Making News from the Pews: Congregations and Community Organizing

By Rev. David Lewicki, co-pastor, North Decatur Presbyterian Church, Decatur, Georgia

Every 3rd Thursday, there’s a meeting in the Fellowship Hall at North Decatur Presbyterian Church. So what? Meetings happen most nights. But look closer.

The people gathered are of different races; they are Catholic and Presbyterian and Baptist; they are octogenarians and millennials; they have traveled from several different counties—some an hour or more—to be there. The meeting is tightly organized. It starts on time, with an ecumenical prayer. The agenda is received. When they talk, they talk about the changes they want to see in the world, and then—and here is the radical part—they make a plan to implement those changes.

I am only beginning to understand community organizing and its role in the life of a congregation. But what I have discovered has changed my notion of what church is and can be. For two years, North Decatur Presbyterian Church (NDPC) has been a member of ABLE (Atlantans Building Leadership for Empowerment), a greater-Atlanta affiliate of Gamaliel, a national community-organizing group. I think it is the single most important ministry that our church participates in. It is the one place where we actively imagine the Beloved Community even as we become the Beloved Community.

Last fall, 250 people filled the NDPC Sanctuary for an “action.” This action had been planned to the very last detail by ABLE’s members. We gathered to support a movement called “Ban the Box,” which sought to remove the felony conviction question on job applications. This question has been an enormous barrier facing people as they have tried to return to a normal life after serving their sentence.

That night, we invited key leaders of local counties and municipalities—people who have direct influence over hiring or human resources policies—to attend the meeting, and when they arrived, we seated them “on stage.” (Shown in image above.) The issue was plainly presented and a gentleman named Anthony gave testimony about his own soul-crushing experience trying to get a job after his release from prison.

At the end of the evening, we asked the leaders if they were willing to make a public statement saying that they would do everything in their power to ban the box in their jurisdiction. Each one agreed—they almost fought each other over who could get it done the fastest. ABLE followed up on their commitments and today, all but one of those jurisdictions have changed their hiring practices to ban the box. Justice achieved.

Churches, synagogues, and mosques are among a few of the places that talk openly about justice. But for all of our talk, we are surprisingly impotent when it comes to making justice a reality. The significant social issues of our time—racism, mass incarceration, and social, economic and educational inequity—are complex. Most churches find that it’s simply easier—and less controversial—to do “downstream” ministries—pulling people in need out of the proverbial river by feeding the hungry, providing shelter to the homeless. But a church that never asks why people are falling into the river in the first place is not responding to the fullness of God’s call. We need to go “upstream” and change the circumstances that produce such profound human needs.

Community organizing uses time-tested strategies to “do justice.” We build sturdy networks of diverse people—across social dividing lines—through 1-to-1 conversations. We break hairy issues into smaller, “winnable” issues, and use our victories to inspire further action. We harness the power of people’s deepest yearnings for justice, but focus that energy toward practical actions.

None of it is easy. We get bogged down, volunteers sometimes fail to fulfill commitments, and it’s hard to convince busy, tired people that another meeting is worth their time. But I believe that God wants justice, and that God’s justice does not “roll in on wheels of inevitability.” It happens when good people are gathered together to work arm-in-arm in a good process—a process developed and tested by previous generations.

In a society in which power too often belongs to people who are not using it justly, community organizing asserts that power rightly belongs to all of God’s people. We are taking power back and we are using it to build the Beloved Community—for ourselves and for our neighbors. And when we stand together in that Fellowship Hall and sing, and pray, and plan, the church feels alive in a whole new way.

David Lewicki has been co-pastor with the Rev. Beth Waltemath of the North Decatur Presbyterian Church since 2010. A former recipient of the echoing green fellowship for social entrepreneurs, David is a pastor because he believes in the church as a site of personal and social transformation. He is a father, volunteer soccer coach, cellist, and believes that #BlackLivesMatter.

Join commentator on religion, politics, and culture Diana Butler Bass and members of the Columbia Theological Seminary faculty in exploring the contours of what Bass terms a spiritual revolution for the Center for Lifelong Learning’s January seminar Grounded: Exploring the Sense of the Sacred Within Us and the World, January 19 through 21, 2016. Our sense of the sacred is changing, but God continues to be at work, leading us to a more grounded, integrative, and experiential theology. Details and Registration.

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