By Zachary Hoover
Interfaith Organizing Flexes Its Muscles
“Community Organizing” made it into national news when Barack Obama’s work history was vetted in 2008. Though the pundits made quick judgments, precious few know about the scope and power that interfaith-based community organizing generates in America today. PICO National Network is one of the largest players. It was founded in 1972 as a regional training institute to help support neighborhood organizations in California through an interfaith congregation-community approach. Rather than bring people together around particular issues such as housing or education, one model, this broad-based approach makes values and relationships the glue that holds community together. Today PICO has 44 affiliated federations, including LA Voice, and eight statewide networks working in 150 cities and towns and 22 states. More than one million families and one thousand congregations from 40 different denominations and faiths participate in PICO.
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On May 15, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed the Responsible Banking Ordinance, which requires banks seeking city contracts to disclose detailed information about their lending and foreclosure practices. This victory allows people to see which banks are investing in their community or being responsible neighbors and which ones are not. Big banks are incredibly powerful and pay millions of dollars for lobbying to write rules that benefit them. Angelenos won a rule that shifts some power back into the hands of the people. And that rule would not have been won without the power of organized religious communities under a common banner.
I am blessed to lead LA Voice, a multiethnic, federation of 25 churches, synagogues, and mosques that is striving to be something healing and striving to do something healing. The climate of racial anxiety, divisive politics that pull at our implicit biases, and the growing diversity of our country urgently call all of us to speak, listen, and struggle together for a different set of outcomes for our cities.
Our organizational leaders in LA Voice, clergy and lay, are striving every day to shift the balance of spiritual and political power so that our great city might truly reflect its glorious name and the dignity of all — not just the dignity of those with the means and privilege to protect their opportunity and promote the future of their children, but of all those who have been left out or pushed out of the land of opportunity we claim to inhabit.
Pastors, imams, rabbis, and laity from the member congregations of LA Voice have played key leadership roles in the struggle to gain leverage to end unfair foreclosures, to increase small business lending to communities of color, to end costly, unjust police impounds of immigrants’ vehicles — immigrants whom our state does not afford the opportunity to get a driver’s license; and to increase access to food in public housing in East LA. These same leaders have sent clergy to represent them with the Governor of California to influence the outcome of much needed revenue initiatives for our schools, and they have sent thousands of letters and made countless visits to state political offices to write new rules that make life fairer for suffering communities. The power of faith and interfaith struggle is alive and well in many places, including in PICO National Network organizations like LA Voice.
Acting Together for Justice
In acting together for justice, our leaders find their voice and voices.
- When sixty African American Muslims join 700 Christians of all colors and 50 Jews at a gathering to launch a campaign, and their leaders sit together onstage with political and business leaders, I see interfaith power.
- When Fr. Margarito goes to Shabbat services at a neighboring Jewish community to tell his community’s story and proposes going to city hall together, with translation, new ground is broken.
- When I, an American Baptist Minister, have the honor to sit with five respected Imams and dream about what we might change together about mass incarceration, as we speak about li ta’arafu and how knowing one another is something God desires for us, I hear interfaith dialogue.
- When our Jewish leaders from West LA journey to East LA to fight together for a better life for those whose migration is more recent, and they share their personal Exodus stories, and they take the power of that bond into meetings with LAPD, they live interfaith peacemaking.
- When 250 PICO affiliated clergy gathered in New Orleans last fall to launch an initiative to bring a bolder prophetic voice and the power of organizing to bear to bend the arc of U.S. history toward justice, and those leaders experience moments of discomfort at the different approaches of their fellow clergy, we build new life as they commit to each other despite those gut rumblings.
- When passersby see clergy of different colors and creed standing together at a press conference, defying what they have heard in the media about how much we all really hate each other, there is a witness to a more powerful Spirit.
I truly find God’s Spirit alive, and where we find power to change our world for the better, is in the messiness of our stories and contending for our public space together. Those same Jews and Christians and Muslims who have won real change have plenty of moments where understanding each other isn’t the first thing that happens — whether it’s a Jewish leader cringing at the “in Jesus’ name,” or a Muslim leader wondering why we haven’t thought about a space for their afternoon prayer on the agenda, or a Christian pastor explaining to a congregant why it is OK for them to be in relationship with non-Christians without aiming for their conversion, or explaining to another Christian how real the power of prayer is in his church.
Organizing Is Messy
Organizing is messy. And leaders are the ones who shepherd their people down a new path that leads to more abundant life and wrestles with the consequences of the status quo. We at LA Voice are interested in being with people who want to be together because it gives them the power to be transformed, to transform others, and to change our world. Transformations aren’t real if they don’t change our transactions.
I am not under the illusion that organizing is equally easy in all of the countries to which this newsletter makes its way. I cannot speak about the dangers and fears that must come with organizing right now in northern Mexico or Syria. And I can only confess shame at the countless opportunities powerful countries like ours miss to act with our human family in other countries.
But wherever we are, if we do not use our shared values, stories, and relationships to build real power to unyoke the burden of disproportionate death and suffering that we all allow to be visited upon some while protecting others, then no God can save us. As Bob Dylan says, “You’re gonna’ serve somebody, it might be the Devil, it might be the Lord, but you gonna’ serve somebody.”
This article was first published in the Parliament Blog on June 6, 2012.