Grounding Transcendence

First published in Social Policy Magazine in 2007.

Relationships are the crucible within which we clarify who (and why) we are. The clarity that comes from being intentional about ourselves, our relationships, and our realities, focuses a burning light on our self-interest. We see more clearly through our attachments and aversions, and become more able to act. We free ourselves through the unqualified love that is liberated in relationship.

People’s relationships with God, mentors, teachers, and lovers all sharpen this direct experience of life. Love exposes us to the nature of self and reality, the dialectical tension of a grounded transcendence. This is the experience of mystery where all of our petty desires and aversions fade into meaningless. This is not void and bliss — this is a face-to-face experience of self, other, and reality. It is the experience that we try to hide our thirst for when we engage in every escapist material experience of drugs, intense emotion, television, gossip, etc. If sin is a broken relationship, then our turning away from ourselves is the most personal manifestation of sin. As a pastor said to me recently, “The Lord talks, but it’s my job to hear.”

Obviously, we are not the center of the universe (though someone should remind a few professional organizers of this). Many people use their experience of religious worship and congregation, family, intimate love, and associational life as sanctuary where human values reign, as a place of respite for the times when they must interact with a society that operates using an oppositional set of market and bureaucratic values.

Organizers know that this is a fine way to fill a sanctuary, but a poor strategy to deal with the forces outside the cold stone walls. Through a great deal of trial and error, contemporary faith-based community organizing roots the work of building organizations and developing leadership in this clarifying experience of relationship and reality. One-on-one meetings offer us a means to practice being present with oneself and another, creating sanctuary in the public realm of relationship. This is the font of power in faith-based organizing, until recently confined to the experience of participants.

The literature of faith-based community organizing has expanded dramatically in the past two years. Leaders and organizers have begun to describe their experiences in power organizations, and perceptive academics have finally found their voice to describe the cultural dynamics that sustain these groups. Until recently, the literature on faith-based community organizing had been confined to the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and its organizations, primarily focused on Texas and New York.[1] Dennis Shirley’s exploration of IAF’s organizing for education reform in Texas was the first of the recent pieces to dissect the philosophy and practice of this tradition. In the past two years new works have appeared to describe the work of the major faith based networks in the United States — IAF, Pacific Institute for Community Organization (PICO), Gameliel Foundation, and to a lesser extent, the Direct Action Research and Training (DART) Center.

This is good news for organizers of all traditions. It’s about time that we shared more of our experiences working to create lasting organizations and social change in America. The mix of new books allows us several angles to explore the world of faith-based community organizing, from Mike Gecan’s personal narrative Going Public and Pastor Dennis Jacobsen’s congregational organizing manual Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing, to insightful academic takes on the field including Mark Warren’s IAF-specific Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy and Dennis Shirley’s look at the IAF’s rural education reform work in Valley Interfaith and School Reform: Organizing for Power in South Texas, Richard Wood’s PICO-focused Faith in Action: Religion, Race, and Democratic Organizing in America, and Stephen Hart’s Gameliel-centered Cultural Dilemmas of Progressive Politics: Styles of Engagement Among Grassroots Activists.

All of these books focus on the development, beliefs, and practices of the faith based community organizing’s cultural strategy. As foils to this primary study, Hart compares the cultural bases of Amnesty International and Gameliel groups such as Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), while Wood contrasts the cultural work of PICO group Oakland Community Organizations (OCO) and the Center for Third World Organizing and their exemplary group People United for a Better Oakland (PUEBLO). As academics, Hart and Wood offer a strong complimentary cultural framework to assess the social change potential of community organizations. In this review, we will look first at the cultural frameworks discussed in these two books and then at the more personal stories and case studies developed in Warren, Shirley, Gecan, and Jacobsen.

Wood lays out the territory of Faith in Action with great clarity, “…we can adequately understand the struggles, successes, and failure of this kind of democratic organizing only if we look carefully at the cultural dynamics within their work. That is, strategies, political opportunities, and financial resources alone do not determine the outcomes of these struggles. Alternative cultural strategies for building political power give different organizations quite differing access to community ties and social capital, and at the same time deeply shape the flow of internal cultural resources within those organizations.”[2]

He then proceeds to describe the cultural work of PICO/OCO and CTWO/PUEBLO in turn, sharpening the cultural strategies used by each organization. In his framework, Wood identifies their cultural strategy (respectively, religious vs. racial identity), relative access to social capital (heightened access to social capital of churches vs. restricted to social capital already embedded in communities of color), balance between political and cultural work (church/PICO structural symbiosis vs. tense dilemma). According to Wood, these factors dictate the structural position of OCO as a bridging institution and PUEBLO as a politicized civic association.

