Investing in Strong(er) Communities
by Mark I. Wegener (July / August 2000 • Volume 16 • Number 4)
In the past, church-based organizations and movements have often used the cry for "peace and justice" as they seek ways to improve life in changing neighborhoods. The author suggests new language for a new day, the language of investment and community, which may help to continue to promote peace and justice.
(Editor: The following article is a revised version of a speech Pastor Wegener, senior pastor at Woodlake Lutheran Church, Richfield, Minnesota, made before the National Leadership Assembly of the Chicago-based Gamaliel Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri in December 1998. Wegener is also the president of the National Gamaliel Clergy Caucus.)
What we call something does make a difference. It may be true that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," but chances are if we started referring to that flower as a "stinkweed" not many people would get their noses close enough to sample its aroma. What we call it does make a difference.
Consider how we have adjusted our nomenclature in reference to the work of local ecumenical organizations of churches affiliated with national networks like the Gamaliel Foundation, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the Pacific Institute of Community Organizations (PICO), and the Direct Action Resource Training (DART) group.1 For decades, we have referred to the work of such networks as "church-based organizing." This implies that churches can band together and work towards common goals to improve the quality of life within their neighborhoods and communities.
Recently we have learned to recognize more clearly how our working together can strengthen our churches internally. So now we have learned to call our work "congregation-centered organizing."
Although the two terms are mutually complementary, they do suggest divergent perspectives. "Church-based" focuses outward; "congregation-centered" focuses inward. What we call something does make a difference.
So the question at hand is this: How are we to talk about the work of church-based, congregation-centered organizing these days? Which words can most effectively inspire others to share our vision and support our efforts?
Not too long ago, we were moved by the rhetoric of "peace and justice." Why don't we hear that phrase any more? If that particular phrase is not grabbing our imaginations, what kind of rhetoric will compel our allegiance?
What follows is an attempt to reformulate our language around today's issues. It is a proposal to employ the language of "investment" and "community" as powerful indicators of what we are up to as members of church-based, congregation-centered organizations.
Know Your Generation
First, consider our generational location. Social analysts commonly divide our population spectrum into three broad bands: the "builder" generation, the "boomer" generation, and the "buster" generation.2
Broadly speaking, the "builders" are those born before or shortly after the end of World War Two. The "boomers" are those born during the so-called "baby boom" from 1945 to 1965. The "busters" are from the two decades after the baby boom went bust, that is, from 1965 to 1985. (The so-called "bridge" generation, those born after 1985 whose maturing years will bridge the 20th and 21st centuries, are only beginning to be analyzed.)
Each wave has defining characteristics. The "builders" grew up under the influence of the Korean War and the old-fashioned patriotic sentiments of the two world wars. The "boomers" grew up with the Vietnam War — long and disillusioning, expensive, unpopular, and ineffective. The "busters" experienced the Gulf War, which in contrast was short, efficient, and highly effective.
|We will be replicating the work of the earliest Christian churches and the work of Jesus himself.|
Again, the "builders" were print-oriented and grew up under the influence of radio. The "boomers" were more media-oriented and were the first to experience the ubiquitous influence of television. The "busters" are now more electronic-oriented and witnessed the rise of the computer.
High on the list of values for "builders" were patriotism and duty; "boomers" valued education and quality; "busters," competence and relevance. In terms of their relationships with others, "builders" found themselves to be loyal and dependent; "boomers" were more supportive and independent; "busters" are largely disconnected and interdependent.
Or, to put it another way (bear in mind that we are painting with broad brush strokes; these generalities will not apply to every individual) "builders" are loyal and respectful; "boomers" are supportive but questioning; and "busters" are thoroughly disconnected and rejecting.
Church members from the "builder" generation gave considerable support to global missions. "Boomers" were more interested in larger world-wide concerns, while "busters" are focused on more local community issues. Related to this is another key insight: the older generations, "builders" and some "boomers," can be motivated by appealing to their sense of commitment to a cause and by presenting them with a significant challenge. But the younger generations, most "boomers" and "busters," are more inclined to respond to opportunities to join in communities and to show compassion, especially compassion for children.3
This suggests that we will be more effective in enlisting people if we are clear about how our work will foster compassionate communities in our midst.
One final characteristic is important here, related to financial resources. "Builders" grew up under the lingering influence of the Great Depression. For them, money is something that is to be saved.
