Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I want to be a Community Organizer!

And by that... I might mean something different than others.
Don't get me wrong -- I love marching for the unions... especially if I get a bucket to drum on. I am a proud member of Seminarians for Worker Justice. I believe in bathroom breaks and health benefits.

But as for my new passion -- I'm talking microcommunity here, not these big systems. I'm talking a 60-person church, a 24-unit housing project.
I love getting things together. I love convening committees. One of the things that makes my church so awesome is that there is so much free-floating energy that just needs focused (as they say here).

Yesterday - on my birthday - I was invited to a brainstorm session regarding a particular low-income housing project in the next town over. It has meth dealers, impoverished folks, elderly disabled, young families, a bad reputation, and a locked "community room." At the meeting were reps from DHS, community non-profits and government agencies, the women's shelter, the library, and NorthEast Oregon Housing Association (the landlords of the project in question). And two concerned clergy. Absent from the meeting were any residents of said project.
They gave us a whole shpeel on how effective it would be to provide "wraparound" care at this place -- to provide childcare, transportation, food bank, and educational workshops for the residents on-site -- and how greatly it would improve everything.

I sat there thinking of college residence halls. Although I was never an RA I was one of approximately four people who did attend our RA's sponsored programs, because I felt bad for her and I wanted her programs to be successful. Our RAs gave us budget workshops, resume-writing workshops, cooperative baking nights, family-style dinners, etc. The only successful program I can recall was Assocksination, wherein you "kill" your floormates by pegging them with a pair of socks. We residents were all well-off, educated, functional young people (with the exception of not a few cases of raging alcoholism) and yet most programs failed.

And here, in Enterprise Oregon, are a bunch of excruciatingly well-dressed social-service do-gooders, and they think they'll get all these residents, entrenched in generational poverty, attending their educational workshops on depression?
RIGHT. says I to me. YOU ARE MISSING A VERY IMPORTANT ELEMENT. And I raised my hand a billion times and when I finally got the floor I starting shpeeling, myself, about adding value to the community itself. About ownership, about bottom-up, not top-down, and especially about how the project will need to develop the amount of pride and self-policing that is necessary to keep a community room UNLOCKED and USABLE.
We talked. I really don't know if those landlords heard it, but at least by the end of the meeting lots of us kept on saying "bottom-up," and talking about surveying the residents with the question "what can we (inclusive we -- us AND Y'ALL) do to make this place work?"

Well today we had another meeting. This is the Faith Community Collaborative, normally a hodgepodge of said social service do-gooders, and clergy. Coincidentally, only clergy showed up today (we prayed - don't tell the supervisors of the state-sponsored conference room in which we met!) ... and we talked, a lot, about this. We talked about college again too. Good old SUNY Binghamton, and the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship there... I told the story of how Christians used to isolate in "suites" of six people on the quiet nerdy side of the campus where they stayed up late playing video games (sorry for stereotyping, it's the truth). Not in the raging alcoholic side of campus where I lived with my musician buddies and various other suspiciously non-Christian folks. I used to say "I live in Newing" and those nice Christians would work hard to mask their horror -- wow -- i'm sorry -- i know a friend you could move in with on the other side of campus if you want ... But after I left, under the leadership of the fabulous Carrie Moorhead, those nice quiet Christians started moving in the opposite direction, INTO the nasty dorms, where they commenced to have Bible Studies and to generally live life with people they used to avoid. Many people were transformed and I do believe the fellowship grew because of it (both wider and deeper).

We clergy started talking about moving into the housing project. Not moving one of us, in particular (although they unanimously recommended *i* should do it, were I to be here for more than 3 more months), but our parishioners, our church members, our friends. It will take some Doing, as this place has such a bad rap -- but what it takes is looking it as a ministry opportunity rather than a last-resort living arrangement. Once having "planted" someone with the mindset of ministry, (and support from their faith community) we start them with "I'm inviting my knitting circle over this Saturday, would you like to join?" and down the line, "I'm having a Beginner Bible Study next week, would you come?" and "want to help me plant flowers in the front of the project?" and "we should have a BBQ" and ON AND ON YOU GO and the place has VALUE and PRIDE and COOPERATION.

This is the community organizing I want to do.
It really is too bad I have to go back to school. I would do this. I would organize capture the flag games with the kids in the project, and lasagna bake-offs with the food bank donations we'd have stocked in the unlocked community room, and plant a kick-butt garden, and spread the GOOD NEWS OF GOD by word and deed alike.


  1. Good post. The word is "spiel", and it's Yiddish for "talk" and is German in origin.

  2. thanks!
    ah, spelling, shpelling... am i mispronouncing it too???