Wood makes the critical point that the cultural strategy of PICO/OCO is founded on the social capital of religious congregations. Each congregation provides a framework for personal meaning in a cultural arena that does not have to be recreated, simply amplified, in the life of the power organization. In contrast, Wood describes CTWO/PUEBLO facing a serious dilemma in their dual cultural role in creating multi-cultural community in the context of a power organization. In four years, Wood did not observe a PUEBLO public meeting with more than one hundred people in attendance, a testament to the limitations of their cultural strategy. In the same time period he observed that several of their major victories were diminished without their consent.

In addition to cultural strategies, Wood identifies the primary cultural practices, beliefs, and ethos of the two organizations. This analysis leads to theoretical insights on three key challenges that organizers face in creating a salient political culture. He also identifies four specific qualities that challenger power organizations must nourish to be effective. In Wood’s framework, the first challenge is that groups must “…maintain stability along two dimensions: organizational continuity and continuity of individual involvement.”

This requires the quality of high intensity of shared cultural elements. The second challenge is to “develop leaders’ ability to adequately interpret their complex political environments…it must match this external ambiguity with sufficient internal ambiguity to encompass and not prejudge it, then process this ambiguity in coherent fashion in order to take appropriate organizational action.”

Thus the second quality of a challenger group’s internal political culture must be “to provide sufficient capacity for ambiguity to interpret a complex political world.” The third challenge is that groups must “act effectively in the public realm.” The final two qualities, “resources for contestation” and “an organizational culture that permits negotiation and compromise” allow such public effectiveness.[3]

Far from an idolater, Wood describes the limitations of faith-based organizing in the cultural restrictions that particular religions impart to their members and in the dynamic struggle in such a group to actualize inter-religious values without using them to manipulate people for the utilitarian sake of building a power organization. As a participant/observer in faith-based community organizing, he fails to appreciate the cultural strategy of racial and economic justice organizing exemplified by CTWO/PUEBLO. Wood does not grasp the depth of cultural transformation that PUEBLO is capable of generating in its leadership, nor the problem that such a dearth of racial justice analysis has on the full development of PICO/OCO’s leadership and campaigns. In fact, both styles of community organization suffer from the rigidity imposed by their cultural models.

Stephen Hart’s Cultural Dilemmas of Progressive Politics offers a different cultural lens through which to observe faith based community organization. Instead of Wood’s focus on the cultural strategy of groups, Hart describes the discursive style of an organization and its role in forming and reinforcing internal cultural structure. “Choices about how to conduct politics that follow a consistent pattern, implicit or explicit rules manifest in that pattern, and justifying accounts, taken together, constitute what might be called a ‘cultural structure’…Discursive rules and the grounds for them, in sum, represent a political ethic. They are about the right way to be a citizen activist.”[4]

Hart establishes a line between expansive and constrained cultural discourse upon which Gamaliel Foundation/MICAH falls on the former end and Amnesty International and its American chapters on the latter. In the case of MICAH, the expansive discourse had clear benefits in forming an inter-religious space rooted in a common set of deeply held values. The culture of the group, and of the training provided by the Gamaliel Foundation, allowed a relatively expansive discourse on the foundations of the cultural strategy of faith based community organizing. Hart sees limitations to expansive discourse in the extent to which religious reflection played a role in the organization (as opposed to individual congregations) and in the ability of the organization to engage in the “middle level of politics” between highly specific issues and highly general topics. Hart states, “This is the level where people debate broader but controversial issues about the direction of society should go, such as what role government should play in economic life, whether we should strive for greater equality, and so forth. It is at this level that general structured political perspectives, such as populism, socialism, libertarianism, and free market ideology, state their cases. At the middle level, organizing is generally silent.”

Hart locates the individual in a cultural structure of politics that allows individual freedom exist in dialectic tension with a moral economic order. He promotes a culturally robust and expansive politics that “rescues cultural factors from black boxes” without succumbing to an organizationally debilitating individualism. As a pioneer in the emerging field of cultural analysis of community organizing, Hart illuminates the terrain of intra-group cultural structures as a key factor in organizational success in politics. Missing is a treatment of exactly why certain groups chose a specific discursive style in the first place. If he did venture down that road, he might have found race, class, gender, immigration status, ethnicity, and the privileges or oppressions that result from deviating from a white middle class standard as prime factors in shaping a group’s discursive style. More study is needed on the relationship between a group’s chosen cultural structure and strategy for social change and the positions of privilege or oppression of its members in American society.

Both Wood and Hart also tell stories of organizations, leaders, and campaigns. In doing so, they outline the salient lexicon and ideas of faith-based community organizing — power, relationships, self-interest, action/reflection, public vs. private life, religious and secular democratic values, etc. Mark Warren elevates this exploration to an art in Dry Bones Rattling. His strong writing describes the work of the IAF in Texas and the Southwest. Of all the books in this review, Dry Bones Rattling is the most accessible and comprehensive for newcomers to get an in depth picture of the philosophy and practices of faith-based community organizing.