For "boomers" however, who grew up during the period of post-war economic expansion, money was never in short supply. For them money is something that is to be spent.
For"busters," who have matured during less secure economic times, financial prosperity is not guaranteed. They can no longer assume that a good education will translate into a well-paying job, a household can survive on a single income, or they will be better off than their parents. For them money is something to be invested.
Therefore, we need to pick up on the language of investing and learn to see how our work is a way of investing in community. More about this later.
Where Shall We Work?
Second, consider our social location. Community organizing efforts typically begin in declining central-city neighborhoods and predictably focus on issues such as crime and public safety, drug-dealing and prostitution, renters' rights and housing stock, fair taxation and quality education, and jobs and economic opportunities.
In recent years it has become increasingly obvious that these inner-city issues cannot be solved apart from the political realities of their larger metropolitan communities. This is why the issues of urban sprawl, metropolitan ecology, and suburban control are now high on our list of priorities.
Historically, there has been a tendency to define issues in terms of inner-urban versus exurban, to pit the city against the suburbs. Now we are beginning to discover that the pie doesn't slice quite that neatly.
At a gathering of Twin Cities clergy, the presenter drew a bull's-eye on the board, a target with four rings. In the center was the urban core; next came the more affluent city neighborhoods. The third circle represented the inner-ring suburbs, and the fourth, the outer suburbs.
One might expect that in such a group the greatest number would have come from the inner-city, a substantial but fewer number from the rest of the city, a smaller number from the first-ring suburbs, and few, if any, from the second- and third-ring suburbs. However, when the group was polled, those present represented — in approximately equal numbers — the urban core and the inner suburbs! Only two or three came from the affluent parts of the city; none came from the outer suburbs.
In other words, those in the first and third rings on the bull's-eye have found they have enough in common to warrant working together.
To the degree this holds true elsewhere, we can anticipate growing alignments between the urban core and the inner suburbs, which is a significant insight, especially when connected with the next item.
Third, consider our economic location. The important part here is that we need to think in economic terms, because economics is the key for interpreting our self-interest.
In 1998, our Twin Cities organizations realized that if we want living wage jobs for our people, businesses need to locate in the core cities. We also knew that thousands of acres of prime commercial and industrial property are available, except for the fact that they are polluted.
But city officials said they didn't have the funds to clean up the so-called "brown fields." County officials said it wasn't their problem. The seven-county Metropolitan Council funded sewer expansion throughout the region, but didn't do much for the central cities. State officials had the money, but don't want to throw it at the cities.
Our strategy was to get representatives from across those jurisdictions just to talk to each other and work together. When we talked to urban Democrats, we argued that we need clean-up monies to enable jobs for the central cities. When we talked to suburban Republicans, we argued that cleaning up brown fields would be good for business. Everybody wins on this one.
And now we have the legislation that has opened up more millions of dollars for this purpose in Minnesota than anywhere else in the nation. The point is not just that we were able to tap everyone's self-interest for a win-win solution, but that the self-interest was defined in economic terms.
Minnesota State Representative Myron Orfield has garnered a national reputation around issues related to urban sprawl; these too are described largely in economic terms. He often mentions the "injustice" of taxing central-city residents who own $50,000 homes in order to subsidize the sewers of suburbanites who are building $300,000 homes.
But the telling factor will not be the inequity of the "justice" factor as much as the inequity of the "financial" factor.
University of Minnesota Professor John Powell has documented how the circles of poverty and race are for all practical purposes coterminous. He explains how everything depends upon wealth — not the size of your annual income, but how much you have been able to accumulate.
He often tells the story about his father, a black man, and his father's army buddy, a white man, and how they both bought $20,000 homes when they got out of the service. His father bought a house in the city, his friend, a house in the suburbs. Some decades later, the friend's house is now worth over $100,000; his father's house is still worth $20,000. The issue is economics.
The important point here is that we need to think in economic terms, because economics is the key for interpreting our self-interest.
Now we are ready to draw some conclusions. Church-based, congregation-centered organizing has an enviable legacy of addressing issues of social justice, especially in central-city neighborhoods that have deteriorated past their prime.
To address the systemic causes of urban decay, we have learned to think in broader terms which encompass entire metropolitan areas. Specifically, we have learned to build alliances between central-city neighborhoods in the urban core and residential neighborhoods in the first-ring suburbs.
