Owen Gray is a young man I have worked with in our Presbytery. We both served on the Public Policy and Witness Purpose Group. When I worked with him, 3 or 4 years ago, he was a student at Union Seminary. Now he’s graduated. He’s an associate pastor at a Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. He and his wife have a new baby girl.
Owen shot me an e-mail a few months back. He filled me in on his life, and then he added a BTW, “By the way, would you be willing to speak at a NEXT Church conference in Baltimore about your work on gun violence prevention? The topic of the workshop I am leading is grassroots organizing.”
So what is NEXT? It’s “A network of church leaders—members, ruling elders, youth leaders, pastors, seminarians and professors across the PCUSA who have a vision for the church as more diverse, more collaborative, and more hopeful.” (I’m taking that off NEXT’s web page). These dedicated Presbyterians meet annually. The NEXT meeting this year was to be in Baltimore. Owen wanted me to speak at that.
“Who me? Hah!” So, here’s the thing, which I didn’t share with Owen, but which I am sharing with you. Here’s the thing. I don’t just “talk.” My comfort level requires a manuscript. And Owen suggested a 20 minute presentation. Double Hah! Twenty minutes of speaking-time translates into hours upon hours of preparation—at least for me it does. Also, Baltimore is a fairly long way away, and I would be speaking on a Saturday. As you know I am here on Sunday morning. Good reasons, right? “Surely you can find someone else?” I not-so-regretfully declined.
I thought I had disentangled myself from our e-mail exchange. Nope!
“Do you think you could do a video presentation?” Which is how a few months back, on my vacation, mind you, I ended up in front of a video camera. Agh!
Painful as that experience was, that exercise of preparing for and delivering a ‘talk,’ sans manuscript (but I did have notes) --gave me the opportunity to review these last five years during which I have been involved with grassroots organizing—I guess that is what you call it--although I had never attached that name to it, until my e-mail exchange with Owen.
Again, that was several months ago. Then, this past week, I read through our Palm Sunday reading. I lean back in my desk chair and I think, “Well, I never. JESUS himself was a grassroots organizer?!” Now here I realize I am treading on thin ice, which they don’t have in the middle east, so maybe better walking across a sand dune in a wind storm. Albert Schweitzer, who was a theologian as well as a famous doctor, wrote that in our search for Jesus we look into the well and see our own reflection gazing back at us. He was criticizing our tendency to be prideful. Yep, I’m just like Jesus! How utterly conceited does that sound?
However, I will say that Jesus’ ministry compares favorably with the activities our group has engaged in—some of which have had an impact, at least I feel that they have. It’s been trial and error with us. Jesus probably intuited his own grassroots organizing efforts, having a far superior understanding of the world and the way people are wired.
Today, this being the day after the march on Washington and the day after over 800 rallies took place all over this country, and today being Palm Sunday, I would like to share what I see as commonalities between our and Jesus’ grassroots organizing efforts. AND I will be revealing to you that which hasn’t worked, too. In this, I will be borrowing some from my video presentation. My hope is that what we discuss here will give you personally, and maybe also this church, insight about how to better spend time engaging in social justice.
So here we go: Grass Roots Organizing: a modest take on what works and doesn’t work learned from one person’s five years’ experiences.
One. Focus. You have a few bad days, or maybe a month of bad days, do I hear a year of bad days? They are bad because you can’t help feeling that the country is going down that proverbial shower drain. You have got to DO something. You meet with some of your like-minded friends. Your first activity is to host a letter-writing campaign to a government official with whom you disagree mightily. You mail the letters. Weeks later you get your responses. Form letters, all exactly the same except for the name to whom they are addressed. The letters read, “Dear Gay, Dear Judy, Dear Bob, Thank you for writing. However, I’m right you’re wrong. This is why. Respectfully yours.
But you have faith, right? You have hope, and all those other wonderful Christian virtues. You keep meeting, talking. You focus on a different topic, maybe a different government official. More letter writing. You receive more form letter responses. Your group is like that fireworks wheel—you know what I am talking about—spinning, spinning and shooting off colored sparks in all directions? To what purpose?
Ok. Now let’s look at Jesus. He healed, but he didn’t set up a clinic. He fed the hungry, but he didn’t open a soup kitchen. Those would have been distractions to his much larger goal. He used his healings, his multiplication of bread, his turning water into wine, to spread the word that the kingdom of God is at hand. THAT was his purpose. So again, find one goal, one issue, healthcare, immigration, our prison system, race relations—my goodness, it’s not difficult to find one. Like Jesus, and his efforts to bring in the kingdom, stick with that.