Warren’s addition to the cultural analysis of faith based community organizing lies in his exploration of accountable authority and consensual decision-making that energize IAF groups. The IAF, like the other networks, places a premium on leadership developing the “arts of politics.” Warren analyzes the dynamic relationship between organizers and leaders, and leaders amongst each other. He describes the principle and practice of legitimate, inclusive and accountable authority that is, at times, flexible, agitational, directive, supportive, and most importantly, intentional. The heart of faith based organizing practice is this face-to-face recognition of one to another, a direct apprehension of relational reality.

Warren also has the best treatment of race in all of the books. He dedicates two chapters, “Bridging Communities Across Race” and “Deepening Multiracial Collaboration” to an exploration of interracial dynamics within IAF groups such as Austin Interfaith, Dallas Interfaith, and Allied Communities of Tarrant. He also brings to light the efforts of the IAF to hire and train African American organizers, a strong effort for which the IAF does not receive enough credit.

The book also offers a glimpse into the high level dialogue and training that the Southwest IAF network creates for its staff and key leaders. Race, economics, theology, philosophy, and other topics are discussed and debated with some of the best writers and thinkers in America. Many organizers get this experience on occasion, not many get it in a wide-ranging intentional program.

Dennis Shirley dives deeper into the work of the Texas IAF in Valley Interfaith and School Reform, a detailed examination of rural education reform that completes his earlier work studying the IAF’s urban education work in Texas.[5] Both books are essential reading for education organizing groups who wish to understand the power of relational organizing to transform the internal culture of schools. In a series of case studies of Valley Interfaith’s organizing in Palmer Elementary School, Alamo Middle School, and Sam Houston Elementary School, Shirley describes how the group attempted to transform the culture of the schools through a rigorous process of relationship building and public action. By no means was this process without challenges. Change creates friction, and in one school some teachers had a hard time, in another the administrators did not handle the cultural shift terribly well. Organizing parents to become equal partners in the schools was at least as difficult for the parents as it was for the school staffs.

Shirley chronicles the difficulty and potential of community organizing for education reform as a long-term cultural restructuring. Education organizing is complex, ambiguous terrain. Using the Alliance School strategy, Valley Interfaith successfully elevated parent engagement in their target schools. They did bring school stakeholder groups together to focus on student achievement like never before. And they were able to win clear and concrete victories that improved the schools and their environments. As part of the statewide Texas IAF network they participated in large scale education funding and policy campaigns. Valley Interfaith’s leadership and power grew as a result of this work. But education organizing does not let a group simply move on after a couple of years. Once the mantle has been thrown down, education organizing requires a long-term commitment. Shirley’s work makes it clear that education reform is possible, but that the cultural transformation of schools is a project that does not fit neatly into a foundation grant period or school year. If Shirley was up for it, a longitudinal project could show us the real education reform potential of Valley Interfaith and other groups in the Texas IAF over the next few decades.

The third IAF-focused book in this review is Mike Gecan’s blustery Going Public, a highly readable next generation Reveille for Radicals.[6] Woven into the storytelling fabric, he systematically lay out the basic concepts and practices of the IAF. But the fun of Going Public is really in its stories, and Gecan is gifted in boiling his experiences down with suspense and insight. His joy in telling and retelling these stories carries over to the reader as we follow his exploits with a succession of Mayors in New York City. The value of the IAF’s leadership development program is proven as Gecan tells the stories of people who have negotiated eye-to-eye with Rudolph Giuliani, sustaining a relationship that East Brooklyn Congregations openly cultivated, risked in the successful campaign for a living wage law, and then rebuilt in the wake of a police accountability crisis. He also tells his story of confronting the realities of power in a memorable dinner party (sans the dinner) with Ed Koch.

Gecan’s longevity in organizing provides a crucial cultural perspective, “Today, to organize effectively and participate with impact, it’s important to see the activity of organizing as something even more central and fundamental and radical — cultural work. When you focus on culture, or cultures, you take into account habits, patterns, beliefs, symbols, heroes and heroines, including your own, not just legislation and politics, elections and appointments, current causes or party platforms. Cultures move like great plates, often unheard and unseen, below the surface, shaping and transforming the terrain we operate on. When these plates collide, when cultures occasionally clash, the impact can be violent and profound.”[7]

Gecan’s book succeeds where it illuminates his relational web and the workings of power between IAF staff, leaders, and targets. The book fails when it can’t escape the orbit of Gecan himself, allowing his sometimes short assessments of politics, targets, and other community development or organizing groups to come off as a hollow arrogance.

