In Defense of Community Organizing

By Soong-Chan Rah 9-09-2008

Sarah Palin appeared poised and confident in her speech on Wednesday evening.

I have the utmost respect for her ability to juggle her role as a wife, mom, and public servant. She is to be commended for her example and particularly in her efforts to better her community through civic engagement. I may not agree with her on the specifics of her policy ideas and even how she came to some of her conclusions, but I can acknowledge that in her way, she is attempting to live out her faith values in the public arena.

So why did she, Rudy Giuliani, and the Republican Party make it a point to mock a significant portion of the population that seeks to live out their faith in the public arena through community organizing? It lent a snarky and condescending tone to Wednesday evening's speeches.

I served as an urban pastor for 10 years. In those years, I witnessed the whole range of urban problems and woes that politicians like to point out every four years or so. The wide range of issues requires different levels of response, sometimes simultaneously. There are times that immediate needs must be met by conducting canned food drives or serving at a local soup kitchen. There are times that the future takes priority and the focus is on discipling and mentoring at-risk children and youth. There are times we look at the big picture of our society and discuss ways that family values can be upheld. And then there are times when an alienated and marginalized citizenry act together to advocate for change in their neighborhood and community.

Community organizing provides an opportunity for neighborhoods and communities to work together to bring about change. It can be as small a change as a group of high school students organizing to ask for better safety and hygiene in their school bathrooms. It can be as large a change as an organization of churches and synagogues becoming one of the most significant voices advocating for universal health care. The community organization I was involved with in Boston, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, advocated for the rights of Haitian nurses' aides in local nursing homes. Members of Haitian immigrant churches, Jewish synagogues, and black, white, and multiethnic churches joined to advocate for Haitian nurses to bring about change. I experienced a personal joy that fellow believers in more established churches would advocate for a recent immigrant who struggled with a language barrier. My mom worked for a number of years as a nurse's aide in a senior citizen home, and I wished that Christians had advocated for her rights 30 years ago, giving her a voice and freedom that is the promise of America.

Community organizing attempts to give voice to the voiceless in our society (not just the powerful and the elite) and attempts to build influence based on relationships, rather than positions. Community organizing provides a prophetic voice because it arises from outside the system of power from the local community. Those feel to me like very biblical values.

Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah is Milton B. Engebretson Assistant Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary and a member of the Sojourners board. He blogs at:

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