Listening to Each Other's Stories
Reimagining Interfaith Narratives
by Aaron Stauffer
It was mid-August in Nashville, Tennessee and I had just arrived to the monthly board meeting of Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH). NOAH is the local Gamaliel affiliate, Gamaliel being one of four main national broad-based community organizing (BBCO) networks. BBCO organizing is one type of community organizing: it is institutionally-based, built on the model first pioneered by Saul Alinsky in Chicago’s back-of-the-yards neighborhood and later adapted by his successors Ed Chambers and Ernie Cortes. This kind of organizing is arguably the most successful and widely used tradition of political practice by religious communities in the U.S. In 2011, five million Americans were members of a congregation or institution connected to a broad-based community organizing affiliate. The role of story-telling in this kind of organizing is one reason for its success.
Good organizers consistently emphasize the importance of leaders “understanding” and “working” on their stories. When they are first getting to know a leader, they ask questions like: What keeps you up at night? Organizers look for cold anger — a focused sense of injustice, rather than the hot and potentially distracting fury of outrage. Anger tells leaders and organizers where their most deeply held values have been violated. Such stories of cold anger and our ability to build power to protect the values we revere are as much given to us as they are our own creations. They are parts of larger, more public, narratives about what it means to be raced, sexed, or gendered in society. These “autobiographical” narratives (as some religious scholars call them) depend on a relational web of events and people in space and time. Our stories of self feed into social practices and institutions, and it is crucial that we connect our stories of anger with those more public narratives in order to transform society in the direction of justice.
It takes work to get good at telling and crafting narratives that offer compelling future visions of our communities. On July 30-31st in Washington D.C., Re-Imagining Interfaith — a conference for interfaith activists and leaders — will offer participants access to the best trainers in this work. Without such moments of reinvigoration and inspiration the work tends to be overwhelming and change seems unlikely. Take my experience with NOAH, for example.
Focusing Our Feelings about Justice
The board meeting begins promptly at 6:30pm, and we are in a large open sanctuary. There are about 50 of us and we don't even take up a quarter of the sonorous room. Halfway through the meeting the group is asked to break out into task forces. I link up with the task force focusing on the issue of affordable housing. A middle-aged Jewish woman and long-time member of NOAH asks us to introduce ourselves and describe why we care about affordable housing.
There is a lot of sharing of a similar story: people either know someone or have directly experienced the squeeze of rising home prices; they are discouraged and frustrated by the lack of change. One of the first to share says she believes the issue of affordable housing is a “moral issue,” a phrase that gets repeated more than any other. That is, until we come to a middle-aged white man, who says, “A lot of us have said that this is a moral issue, and I don’t think it is a moral issue. It is a damn political issue! And the city government and mayor aren’t going to do a thing about it!” Exasperated and despondent he sits back down, silent. “Unless, what?” The organizer quickly asks. Looking a bit stirred, the older man picks up on the organizer’s point: “Unless we do something about it!” People laugh and smile at the organizer’s quick thinking.
But a pastor, whose turn it is next, picks up on the exchange, saying: “Like my friend here, I think this is a political issue, but it is a political issue with a moral imperative. The political issue has to be driven by a moral imperative.” When the entire group reconvenes and each task force reports back, the Jewish woman who ran the affordable housing task force meeting refers to this three-person exchange. She says with a smile, “this is a damn political issue with a moral imperative.” The work of NOAH, she continues proudly, is fundamentally about the question of “what kind of city do we want.”
Hearing Each Other’s Stories
Interfaith community organizing is grounded in the stories we tell ourselves and each other about the work. Good storytelling explains our anger at the violation and desecration of those values and persons we hold most dear. Joining others in the fight against injustice connects our passionate stories with others — it is a reweaving of the social fabric, which is in itself a larger story about our lives together.
At times, however, our stories become tired and worn: the interfaith movement needs to re-imagine what it means to do interfaith work in a powerful, public, and political way. In my time in the interfaith movement I’ve noticed three broad narratives that organizations tend to follow. The first is a story about interfaith work as interfaith dialogue — where differences are glossed over, commonalities embraced and politics is eschewed because belief is a private issue. This story tracks the rise of interfaith dialogue organizations that emerged in the late 1980s through the 1990s as exemplified in city and state-wide council of churches and interfaith councils.
The second narrative is one of social service and service-learning. Commonalities are leveraged for community work: all religions share certain values and those call us to tend and cultivate this world. Here the story looks like Sikhs and Buddhists planting trees together, or Jews and Christians celebrating Ramadan with their Muslim neighbors. A final narrative emerged in the post-September 11th world, where violence, racism and Islamophobia have become urgent matters for the interfaith movement. This final narrative has raised the question of what excellent interfaith community organizing looks like. The interfaith movement is slowly coming to realize that religion and politics are not so neatly separated
For years I have heard leaders in the interfaith movement say that we need to get clear about how we talk to each other about our work. The three broad narratives I described above have left us ill-equipped for dealing with everyday political anger. For the interfaith movement to become a movement it needs more of a centrifugal force, a centering narrative, a collective vision of joy that arises out of experience of cold anger. We need to re-imagine interfaith work in a political tone, especially because politics rightly conceived is about the goods communities hold in common. Politics is not primarily about policy or partisanship. Re-imagining interfaith is hard work, and we need to find examples that help project narratives of joy in it.
Re-imagining Interfaith is an opportunity for interfaith activists and leaders to come together and create such a new narrative, build deeper relationships, and equip themselves with the necessary skills to move the movement forward. I have played a small role in constructing one track: “Cultivating Inclusive Communities.” We’ve arranged for participants to learn from the legal and advocacy work of Project South, hear about the solid anti-Islamophobia work by the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, and be trained in media relations by Auburn Seminary. It will be a phenomenal event. Don’t miss it.
Header Photo: Pexels