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Organizing

 

Testimonies from participating Clergy actively involved locally

Rev. R. Charles Grant
Pastor, Bon Air Presbyterian Church
RISC in Richmond, Virginia

Dr. James Proctor
Presiding Elder, African Methodist Episcopal Church
CARE in Jacksonville, Florida

Dr. Howard L. Apothaker
Rabbi, Temple Beth Shalom
BREAD in Columbus, Ohio

Dr. Rev. Emmanuel Sykes
Bethel Community Full Gospel Baptist Church
FAST in St. Petersburg Florida

Father Phil Egitto
Priest, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church
FAITH in Daytona Beach, Florida

Rev. R. Charles Grant

When I learned of the effort to organize in Richmond, I was one of the early clergy to be involved. Right off the bat, I was personally attracted to congregation-based community organizing for several reasons: first, it was a faith based and guided program for achieving long term community change; second, organizing is concerned with getting to the root causes of the problems plaguing our society -- not just another inadequate band aid for an insoluble problem; third, congregation-based community organizing, in general and DART in particular have a tested and documented track record of success -- we didn't have to "invent the wheel" to bring greater justice to our community; forth, it provides the structure for establishing real relationships across racial and cultural divides; fifth, it gives a focus to my faith commitments and my calling as a pastor. Many pastors 'talk the talk" of doing justice. Through congregation-based community organizing, I have discovered the vehicle for me and my congregation to begin to "walk the walk" as well. Finally, I find the skills and power I develop through my justice ministry cross over to other facets of my ministry as well. Now I cannot imagine being a pastor without doing justice ministry. Our local congregation-based community organization is known as RISC (Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Community). RISC has made a tremendous impact on my congregation. For years, my suburban Presbyterian congregation has been a leader in our area when it comes to community ministry, conversation around contemporary social and political issues, and advocacy. We talked about justice a lot, but we had not done justice. Now, through RISC and DART our people are experiencing a growing sense of empowerment and fulfillment, as we work with other people of faith to bring God's justice to our metropolitan area: we are getting things done we never even dreamed of talking about! At our most recent action meeting, our turnout was twice what we had achieved in our five years with RISC -- about a third of our weekly average worship attendance. The buzz around our congregation since the meeting has really been exciting. Our people feel like the commitments we secured in the action meeting were significant. We are already beginning to think of turning out for a community action the same number of people we turn out for worship.

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Dr. James Proctor

My involvement with our local organizing effort, known as ICARE (Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation, and Empowerment), has powerfully reinforced my conviction neither that pastor, nor any one else should not do for people what they, together, can do for themselves. When people are involved in researching, planning and implementing strategies and processes to solve problems it is a great source of empowerment for them, the congregation and the community. Moreover, it is theologically sound to help parishioners to identify their "gifts" and use those "gifts" for the "common good." For more than two hundred years, the African Methodist Episcopal church has labored to promote justice for its people. My involvement with ICARE simply helped strengthen my resolve to work with others in the community to accomplish what one congregation alone could not accomplish. One of the highlights of my work in faith-based community organization during the last ten years has been developing, and deepening personal relationships in my own community and through out the DART network. It has been enormously gratifying to see people in my community who thought they could never make a difference be equipped to work tireless for justice. Clergy who are considering justice ministry for the first time, I say one cannot learn to swim by reading a book. The work of justice is not easy. However, one is a part of the solution or one is apart of the problem. The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are replete with references where the priests of old were corrupt and did not do the will of God. Sometimes clergy are good at the ritualistic and mercy aspects of ministry but woefully poor in their efforts for justice. Can one truly be doing the will of God, fulfilling one's call to ministry without working to make this world become the kingdom of God?

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Dr. Howard L. Apothaker

In the Jewish tradition the question of "why do you get involved in your community?" is a funny one. I have learned over the years to be polite when answering this question, but I chuckle a bit to myself whenever I am asked. The reason I smile is because working in the community is a way Jewish people express themselves religiously. In other words, participating in the community is not a conscious choice we make or an effort we encourage our members to take up. This is the way Jewish people are brought up -- it's the way we do things. To ignore the problems in the community would be far outside our collective experience.

But the source of this tradition is enlightening. My Rabbinical colleagues will nod when I say that this commitment is clearly present in the work of Isaac Luria, the renowned sixteenth century Kabbalist, who introduced the concept of Tikkun olam. Tikkun olam (תיקון עולם) is a Hebrew phrase which translates to "mending the world." Tikkun olam is not a commandment or a word of encouragement, it is our way of living our faith. This manifests itself in many ways. For me it means working to level the playing field for all, listening to people in my city that are facing injustice, establishing relationships across religious barriers, and marshalling our collective power to bring about justice.

