A rally in support of the Smart Routes program

Making Change from the Ground Up

Faith-based community organizing and synodality

There’s a common saying in faith-based community organizing: “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.” It’s also a particularly important axiom to reflect on as we continue the journey through the synodal process. Over the last twelve years as a community organizer, I’ve come to see first-hand how an emphasis on building relationships brings about a radical shift for those who are active in faith-rooted organizing: a full understanding that we can’t accomplish anything meaningful in our communities if we go at it alone or remain in isolation. Though we have heard it said many times by now, it really is the case that the only way of coming to know another person is through listening and dialogue. And it is only through knowing the other person—what they care about, what they worry about, what stirs and moves them, and what they hope for—that we can begin to discern and understand the points of mutuality that bind us together.

This is why I believe faith-rooted community organizing can make vital contributions to the synodal process. There are three key elements in community organizing that we can draw on. The first is the intentional commitment to building, deepening, and sustaining relationships. The second is a recognition of the vision and aspirations expressed by the people who should guide our efforts. And the third is devising a clear, practical, and effective strategy for achieving the goals we’ve identified in going through the first two steps.

How does this look in practice? I’ll use an example from my work with the Coalition for Spiritual & Public Leadership (CSPL), a local faith-rooted community organizing federation in Chicago, as an example. Several years ago, a group of approximately forty parents and their children gathered in the basement of a former parish school on the west side of the city. The gathering had been organized by the parish religious education coordinator with CSPL’s support. It was immediately clear that the opportunity to listen intently to one another, to form and deepen relationships and discuss their shared hopes and concerns for their community, was an uncommon experience for most of those gathered. As they split off into small groups and began to talk, they soon began to recognize the daily experiences that they shared and how these common struggles, concerns, hopes, and dreams shaped their lives. It soon emerged that many had the same feelings of loneliness and isolation, the sense that there was really no one else to confide in about worries and anxieties. It turned out that what was weighing most on people’s minds was the safety of the kids who traveled to and from school every day on foot. Harassment, solicitation, bullying, traffic incidents, and gun violence were distressingly common.

They continued to talk, and the opportunity to share experiences and ideas set the stage for what came next. Following the meeting, several parents stepped forward to lead a grassroots initiative that would address the concerns raised that day. Their efforts resulted in Smart Routes to School, a publicly funded program that began in 2019. Local adult residents received training to be present along students’ routes to and from school in the mornings and afternoons, with an eye toward creating safer conditions. Within weeks of its launch, the program had reduced conflicts and fostered greater community care; in one case, a Smart Routes community worker helped stop an adult male who had tried to abduct a teenage girl into his van.

Smart Routes workers help guide and protect children walking to and from school.

The vision for the program, along with its logistics and implementation, were all the work of the parents, elders, and youth—a true community-led safety initiative. These same parish and community leaders also provided the grassroots energy that persuaded a village board, a township board, and a school district board to publicly support and fund the program. It took a year of disciplined and dedicated organizing, by parents who had multiple jobs along with family responsibilities at home. What sustained them in their work were the relationships they had first formed on that day in the basement of the old parish school, and that they then developed in the wider community through their commitment to mutual listening. Now, this brief story illustrates the impact that parishes and faith-rooted community organizations and other civic groups can have when they work together. But it also reflects a challenging reality about the synodal process overall: success is possible only as far as the “on-the-ground” relationships go. Once they are formed, local communities also need nurturing and support, the things that equip them to carry the process forward.

We know that social change on a grand scale is not easy. Success is dependent on a number of critical factors. First, there needs to be a powerful, strategic, and well-organized coalition of people and groups at the grassroots level. Then, on the political level, there need to be shrewd and dedicated allies capable of advancing the agenda in the face of opposition and skilled in the art of negotiation and power-politics. These players need to act in a coordinated way to bring about the change they seek.

But as the synodal process gets underway, we still don’t really see this type of interaction on a large scale. More typical is a “grasstops” approach than a grassroots one. There seems to be an emphasis on panels, think tanks, and expert opinion, while the deliberate, serious, and long-term work at the grassroots level is given short shrift. If we don’t give more attention to the relationship-building part of the process and the vital yet tedious work of implementation that must happen on a daily, weekly and monthly basis for years to come, then we’re not likely to be successful in driving and sustaining the fundamental shifts we want to see in the Church.

This is where the lessons from community organizing can be helpful. For many decades, community organizers have understood that it’s impossible to get anything meaningful done—at the institutional or societal level—without a group of people who are organized, disciplined, and committed. The energy must come from them. Local faith communities looking to bring such a group together—a group that can coalesce around common aspirations and goals—can use the methods of community organizing to do so.

A one-on-one helps us to form, nurture and sustain public relationships with people we may often come across in our parishes, schools, and neighborhoods.

