Peter G. Heltzel: Faith-rooted organizing brings people together to create change

Faith-Rooted Organizing book cover

Image courtesy of Peter Heltzel
 

The church is a Spirit-led movement for love and justice in the world, the co-author of "Faith-Rooted Organizing" says in an interview. We are called to go outside the church and into the community to share the love of God.

Community organizing is in many ways about empowering people and achieving democracy, but faith-rooted organizing takes a very different approach from that of its secular counterparts, says the Rev. Peter G. Heltzel, the co-author of "Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World."

Saul Alinsky, considered by many the founder of modern community organizing, for example, emphasized building relational power based on self-interest, Heltzel said.

"In faith-rooted organizing, we're calling on people to build relational power from the deepest wells of our faith," he said. "Instead of appealing to people's self-interest, we call people to live out their dream connected to their community's dream and God's dream."

Peter HeltzelHeltzel, an associate professor of systematic theology and the director of the Micah Institute at New York Theological Seminary, and his co-author, the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, were at Duke Divinity School recently to teach a seminar at the Duke Summer Institute for Reconciliation.

Heltzel spoke with Faith & Leadership about the book and faith-rooted organizing. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What is faith-rooted organizing?

As ministers, we are great at gathering people to get our praise on and hear the word of God proclaimed from the pulpit. But what would it look like if we gathered people to join a boot camp for liberation, equipping them with the tools they need to truly change the world?

Faith-rooted organizing is bringing people together to create systemic change in our communities and world in a way that is completely shaped and guided by our faith. The term "faith-rooted organizing" was coined at Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, when the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra was executive director and the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. was chair of the board. Alexia and I wrote the book as a primer on organizing for faith leaders around the country.

Christians have always been moved by our faith to do justice and have been at the forefront of many of the historical movements that sought to build a better world, including the abolition movement and the civil rights movement. From Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer, African-American faith leaders have organized for racial and economic justice. So our call is to get outside the church, go out into the community and share the love of God with the people of God in concrete ways.

Q: My impression is that, aside from the work of black churches, community organizing has been mostly a secular movement. Why haven't mainline and other predominantly white denominations been more involved in community organizing?

Well, churches are interested in their own institutional survival. And unfortunately, they think very small. They want to recruit members to be active participants and tithe so that there's a budget to support the ministry and the congregation, and the church as an institution.

But I think that the church is a movement, a Spirit-led movement for love and justice in the world. And the only way this movement is going to grow is through building coalitions for justice, advocacy and change with strategic partners in our cities and states.

White affluent churches can offer their space, their financial resources and their wisdom and connections as leaders at the faith table, because these churches are tied into elite relational networks in the powerful institutions, be they financial, educational or government.

Faith-rooted organizing creates a strategy for building partners through face-to-face meetings where you talk about your dream and how it connects with the community's dream and the dream of God. And then you go out into the community and launch a poor-led, faith-rooted campaign for justice -- for example, a campaign for living wages or a program to bring the community and the police together in dialogue.

Within the evangelical world, 19th-century evangelicals like Jonathan Blanchard, the president of my alma mater, Wheaton College, and Charles Finney, the president of Oberlin, were abolitionists and fought against slavery from a place of deep conviction in their Christian faith.

But with the rise of fundamentalism in the early 20th century, many evangelicals tended to hunker down in a fort mentality, with the wagons circling the fort, and they were not engaged in culture and politics.

And then we see this faith-rooted abolition movement re-emerge in the civil rights movements in the '40s and '50s and '60s. And later, we see a kind of reactionary conservative community-organizing movement in the Moral Majority launched by Jerry Falwell in 1979.

This morning, we heard the Rev. William Barber speak at the Summer Institute for Reconciliation. He's inspiring North Carolina and the nation to join and buy into a poor-led, faith-rooted fusion political movement for justice for all of God's children.

We're at a crossroads in America. And I call on every American Christian and every American to get up off the couch, walk out the door and cultivate friendships with people of other races and ethnicities and religions.

Get involved in your community boards and advocate to your elected officials and build the love of community in your neighborhood, because there's a lot of fear and pain in our country right now.

Like Jesus says, "Fear not." We, as Christians, have a message of healing and hope. In the power of the Holy Spirit, we're called to be healers and reconcilers.

Q: Who's the target audience for this book? What kinds of churches should be doing faith-rooted community organizing?

