Beyond the Red Doors
The Art of Organizing
“I really do believe we need to see ourselves as a movement – a Jesus movement – rather than as an institution. That’s what Jesus was about. He inaugurated a movement to make God’s dream happen. To see ourselves this way changes everything. It means our institutional configurations must be designed to serve the movement and not the other way around. The movement serves life. There is no life in serving the institution.”
– Bishop Michael Curry, “The Jesus Movement now,” Yale University Reflections, 2015
I can still recall my excitement when I first heard our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry speak of the Jesus Movement. And I’m inspired by this call to be “the ongoing community of people who center their lives on Jesus and follow him into loving, liberating and life-giving relationship with God, each other and creation.” Having come to the Episcopal Church from the work of community activism and organizing, Bishop Curry’s message reminded me that I was in the right place.
As a young student activist I began learning the art of organizing. Fred Ross, Sr., the seasoned organizer who famously recruited Cesar Chávez and Dolores Huerta to the cause, said that organizing was about “providing people with the opportunity to become aware of their own capabilities and potential.” (From Fred Ross, Sr., Axioms for Organizers) Getting people to this sense of agency happens most often through one-on-one conversations, often in people’s homes.
One of the most impactful house meetings for me took place when visiting an immigrant father who worked as a food service worker on my university campus. He, like his co-workers, was paid minimum wage by an outside agency. He wanted to organize for a living wage, but he was afraid of getting fired. Still, he wanted more for himself and his family. Their living conditions were sparse, as they shared a small studio with his brother’s family to make ends meet. Through a series of conversations that began in his home, he was able to overcome his fear, find hope in coming together with his co-workers and see a pathway forward. This is the power of organizing.
Entrenched systems can get in the way of the gospel
At the core of organizing is building relationships. Over time, this network of relationships can become a movement when a plan of action is developed around shared values and concerns. For the past 15 years, in different capacities from lay to ordained, I have sought to integrate the principles of organizing into my faith practice. In my experience, getting to the actual work of organizing and movement-building, even in justice-minded parishes, is often a challenge.
What gets in the way? Bishop Curry’s clarion call to be a movement also includes his assessment of the problem – our institutional church configurations. I strongly believe that these institutional ways of being and doing church are so entrenched that they will not be easily dissolved or translated into a movement without a significant amount of struggle. Our denomination is deeply invested in a highly-structured polity – constitution and canons that trickle down to parishes, schools, social service agencies and other institutions that make up dioceses. Our dioceses send bishops and elected lay and clergy deputations to General Convention, and so forth. This elaborate and long-standing system of organization can be characterized as an effective administrative or institutional structure for operating and preserving the church for posterity. From a “Jesus movement” perspective, it can also be seen as a hindrance to the life-serving spirit of the gospel.
Organizing is key in building a movement
For our church to truly embody and enact the truth and power of the Jesus movement, this call to make tangible God’s loving, liberating and life-giving nature, we, the church, must organize. This means having the kind of organizational culture, theology and common practice that enables us as the church, its people and resources, to see ourselves as a movement. We don’t currently have the spiritual and practical DNA that would give us a movement mentality. When people hear the phrase “social movement,” they may think of the great movements of the past, like the Civil Rights movement, and feel like that time has passed. This makes it difficult to put teeth into the Jesus Movement. But by dedicating and allocating time and resources to the work of relational organizing, we can create new experiences that generate new ways of being and doing church.
Bishop Curry further says that the change from church institution to Jesus movement must begin with Bible study and prayer. I agree – and again, I would add the practice of organizing as a critical ingredient to the mix. In order to enable and engage a “movement” way of thinking and acting in the church, we desperately need the tools of community organizing and social movement-style leadership at every level of the church, like a powerful wave of the Holy Spirit. This means that even our Bible study, our personal and communal prayer lives, our Sunday worship, our vestry and committee meetings can and must be guided by a different way of relating to God, to each other and to creation. Without an organizing process that effectively disrupts the current way of doing and being church, we will likely remain with a narrow institutional mindset and address mostly institutional concerns. We need to do church in a way that draws us into a different level of awareness and relating to each other and the world, that creates an urgency for change, hope for something different, belief in our capacity to change and a plan of action.
What Jesus movement organizing would look like
If integrating organizing is essential for church transformation, what would this “Jesus movement organizing” look like? How can we move our institution to serve the movement? Think about that house visit with the immigrant father that I spoke of earlier, and imagine if we as the church did this in a systematic way. What it would look like if clergy and vestry leaders were equipped with organizing tools, and held relationally-oriented one-on-one meetings with a majority of members of their parish? And what if our understanding of “parish” was expanded altogether to include the surrounding neighborhood? What kinds of concerns might emerge, and what kinds of dreams and plans for community action might develop, guided by the organizing spirit of Jesus?