One of the first key steps is what we call a one-on-one. A one-on-one helps us to form, nurture and sustain public relationships with people we may often come across in our parishes, schools, and neighborhoods but perhaps don’t get to know. The method of a one-on-one consists of setting aside thirty to sixty minutes for an intentional conversation. But rather than running it as a back-and-forth dialogue, the person conducting it is there mostly to listen. They’ll ask open-ended questions such as: What brought you to this parish or community, and what keeps you here? What are some of your hopes and dreams for the future? What are some of the challenges in your neighborhood or parish that you would like to see addressed? Even questions that might seem personal are important to ask if we want to form meaningful public relationships: Where did you grow up, and what was it like growing up there? Who were the people most important to you growing up? How did the environment that informed your early years influence who you are today and the things you value most? (In spiritual terms, listening is the path through which we encounter the “thou,” according to Martin Buber. In contrast to an “I - It” relationship, an “I - Thou” encounter emerges when one sees the other not as a means to an end, but as a reflection of God’s divine image in the human person. It is through a person’s genuine encounter with the “thou” that we meet the beauty and mystery of God most profoundly.)

Next is to recognize the visions and hopes expressed in one-on-ones, to be open to what we’ve learned through deep listening. As people of faith, we must be able to imagine a world beyond our current state. The ideas and aspirations for a better world that emerge from the bottom up are imaginative stirrings of prophetic defiance. They have their roots in the divine and in a basic desire for the good of humankind and the natural world. In the Exodus story, there’s an aspect that’s often overlooked, according to the Jewish scholar Avivah Zornberg: there was not only a struggle between the Jewish people and Pharoah and his empire; there was also a struggle between God and Moses, with God prodding and nudging Moses, but being met with stubbornness and reluctance. Central to Moses’s initial resistance was his inability and unwillingness to imagine a world beyond the present reality. God had to push him in order to break open his imagination. We are often like Moses, waiting to be pushed and nudged out of our limited ways of thinking and seeing. We have to be open to creative and dynamic ideas and possibilities. Those parents and students who worked successfully on a community safety initiative realized that they shared a vision; they then co-created a community-led program that made their vision real through their reliance on God and one another.

Lastly, any meaningful effort requires a practical and realistic strategy. In his book Why David Sometimes Wins, Marshall Ganz describes strategy as “how we turn what we have into what we need to get what we want.” This straightforward description of strategy provides a helpful and succinct framework for shaping a plan and course of action. What we have often constitutes our relationships—no matter how few or how many people we start with. We can and should begin there, and gradually expand through a process of listening and forming more relationships. Moreover, relationships are our most sacred and valuable resource. Every relationship holds the potential for unanticipated possibilities that often strengthen a group’s capacity to achieve a desired end. The parents and young people who envisioned the Smart Routes program initiative needed a year’s worth of planning meetings, petition campaigns, negotiation meetings with elected officials, and other actions. But it worked, thanks to a pragmatic strategy that emerged from their lived experiences and a process of bottom-up discernment and collective decision making.

 

Worker-owners at Living La Fiesta sew facemasks at the beginning of the pandemic.

This moment offers an invitation to strive towards a profound reorientation in our approach to parish life. We need to commit to an approach of bottom-up discernment that recognizes the intrinsic expertise of grassroots leaders from local contexts, and of practical and pragmatic organization informed by people’s lived experiences. Many of the grassroots members of the parishes, Catholic universities, and community organizations that my colleagues and I work with have applied what they learned through their engagement in faith-rooted organizing to address the urgent issues facing their communities.

There are two examples that I’d like to draw on to show the importance of building substantial relationships in the community through deep listening to the issues of concern. Early in the pandemic, it became clear just how severely a shortage of hospitals and health care in an area of low employment was going to affect the people living there. Together, we fostered a vision and strategy for addressing two key issues. We first mobilized hundreds of people to urge the Illinois governor’s office to reopen Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park, a predominantly Latino community in Chicago’s western suburbs that had been closed the year before. Through our mobilization efforts in collaboration with a key local public official, the hospital was reopened as a COVID-19 treatment site, one that was desperately needed.

Additionally, we were able to leverage the moral energy, social capital, and purchasing power of parishes and faith communities across Chicago to support one of the worker-owned cooperatives that our organization has incubated over the last several years. The team of worker-owners from this catering cooperative, Living La Fiesta, temporarily shifted their business focus from catering meals for churches, universities, organizations, and family events to producing and selling facemasks that were sustainably made from recycled garments. By using their skills as seamstresses and maintaining their strong connections with parishes and community residents, they were able to sell thousands of dollars’ worth of masks. This in turn helped them support their families during some of the most economically devastating months of the pandemic. This type of bottom-up approach, rooted in listening and relationship building, collective discernment, and effective strategic planning, is what faith-rooted organizing offers the Church in the synodal process.

There are no shortcuts when it comes to building a Church that reflects the liberating spirit of Jesus. Over the course of the next two years, each of us has an opportunity, if not an obligation, to contribute to the synodal process. Building relationships with one another will help in forging a robust and ambitious moral and spiritual path for our Church, so that we can advance justice and equality and realize a greater approximation of God’s kingdom. 

Michael N. Okińczyc-Cruz is the executive director of the Coalition for Spiritual & Public Leadership and an adjunct professor at the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University of Chicago. @M_OkinczycCruz

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