Two. Make a splash. You have your focus, you hit on an activity, say, hosting a vigil to remember the victims at Sandy Hook (which we did). You think surely, surely, that activity will persuade people to join your cause. People won’t. They won’t know about your vigil. Public relations may sound like a "wordy-durd" in a church setting, but it’s important. No newspapers, video cameras, TV’s in his day, but Jesus used the grapevine for his purposes. Like a well-written newspaper article, or an unsettling photo, miracles grab peoples’ attention. You know that potato chip that looks like Mother Theresa? That’s not really newsworthy, and yet we all know about it. Jesus’ miracle stories made the circuit. “Did you hear about that guy Jesus? He was able to turn water into wine. Yep. I saw it with my own eyes. When the wine jug was dry, Jesus said a prayer and the jug was suddenly full. GOOD wine, too!” Get the word out. If you don’t like the phrase public relations, substitute the word “evangelism.” Same thing but with religious overtones.
Three. Have a small working group. You may eventually expand your numbers—but create a small working group to do the planning. You have twenty-five people sitting around a table? How in heaven’s name will you ever come to a consensus? Maybe you’ve heard of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in DC. That was Abraham Lincoln’s church. I did an internship there. It used to have, don’t know if it still does, 25 session members. That’s inclusivity at its best, maybe, but it’s efficiency at its worst. Even Jesus’ working group of twelve disciples proved to be one too many.
Four: Don’t be political. That’s especially important for those of us who are faithful Christians involved in church work and but wanting to participate in social justice issues. We honor the separation of church and state. But feeding the hungry, supporting the weak and oppressed, defending the powerless, they don’t have to be political issues. Speaking specifically about gun violence now, I know Republicans who want the government to ban the sale of assault weapons, and I know Democrats who want the government to ban the sale of assault weapons. As we saw in the news or in person yesterday, plenty of children who aren’t yet either Republicans or Democrats, want the government to ban the sale of assault weapons.
Frame your position as a moral issue, which sensible gun laws is. In the case of sensible gun laws, we have also framed our position as a safety issue. So for instance we have worked with the police to hand out free gun locks. Who can possibly be anti-safety?
John the Baptist preceded Jesus in announcing the Kingdom of God, but he made the mistake of framing his message as a political issue. We know what happened to him. For much of his ministry, Jesus kept under Rome’s radar screen. His was a message of love not politics. Jesus message consequently outlasted the Roman Empire and many other Empires, too.
Five. Don’t waste your time trying to persuade government leaders. In the early days of our grassroots effort, we spent a lot of time visiting government officials in Richmond and DC, without any movement on their part. Why? Most government leaders lead by following. You know that. I know that. We were trying to avoid the difficult, slow work, of organizing and motivating. That’s like trying to get a high school diploma without ever studying. It’s like setting your sights on playing a piano concerto at the Kennedy Center, but without ever practicing the piano. Grassroots movements start at the grassroots level. The most important work in grassroots organizing is identifying and then invigorating, motivating, and encouraging people who think like you, to do things that will be noticed—by our leaders. Enough of that, and our leaders will be forced to change their position. That’s what happens when we march. We are forcing change.
My goodness, there were so many people in Washington yesterday--800,000! So many people in one place, I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t bend the world’s axis! Grassroots organizers.give folks a march to participate in: a road to march on; and some placards, or in Jesus' case some palm branches to wave.
And that’s it! What I have learned about grassroots organizing. And that’s some of what I shared in that video presentation.
Yesterday was a glorious day for those of us who marched, whether in DC or locally. And it as a glorious day for those who stayed home and watched the happenings in front of their TV screens, and prayed FOR us and WITH us, too.
Yes, yesterday, collectively, we looked down into the well, and what did we see? We saw hundreds of thousands of people. They were mounted on donkeys riding toward Washington. Which maybe isn’t a sign of pride run amok after all, despite what Albert Schweitzer said. It’s what Christians do. We strive to emulate Jesus. Yes, we gazed into that well, saw ourselves riding donkeys and in the distance, I swear we heard voices—they were shouting Hosannas. Loud hosannas! Amen