What Is Community Organizing?
Building relational power to transform communities!
Community organizing is a strategy and set of practices to build relational power with a view to bringing about social change that improves the quality of community life. The primary goal of community organizing is to connect with people around their values and passions in ways that engender collective public action. In community organizing, issues follow relationships. The foundation of community organizing is the relational meeting, which is a one-to-one conversation focused on learning the gifts, interests, energy, and vision of the person you are talking with. The aim of one-to-one conversations is to build relationships that motivate people to participate in public life.
As individuals, the social and economic issues that diminish the quality of our common life can be overwhelming and lead to a sense of futility and powerlessness that prompts people to withdraw into private life. Community organizing brings people together around their shared interests to form bonds of mutuality and accountability that empower them to take action to improve their communities.
Historically community organizing has worked with existing communities, especially faith communities, to effect social and political change by focusing on specific issues of concern. The ELCA has a longstanding involvement in congregation-based community organizing. One way to think about community organizing is as a practical strategy for enacting the church’s mission “to bear witness to God’s creative, redeeming, and sanctifying activity in the world” (ELCA Constitution, Chapter 4.01). Some congregations use the practices of community organizing to get know their neighbors and become more involved in their communities.
Congregations that are involved with community organizing also frequently discover that it is an effective way to identify and train leaders, and also a process for developing a relational culture within the congregation. Working with community organizing networks and partnering with others for the sake of God’s justice in the world is also a way of becoming a more public church empowered by the Spirit to effect transformation in the world.
Roots of Community Organizing
Throughout Scripture God is depicted as the One who creates, and first and foremost what God creates is a people, a community, that embodies in their life together the divine reality. Scripture in all of its diversity presupposes the existence of a covenant community that God calls into being and liberates from slavery. It is a community of people defined by relationship with a God who is experienced as loving, merciful and just. The Torah provides a vision for how to structure the life of the community, and the prophets hold those in power accountable to this vision that is predisposed to its most vulnerable members.
From the beginning to the end of Scripture God raises up leaders who faithfully embody God’s purposes for the covenant community. In the Gospels Jesus is anointed by the Spirit and empowered to “to bring good news to the poor … proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18). In his Galilean ministry Jesus was leading a social movement to renew community life. In addition to restoring to community people on the margins of Israelite society such as “sinners and tax collectors”, Jesus also addressed the physical and material needs of colonized people who were disenfranchised by imperial policies and practices.
A good example of community organizing in the Gospels are the meals and feeding stories which presuppose hunger as a constant reality in peoples’ lives. The sharing of meals was part of Jesus’ program to restore, from the bottom up, a society fractured by urbanization and commercialization. In Mark 6:30-44 and 8:1-10 the appetites of five thousand and four thousand people respectively are satisfied by the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. While these stories serve to declare God’s abundant provision in the midst of what looks like scarcity, they also highlight underlying structural issues of unjust distribution of resources.
Jesus goes to Jerusalem as a prophet to address issues of poverty and exploitation in Galilee by performing what community organizers call an action in the Temple where he cites Jeremiah’s Temple sermon as he confronts the Jerusalem aristocracy: “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” Power brokers in Jerusalem attempted to stop the movement Jesus started by crucifying him, but the movement continued when his followers encountered the risen Jesus.
The earliest documents in the New Testament are the letters of Paul written in the 40s and 50s of the first century. Paul’s letters portray someone who is establishing counter-cultural communities by building relationships in the public square with people from varied backgrounds. In other words, he was a community organizer.
A thread which ties the story of God’s people together in the First Testament with its continuation in the Gospels and Paul is the command to love God and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18; Mark 12:28-31; Romans 13:8-10). One way to imagine community organizing is as a practical approach for getting to know and loving our neighbors.
Examples of Community Organizing
The Organizing for Mission Cohort is a national network of pastors and leaders in the ELCA who are using the arts of community organizing in creative ways to develop and re-develop communities of faith by building relationships with people from diverse backgrounds who may be reluctant to go to a traditional church but who yearn for a connection with God and others and want to make a difference in their communities.
In the last 10 years, hunger has increased 40% in Missoula, Montana. The Missoula Interfaith Collaborative Hunger Initiativeis building a network of 15 congregations to coordinate 15 food drives, producing 45,000 pounds of food. This network is also working together to raise community awareness about the root causes of hunger. Lastly, organizing people who utilize the food bank and people in congregations, MIC will build an advocacy network in preparation for the 2015 Montana State Legislature. The MIC Hunger Initiative is supported in part by ELCA World Hunger.
Transportation is a critical foundation to preventing hunger and food insecurity in Jefferson City, Missouri. A lack of evening and weekend services creates major obstacles to people getting to work and to other important services, including community education programs. The congregations involved in Jefferson City Congregations Uniting want to help improve access to transportation for Jefferson City residents who are transit-dependent, especially those who are elderly, disabled or poor. By working with the City Council to create a task force of community stakeholders, including transit riders, they will help develop creative solutions to expand public transportation in Jefferson City. This project is supported in part by ELCA World Hunger.
The ELCA World Hunger blog is edited by Ryan P. Cumming, program director for hunger education. He can be reached at Ryan.Cumming@ELCA.org.