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.