For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. – 2 Timothy 1:7
Last January, the annual meeting of our congregation voted unanimously to become a member congregation of Faith in Action Bay Area (FIA). FIA is a network of more than 100 congregations and community based organizations working together to promote justice and human dignity in communities across San Francisco and San Mateo Counties. This decision followed the recommendation of a team of St. James members who have been exploring a partnership with FIA since 2014.
Often, when we talk about faith based community organizing, we talk about what we do (work on particular issues or campaigns) and how we do it (educational forums, voter engagement, meeting with public officials, press conferences, protests), but we rarely talk about why we do it. We fail to address the heart of the matter. Different people may explain why they do this work in various ways, but for me it boils down to this: I want to love more courageously.
The summer of 2013 was a turning point for me. In July, a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin. I had paid attention to the case, because it touched on my own fears for the safety of my son, then 15 years-old, who could easily have been Trayvon: a black kid living in a neighborhood where many people might have thought he didn’t belong.
I was appalled that an unarmed 17 year-old could be stalked and shot dead with impunity. When the NAACP in San Francisco called for a rally outside of City Hall to protest the verdict, my husband and I attended. It was a pitiful rally in terms of turnout; less than 100 people. Few of the participants where white, and I was the only white clergy person I could see. I knew black folks who had showed up for immigrant rights. I knew black folks who had showed up for marriage equality. Who was showing up for them? That was when I knew that I had to start showing up.
I showed up because I love my son. All organizing work for justice is rooted in love. Who or what do you love enough to fight for? I realized I had to have the courage to stand up against racism if my love for my son was to have any meaning. I needed folks who could help me to find that courage and express it in ways consistent with the energy of love. That is how I found my way to Faith in Action Bay Area, organizing for justice and human dignity. Justice is what love looks like in public.
After Ferguson, Missouri was disrupted by the murder of Michael Brown, I traveled there with other clergy from FIA and heard the stories of people in that community. I began to make connections. What began as an impulse of love launched me into a web of relationships I could not have otherwise anticipated or imagined. Coming home, I began to hear stories of people in San Francisco directly affected by the racism of the criminal justice system.
As I listen to the stories of people living in contexts different from my own, I begin to see them. Their stories changed my perception of the world. The first revolution is internal; a softening of the heart that allows us to absorb more of reality. I was disrupted by their pain and struggle, and by the acknowledgement of my own privilege; together, we began to imagine the possibility of a world without racism.
This is what faith-based organizing work is fundamentally about: building relationships, building the beloved community across the usual divides of religion, race, class and gender. My internal conversation about who I love developed into conversations with other concerned parents of children of color; which grew into a team of people building trust to fight against racism in the criminal justice system; which expanded into a base of people, a movement working to change laws and implement police reforms. Finally, it had to include elected officials who have the power to make change. We had to talk with them to learn how to leverage our collective power to make the changes we needed to protect our kids.
This is basically what Jesus did his entire ministry. He got clear about God’s will for him and the work he was called to do in the world. He traveled all around the Galilee listening to people’s stories, coming close to the pain in their communities. He gathered a team to make change, to teach, and to heal; to turn despair, isolation, and fear into a powerful community. He engaged the religious and political leaders of his day in often difficult and even confrontational conversations. In solidarity with those he loved, he was executed by the state for resisting evil. And from his sacrifice, he gave life to a movement that is still setting the world on fire with God’s love.
Faith based community organizing is about finding the courage to love. It isn’t about this or that issue. It isn’t even about winning. It is about building relationships so that we can claim our power as the people of God, who has not given us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power, and of love, and of self-discipline. We can become the people we need to be, so that we can realize God’s dream for the world; if we have the courage to love.