Congregation-based community organizing has become a "Tikkun vehicle" for my congregation and I strongly encourage other Jewish leaders to organize in a similar fashion. First of all, you will be amazed at the effectiveness that comes from organized power. In less than ten years since our organization was founded, we have wielded organized power and made great advances in leveling the playing field on a range of issues including expanding employment opportunities, access to healthcare, quality public education, drugs and crime, affordable housing, and others. We have also garnered the respect and reputation in the city that makes future victories inevitable. Second, I appreciate congregation-based community organizing for the relationships it brings. Far too often Rabbis feel isolated and congregation-based community organizing connects us to co-hort working to achieve a shared vision for the city where justice and fairness is realized. The same can be said for the leaders within congregation. The intraconnections made between members of various congregations through organizing stimulate unique understandings about our shared goals, values, and vision. Many leaders within our synagogue have found this rewarding. Finally, I would challenge fellow Jewish leaders to consider the essence of Tikkun olam and understand that organizing is a wonderful realization of this call. With this in mind, I with to leave you with an expression I am often found saying from Rabbi Abraham Joshua, "some are guilty, but all are responsible."

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Dr. Rev. Emmanuel Sykes

There are several things organizing has taught me, and members from my congregation. All my life I have possessed a strong sense of justice and I have not been afraid to be outspoken in the community when the opportunity presented itself. But organizing with others has taught me you can accomplish so much more together than you ever could being a lone ranger.

Throughout my ministry I preached on justice. I even established a committee within my church whose responsibilities included carrying out this mission. But the committee would often break apart or become focused on other things. In looking back, I realize now that my sermons only implied the call to do justice -- they did not deliberately speak to the requirement to do justice. Through study and dialogue with other clergy involved in organizing, I have been convicted in my understanding that justice ministry is not optional. As Micah 6:8 powerfully reminds us: "What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God." Jesus repeats this sentiment when challenging the scribes and Pharisees, "You tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith." Organizing among other pastors has provided theological clarity on justice, and as a result, I am stronger now in providing that vision to my people.

I also have grown more aware of the many ways we are isolated in our city. As clergy, we are separated from one another as we focus on the spiritual growth within our churches. One may even find a spirit of unhealthy competition among ministers. This makes it difficult sometimes to know where to share your heart. Isolation can also be seen among the racial communities in our cities, where we have grown too accustomed to divisions. This leads to narrow perspectives and makes our organizations vulnerable as our opponents divide and conquer along color lines. Finally, seclusion may be found within the church, as it becomes a place for members to zero in only those things happening within the four walls. I have been grateful to witness these forms of isolation crumble and fall as my church opened our doors to organizing. I have discovered rich and meaningful relationships with other clergy I can trust. I have seen an organization of many races come together to work cooperatively to achieve justice -- a significant move in race relations and a strategic move to ensure the organization's longevity. I have witnessed members of my church feel the strength and encouragement that comes with joining together with other churches in doing justice.

I will conclude with a story of a woman who attended my church for over twenty years -- long before I became the pastor at Bethel. She was a faithful attendant, but never joined because we had not been diligent in developing stock in the church among its visitors. She became a leader in our justice ministry team at the church and led efforts to organize our members. Working with an organizer and her peers, she researched problems, demystified the inner workings of our political system, and proactively attacked issues in our community. Then one Sunday, we called on those in service to come forward -- if they had not done so already -- and join the church. She came forward. She was transformed from a regular worship attendant to an active participant with full ownership in the church, thanks in large part to our involvement in organizing.

For these reasons, I look forward to new lessons I will learn through this process and invite other pastors to allow themselves to be stretched through organizing.

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Father Phil Egitto

Our local DART affiliate is known as FAITH (Fighting Against Injustice Toward Harmony). Being involved in FAITH has helped my parish feel they can actually do something more than be nice people in following the call of Christ. It has helped them make their faith have real implications for their lives and the way they live them. It has helped them feel less powerless and more powerful in dealing with the problems of poverty in our community. For me personally, I have appreciated the relationships with fellow clergy that I developed as part of FAITH. As a Catholic priest we tend to be parochial and stick to our "own". Being involved with FAITH has opened my life to very rich relationships with the other ministers in the community. For me it has been a great support system and has greatly enriched my life.

If I were offering a word of advice to fellow clergy considering justice ministry, I would have to say, Just do it! Faith without works is meaningless. It takes time but the benefits are many. My community is one that is rich in faith and one that is involved in truly living the Christian life. The people want to be involved, they just don't know how. As a priest it is my job to enable them and justice work has been the best way I have been able to involve most of the parish in one cause and one vision not about ourselves!

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