Faith-Rooted Practice – Time for Churches to Organize Differently

johonna-mccants_portraitby Johonna Turner

In their book Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World, Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel distinguish community organizing that is rooted in our faith from dominant faith-based organizing models. According to Salvatierra and Heltzel, faith-rooted organizing is “bringing people together to create systemic change in our communities and world in a way that is completely shaped and guided by our faith, taking seriously all the implications of the assumption that God is real and drawing on the deepest wells of our faith in order to enable people of faith to contribute our unique gifts to the broader movement for justice.” Salvatierra and Heltzel lift up the Civil Rights Movement as an example of faith-rooted organizing in which African-American Christian communities birthed the momentum and means of organizing for social and economic justice.

Whereas faith-based organizing is typically based on the same assumptions of secular organizing – such as Saul Alinsky’s primary notion that organizing begins with self-interest, faith-rooted organizing assumes that people of faith, namely Christians, are guided by Biblical values such as compassion and truth, and driven to work for justice in part because it is what God requires of us. In contrast to faith-based organizing that is often driven by an agenda shaped by its participants alone, faith-rooted organizers facilitate a vision that is co-created by participants’ dreams and critical engagement with the Word of God. For example, what is our vision for workers’ wages? What is God’s vision? What is our dream for our relationships with one another? What is God’s desire?

Whereas faith-based organizing networks see people of faith as “the base” (or membership) of organizing campaigns, faith-rooted organizing networks see our faith as the power or animus of our organizing. Whereas Alinskian models of community organizing frequently call for the identification and defeat of a common enemy through increasingly confrontational methods, faith-rooted organizing calls for love and compassion toward those standing in the way of justice. This approach also asks how we might use our moral authority as a resource for transformation.

What does it look like for the Sermon on the Mount to shape the means by which we change the society around us– not merely the ends we hope for? What does it look like to meaningfully employ spiritual resources such as prayer, worship, ritual and Scripture – in how we analyze the problems facing our communities and bring people together to take action? What happens when we honestly grapple with policies and structures as well as the reality of spiritual warfare? When we take seriously Paul’s admonitions that “we wrestle not with flesh and blood but against principalities and evil spirits” and that “the weapons of our warfare are not the weapons of the world, but have divine power to demolish strongholds.” How might our faith sustain us in this work? The book, Faith-Rooted Organizing offers us meaningful responses that can help us embrace this “Way” to justice.

(This article is the first in a series entitled, “Faith-Rooted Practice.” I explore the potential of churches to advance justice and peacebuilding within local communities through practices deeply grounded in Christian faith and engagement with the Bible).

Johonna Turner (née McCants) is an educator, cultural worker and scholar. She serves as Assistant Professor at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding where she teaches undergraduate, Masters’ level and training courses in conflict transformation and restorative justice. Johonna is animated by a passion to advance peace and justice within marginalized communities by building the capacity of neighborhood churches and investing in the leadership of young people. She resides in Harrisonburg, Virginia with the love of her life (aka her handsome husband).



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