Even with the institutional limitations previously described, the projects where we’ve used the tools of organizing in parish/diocesan settings have led to positive change on issues from living wages, to immigrant rights and affordable housing. In the case of the campaign for just housing policies, I was moved to see the way the parish where I served as rector, Holy Faith Church in Inglewood, California, came together with neighboring Methodist and Presbyterian congregations and how we adapted our liturgical seasons (Advent/Christmas, Lent/Holy Week) as a means of unity, worshipping and organizing together with community-based organizations and neighborhood residents. Guided by our faith convictions, clergy and lay members across the three congregations intermingled and related to each other, canvassing neighborhoods, discussing proposals and attending city council meetings together, sharing a common vision for a livable city. Together we organized for a period of three years and secured the passage of a city ordinance that curbed rising rents and prevented displacement. This all began by building relationships through one-on-one conversations and gatherings that took clergy and lay leaders outside of the normal way of doing church. This work was entirely grassroots. Imagine the kind of impact we could have if we fully resourced a Jesus-rooted organizing effort for the whole church!
The work of organizing is the work of the Jesus Movement. Jesus was nothing if not relational, demonstrated in the strong bonds he created among his disciples, and his public engagements with those on the margins of society. For us to be a Jesus movement, our church needs to invest real time and money to learn these community-organizing methodologies and do the hard work of organizing ourselves beyond the confines of our institutional structures. We can do it together, with God’s help!
As I put the finishing touches on this article, we were in the very early stages of the novel coronavirus situation. It was not yet a global pandemic as we now know it, with no clear end in immediate sight. Phrases like social distancing and sheltering in place were not yet widely understood. Now a great many of us are doing our best to reorganize our entire lives, for the time being, in an effort to lessen the spread of this incredibly tenacious virus.
This of course must be our priority at the moment. As a global humanity, we have to be more disciplined and even more tenacious than the virus to get through this period of challenge and crisis. We are in a moment where human solidarity, and for us as people of faith, where love for our neighbor, has perhaps never been more apparent and urgent. These words from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail resonate deeply: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
After some reflection, I decided to leave my article intact, because while some of the details about tactics may change due to the need for physical distancing, the strategy and the values guiding the work of organizing remain the same. We might not be doing house visits right now, for instance, but we can and should be engaging in the relational work of having one-on-one and small group conversations in other ways.
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it has brought home the point that the church truly is the body of Christ, the Ekklesia, and that the church is “not the building.” The work of organizing draws upon the creative energies and gifts of the people of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit and guided by the way of Jesus. If we can’t congregate together, we assemble in alternative ways, we keep the faith and allow it to guide us in continued pastoral and prophetic action, informed by our shifting context and realities. The call to organize, to stand with each other and with our neighbors, and with the so-called stranger, remains and grows ever so powerfully. The call to use our relational capacity and power to create a lasting hope and love-filled justice never ceases.
My hope is that we live prayerfully into this moment, that we use it to examine the old ways of being and doing church and that we not return to old familiar patterns and habits. My hope is that we come out of this situation knowing what it means to live, breath, pray, love and act like the Jesus Movement. Stay safe, stay connected and stay organized, friends!
Click here for a list of Covid-19 resources on ECF Vital Practices.
Francisco Garcia is a PhD student in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University. He is focusing his PhD work on Theological Studies and Ethics. He brings nearly 20 years of justice-based work at the academic, professional and pastoral levels and intends to develop a theology of organizing around pressing social and economic justice issues rooted in the liberation tradition. Francisco was born and raised in Southern California in a working-class, Roman Catholic, Mexican immigrant household. He found his way to the Episcopal Church as a young adult, joining All Saints Church in Pasadena in 2004, where he was sponsored for ordination to the priesthood. Francisco completed his M.Div. from the joint program at the Claremont School of Theology and the Episcopal Theological School at Claremont (Bloy House). Prior to ordination, he worked in the labor movement for a decade in various capacities with workers in both the public and private sectors. His work over the last ten years has centered around interfaith community organizing and advocacy around issues related to systemic poverty, racism and immigration.
- Being with Our Neighbors, by Ginny Dinsmore, Vestry Papers, May 2015
- Taking Church Out into the Community, by David Rice and Anna Carmichael, Vestry Papers, November 2018
- Leaders of the Jesus Movement, by Bill Campbell, ECF Vital Practices blog, September 18, 2018
- The Art of the House Call or... by Anna Olson, ECF Vital Practices blog, July 23, 2014