When Alexia and I wrote it, we had a heart to reach Christians, especially members of evangelical and Pentecostal churches who had tended to be either apolitical or politically engaged with the religious right, focused on issues like abortion and marriage, and encourage them to go out into their communities and talk to people to find out what the pain and problems and injustices are.

Q: Tell us about your model of community organizing. How does it work?

Community organizing is our pathway to achieving democracy. Saul Alinsky emphasized building relational power based on self-interest. In faith-rooted organizing, we're calling on people to build relational power from the deepest wells of our faith.

So the way that we organize is as important as whether we achieve our objectives. Instead of appealing to people's self-interest, we call people to live out their dream connected to their community's dream and God's dream.

Alinsky sought "winnable victories," but we are seeking a sustainable movement for the long haul. We don't care if we win or lose but that we're in the right fight.

And we refuse to treat people like targets. When I hear the word "target," I think of a compound bow shooting an arrow at a bull's-eye. It's a militaristic image that was part of the postwar imagination.

We believe that the elite leaders we advocate to -- the elected officials, bishops and seminary administrators -- are children of God. We want to appeal to their better angels. And in the spirit of Gandhi and Dr. King, we want to organize with nonviolent love.

Q: What does this look like in action? Give us an example.

In New York City, clergy led a living wage campaign from 2010 to 2012 during the administration of Mayor Bloomberg. He and Speaker Christine Quinn of the New York City Council did not want to raise the living wage.

When we as faith leaders went to meet with Speaker Quinn in December of 2011, we shared symbols of our faith. Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid delivered a prayer to Allah, Rabbi Michael Feinberg lit a menorah for Hanukkah, and then Mother Chloe Breyer delivered a framed photograph of Mother Teresa. We were appealing to Speaker Christine Callaghan Quinn as a good Roman Catholic, with its long tradition of Catholic social teaching, and asking her as a good Irish Catholic to pass the bill.

So we hope to inspire people to live into their best selves on behalf of everybody, so everybody can make a living wage, so they can pay their rent and return home to a warm hearth, where they can love and be loved.

Q: Community organizing is almost by definition practiced by and for communities without power, communities that have been marginalized in one way or another.

That's right.

Q: So what is the role for more affluent, privileged congregations? Do they have a role in this? What can they do to help this process?

Two years before Dr. King was killed in 1968, he and his colleagues at the SCLC began planning for a Poor People's Campaign, with a tent city occupying the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which they did in 1968. They made five demands to the president of the United States, the Congress, the Senate and relevant agencies around living wages, access to education, affordable housing and health care for all.

It's important that we understand that the call is to mobilize a poor-led, faith-rooted movement for justice for all.

What we see in the Black Lives Matter movement today is that young 20- and 30-something black leaders are stepping up to dramatize the injustice in their communities -- in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, Cleveland.

It's important that we understand that we're working toward living out King's Poor People's Campaign today, which is a poor-led, people-of-color-led movement for justice.

What is the role of white, affluent, mainline evangelical churches in the movement today?

I believe that every town in America should have a space, an interfaith table, where leaders from all the faith communities in town can gather monthly to talk about the problems in the community and how we can work together.

In order to host those meetings, we need a meeting space and somebody to pay for the catering and for the lunch. And you need volunteers or staff to maintain a database and communications through email and phone calls or a phone bank.

So the white affluent churches can offer their space, their financial resources and their wisdom and connections as leaders at the faith table, because these churches are tied into elite relational networks in the powerful institutions, be they financial, educational or government.

Q: Is a faith-rooted organization politically left or right? Can it help overcome this current political polarization in the country?

Rev. Barber's concept of fusion politics is very compelling, because it argues that people can come to the table with different issues but work together. An African-American may want police reform. A Latino may want immigration reform. A white may want living wages. The LGBTQ community may want peace and safety for people of different sexual orientations.

Faith-rooted fusion politics opens up the table where people can come together to break bread and share their passion about an issue and then strategize together about how we can reconstruct a new society in America.

Getting to that faith-rooted fusion political table is not easy. It takes organizing. You have to invite all these different groups and people who will naturally be in their own enclaves.

You have to invite them to gather, and there will be conflict, but I see great possibility in the Moral Monday movement. We've seen for many years that Rev. Barber has been leading the movement in Raleigh, North Carolina, and for the past three years we've been part of the Moral Monday movement in Albany, New York, advocating to Governor Cuomo for a moral budget that includes money for public schools.

So we are on the battlefield for justice and we will not be afraid, we will not give up, we will continue to hold our ground and to march on for love, justice and God.