Commentary
By Dani Gabriel 9-17-2018

I have been organizing for social justice since I was a teenager. I’ve advocated for LGBTQ rights, immigration, anti-racism, and gender politics.

For a long time, I was nervous to publically proclaim that I was Christian, in part because of the political baggage of the church and in part because of critiques of faith based organizing. What I have found, in the eight years since I have been openly claiming Christianity, is that almost every secular organizer I know will, given the opportunity, profess a deep personal faith. It is their private practice of various traditions that drives their practices as organizers and their attitudes toward the people and creation. For many of them, as for me, we have adopted an attitude of secrecy in response to the politics of organized religion that stifles our personal expression of that which really animates us and drives our work.

I recently had a conversation about these topics with an organizer I have been in community with for almost two decades. Krea Gomez is the Organizing and Advocacy Director at the Young Women’s Freedom Center. Gomez is also a member of the Anti-Police Terror Project, organizing around police brutality and community response to police violence. She talked with me about her experiences with faith and organizing in a largely secular space.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Dani Gabriel, Sojourners: So how does faith and spirituality play a role in your organizing work?

Kara Gomez, Organizing and Advocacy director at the Young Women’s Freedom Center: I think it's what drives my work. I grew up Catholic. I was baptized, did my first communion and my confirmation all in the same church that my dad and his 16 brothers and sisters all did their baptisms, first communions, and confirmations in. One day a girl at school who was Baptist said that I was breaking the law of God by praying to Mary.

I didn't quite understand what that meant and went home and asked my dad. My dad handed me a Bible and said, "Read this. I'm not going to tell you what to believe." I felt like that opened a door for me in two ways. One, he was telling me, you have the freedom to believe whatever it is that you want to believe. Two, all I ask is that you seek out the truth when you say you believe something. I tell that story because it is those two principles that guide my organizing. I feel like a lot of organizers would talk about this loyalty, and trust, and faith in our higher power to guide our work and protect us.

Gabriel: How does your personal faith inform your work?

Gomez: The work that I do on an everyday basis is about bringing dignity and respect, particularly to women — women that have been incarcerated and women that have been victims of violence [and] have to rely on the underground street economy. That is God's work, if you ask me.

Gabriel: So how do the politics of organized religion impact the way you blend spirituality with your organizing work?

Gomez: Sunday School and recruiting people to Sunday School actually was [the] first real trial and error forms of organizing. I know you're laughing but this is the truth.
When you're in Catechism and you're trying to get your friends to go to Catechism with you, not necessarily because you want them to learn about the gospel, right? You just want somebody else to go with you. So what you entice them with is the things that you know they're going to attach to. The ideas and the ideologies that they’re going to attach to.

When I was younger, that was the magical stories of Jesus turning wine to water, the loaves and fishes, just things I would have followed somebody to hear. I remember they used to serve us Kool-Aid and CheezIts. I was like, "Don’t you want CheezIts?" It’s similar to the way that organizers do organizing now. We always have free food. We always have some element of community building. I feel like those principles still lead a lot of my work. I also think that at the very core organizing is about making sure that people feel seen and loved. The Church and organized religion really does try to do that, even though they don't always do it in the best way, right?

I also think that organizers, to a degree, show up to do organizing work or to join a community to fight for justice for the same reasons why we show up to church. We're damaged, we're wounded, we're looking for something to heal us. Organizing, to a degree, becomes people's church. It becomes a form of religion where you get to sit in communion with other people.

Gabriel: How do we navigate the differences between faith based and secular organizing?

Gomez: There is some power in faith based organizing. I saw 13 or 14 ministers and rabbis show up at the Oakland Airport, and hold an action, literally did a sit down around deportation, and the police did not mess with them at all. And so, I think that there's power in that. There's power in saying we are God's people and we have chosen to participate in an action, on whatever issue it is. It says if you touch us, know that what you're actually doing is you are touching the people of God. And so, I do think that it's a strategy.

But I find it very ironic when I see people of the cloth who are fighting for the rights of LGBTQ people, knowing that the Bible is often used as the deterrent to actually accepting LGBTQ people. And yet we need that, right? If we're ever going to change the face of what is good and holy, we need those people. We need those people to have our backs.

Gabriel: So, what about the really ugly history of the church?

Gomez: As an indigenous woman, if I had known when I was 12 years old that the Catholic Church was actually a big part of how my people were forced to assimilate to American culture, I probably would have looked at my parents like they were crazy. And yet I believe in tradition and ritual and practice and find the Catholic Church to be a very beautiful religion. And so the duality of those things are always front and center. It reminds me of my own duality, right? I am an organizer who does not believe in capitalism and I drink Coke.

You need spirituality in order to be able to do this work. Every day you have to listen to the stories of people that have had injustice done to them. You have to have some spiritual armor. You have to be in tune with a higher power in order to keep going, because some of this shit will kill you. And its thankless work, and it’s hard work, and it's physically taxing work. So being spiritually intact is how you heal, how you keep yourself going and replenish yourself. And I think that's where your first introduction to spirituality comes from when you're in the organizing world.

Dani Gabriel is a writer and lives with her partner and two kids in the Bay Area. She is a postulant for the diaconate in the Episcopal Diocese of California. You can find more of her work at allthepossible.com. 

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