Two generations ago, the suburbs were where you went if you wanted to escape from the city. Today the suburbs are the place where the city spills over. And the same issues at the heart of our inner-city concerns — crime and public safety, property values and housing stock, children and quality education — are now becoming the key issues in the first-ring suburbs.
|We have learned to build alliances between city and suburb.|
Furthermore, the most common factor that unites these issues for people in both city and suburb is economics. How can a declining or at best stabilized tax base continue to support quality schools? How can we protect our property values and ensure that our neighborhoods will remain good places to live? How can we prevent the best jobs from leaving our communities?
Furthermore, other forces in our society decrease our opportunities for easy interpersonal interaction. Front porches open to public sidewalks are replaced by fenced-in backyard patios. Automatic garage doors and windows closed to accommodate air conditioning reduce the chances we will see or hear our neighbors. Extended families living under one roof or even in close proximity are a thing of the past. It is little wonder, then, that the "buster" generation longs for a greater sense of community.
If we put the two concepts together — our preoccupation with investing financially in our economic futures, and our need for communities in which we will be valued — we may tap into a strategy for ministering across urban-suburban borders and across generational lines. In short, we need to define our mission as investing in strong(er) communities. Such language has the power to tap into the self-interest of both central-city and inner-suburban residents in ways that will enable them to work together for their common good. Especially in light of one more factor.
Centered on Jesus
So finally, consider our religious location. Nearly all of our organizing networks are aligned with Christian churches, and that means being centered upon the person of Jesus. Whether we focus more on the Jesus-of-history or the Christ-of-faith, this one in whom our faith is grounded is also the one who impels us into community service and action.4
First, it is clear that Jesus was a teacher or a prophet. His disturbing one-liners, his surprising stories ("parabolic riddles" we might call them), his sermonic lessons, his insights into the reign of God, his "love your God, your neighbor and even your enemy" ethics — all combine to explain the power of his teaching. We might call him a provocative sage.
Second, it is clear that Jesus was a healer. Although it is true that the records never show Jesus searching out people to be healed — rather, they came to him or were brought to his attention — in every case he responded sympathetically. What is remarkable about the stories of his many healings is not merely that he performed the miracles, but that he performed them on people who were in such desperate straits.
For the most part those who benefitted from Jesus' healing touch were people who had been consigned to the margins of society — leprous men, menstruating women, demon-possessed crazy people, foreigners, children, and the like. We might call him a compassionate shaman.
Third, it is clear that Jesus was an organizer of sorts. At a time when his compatriots were defining a more exclusive Jewish identity, designed to preserve their heritage from being compromised under the pressures of the Greco-Roman world, Jesus was calling for a more inclusive fellowship based on unmerited love and forgiveness. His circle of friends included an amazing variety of personalities, some less respectable than others. We might call him an egalitarian subversive.
We must assume that because Jesus' agenda was so counter-cultural, it was inevitable that his opponents would try to eliminate him. In the end they succeeded, of course, and he was condemned by the political authorities to death by crucifixion. But, as we also know, his movement refused to die, and it was not long before his followers had experienced the impact of his resurrection and were continuing to organize communities in his name throughout the empire.
There is scant chance we can stretch this sketch of Jesus' ministry to the point where we can safely affirm that he had an economic or financial agenda. Although, if the locus of his ministry was among the impoverished peasant classes, there must have been some economic self-interest at work there.
But the several portraits of him as provocative teacher and compassionate healer and community builder do support our present-day strategies.
To the degree that our work does build stronger communities, whether within our own congregations or outside our parish boundaries, we will be replicating the work of the earliest Christian churches and the work of Jesus himself. We will be living out our roles as disciples of Christ and witnessing to the power of his transforming presence in our lives.
The bottom line, then, is that we can dare to redefine our church-based, congregation-centered organizing efforts in terms of investing in strong(er) communities. Because what we call something does make a difference.
Mark I. Wegener is senior pastor at Woodlake Lutheran Church, Richfield, Minnesota.
1. For a helpful introduction to Gamaliel, IAF, PICO, and DART, see Helene Slessarev's "Saul Alinsky Goes to Church," Sojourners (March-April 2000), pp. 22-25.
2. Gary L. McIntosh, Three Generations: Riding the Waves of Change in Your Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995).
3. Kennon L. Callahan, Twelve Keys to an Effective Church: The Leaders' Guide (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), pp. 76-83.
4. For an excellent survey of current historical Jesus research, see Mark Allen Powell's Jesus as a Figure in History (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998).