Dennis Jacobsen’s Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing is a very practical congregation organizing narrative that explores the author’s experience as a pastor and leader in the Gameliel Foundation affiliated Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope. This book offers a solid foundation for Protestant congregations to grasp the relationship between the core concepts of community organizing and their religious beliefs through stories and scripture. Like Gregory Pierce’s classic Activism that Makes Sense, Jacobsen offers pastors, organizers, and lay leaders an indispensable tool (including a study guide for each chapter) to engage their congregations in the work of justice.

Written with real honesty, Doing Justice explores spiritual justifications for self-interest, agitation, and power that free congregants and pastors from confining self-denial and sacrifice. At times, however, Jacobsen falls prey to a rigid dichotomy between good and evil (especially in the chapters “The World As It Is” and “The World As It Should Be”) that does not fully appreciate the power of ambiguity that Wood argues is central to the success of community organizing.

His insight mixes with this polarizing tendency when he states that, “[T]the church in the United States lacks community. The American church by and large is privatistic, insular, and individualistic. It reflects American culture. What is trumpeted as community is in actuality a series of bland and banal potluck dinners, or pseudo-psychological small groups, or introspective and innocuous Bible studies. The so-called community of the American church is most often a social setting for reinforcing the false values of a privileged society. Hugs, handshakes and hallelujahs may be emotionally invigorating but they are hardly a substitute for the community that invites the Word of God to divide soul and spirit, bone and marrow, exposing our complicities and compromises.”[8]

This is a question of form and substance, of the creation of community organizations fueled by the infinite supply of energy that arises in face-to-face reality and relationships, organizations that embrace the relational and ambiguous nature of reality in their own cultural structures and positions or of groups that follow the model of a faith based community organization because it is working fairly well in most major metropolitan areas (and now many rural, suburban, and smaller urban areas; at least 130 organizations averaging $250,000 budgets is $32.5 million dollars per year) regardless of the model’s increasingly formulaic cultural patterns. Strict adherence to form is an easy way to become blinded by cultural tradition instead of led by creative vision.

The love that is generated in the friction of relationship liberates the energy of creativity and vision to construct powerful organizations. The best organizers and leaders shape (and reshape) their organizations using cultural strategies based on our direct apprehension of reality; when we see clearly we create organizations that work. What we too often forget is that all of the models and rules that we have devised to build organizations are simple artifices. As models lacking flexibility they become false idols. This is not to say that the model, varied by the networks but possessing a clear pattern, is not viable or flexible enough to build strong and innovative power organizations. It means that we must pay careful attention to the evolution of liturgy within faith based community organizing so that it does not impede the source of its power.

Relational witness (through one-on-ones, leadership development training, and negotiation and action in the public sphere) strengthens our ability to carry our values as transformative tools in the world. The danger of form is in the creation of cultural structures that provide a calcified sanctuary for cultural patterns that may or may work to create social change. Faith based community organizing has a great deal of work ahead to forge a tipping point in national political culture, not least of which is to figure out how to relate between networks and other social justice groups. This is an old lament, but lack of action on this front does not means we should stop talking about it.

Most critically, we must amplify the cultural pattern of grounded transcendence that is rooted in the formless relational witness of reality’s mystery. Jacobsen says, “[T]the discovery, identification, and projection of one’s self-interest is an act of courage. The knowledge of another’s self-interest and the decision to act in honor of that self-interest are deeply relational.”[9] This spiral of recognition energizes the vital core of contemporary faith-based community organizing.

[1] Mary Beth Rogers, Cold Anger: A Story of Faith and Power Politics, (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1990); Samuel G. Freedman, Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church, (New York: HarperCollins, 1993); Jim Rooney, Organizing the South Bronx, ________________; Dennis Shirley, Community Organizing for Urban School Reform, _______________; Dennis Shirley, Valley Interfaith and School Reform, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002).

[2] Wood, 4–5.

[3] Ibid, 199–203.

[4] Hart, 16.

[5] See Shirley, Community Organizing for Urban School Reform.

[6] Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, _________________.

[7] Gecan, 152.

[8] Ibid, 88.

[9] Jacobsen, 52.

Books reviewed in this article:

Gecan, Michael. Going Public. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002).

Hart, Stephen. Cultural Dilemmas of Progressive Politics: Styles of Engagement Among Grassroots Activists. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

Jacobsen, Dennis A. Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

Shirley, Dennis. Valley Interfaith and School Reform: Organizing for Power in South Texas. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002).

Warren, Mark R. Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

Wood, Richard L. Faith in Action: Religion, Race, and Democratic Organizing in America. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

First published in Social Policy Magazine in 2007.


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