch a national social justice movement in the presence of a pope who seemed deeply supportive of such causes. She explained that it was time for religious communities to “stand up for the ninety-nine percent, for our brothers and sisters at risk of incarceration and deportation, and for the people across this country who are being targeted by the systems of power that profit from our collective misery.”
It was obvious from Kate’s words that despite the venue, this was not a Catholic gathering. Instead, it was a multifaith convention designed to augment a sense of unity and common purpose across geographic, racial, and religious difference, and turn this into a basis for action.
Yet this moment was about much more than the new pope. As this chapter explains, the mid-2010s were a period when a host of economic, political, and religious developments coincided to invigorate faith-based organizing. With costs for health care, housing, and college education skyrocketing; the post-recession economy slanting in favor of the wealthy; activists from Occupy and Black Lives Matter bringing public attention to economic inequality, police killings of Black people, and other forms of systemic racism; and political debates about immigration failing to produce workable solutions, conditions were rife for multiracial, multifaith cooperation. Other researchers have provided excellent accounts of the FBCO field’s history, so there is no need to delve deeply into that history here. Rather, my aim in this chapter and the next is to explain how key social-structural aspects of contemporary U.S. society are driving FBCOs’ contemporary activities, shaping whom they recruit and how, the issues they take up and why, and the strategies they use to pursue their agendas. This chapter illuminates the cultural and structural contexts shaping faith-based organizing on a national level. Chapter 2 then looks to my case study, ELIJAH, to show how these features play out substantively in local organizing.
Jack Delehanty is assistant professor of sociology at Clark University.
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