While many people's experience with organized religion has lead them to be critical, these are still the largest organized non-commercial entities in the world. Here is a look at the how and why of drawing in churches to organized housing resistance and justice work, as well as an entire range as we shift to a larger anti-austerity movement.
The idea of an equitable housing model, which is really just one that ensures safe and affordable housing for everyone in a community, is not something that can happen simply by the engagement of a few committed people. Transformation in a neighborhood, as in any struggle, comes from the mass participation of affected people and the social circles to which they are connected. A neighborhood begins to transform into an eviction-free zone when people make clear to the institutions of power that they are not going to take another removal. That they will fight back, that they will support their neighbors, that this area is off limits. This comes through mass participation and mass action rather than the benevolence of a few well-meaning liberal politicians or just the covert direct action of housing liberators. Numbers are critical, especially when they have the passion to stay committed.
This means that those already embedded in the struggle have to forgo much of the rhetoric of radicalism and simply try to connect with people in the community. This is easier said than done, especially for people with revolutionary perspectives who see the housing justice movement as an area for further agitation. The lofty goals of total liberation do not need to be abandoned, but the struggle has to be grounded for people who are not familiar with book-quoting and famous squats from around the world. The movement itself is not simply made up of organizers and activists, but of people coming together in solidarity to protect their community. In this way the committed organizers may try to act as something of a vanguard, and this can lead to some incredibly negative forms of manipulation if not kept in check. The reality is that if the idea of an “eviction free zone” is going to have any ability to move beyond the direct control of the organizers then it is going to have to become embedded in the institutions that already have the trust and support of the people living there.
The largest community groups in the country, by a huge margin, are the churches. Though you cannot get hard numbers on the number of churches in the U.S., The Hartford Institute estimates that there are about 350,000 congregations in the United States. This is broken down as heavily being non-Catholic Christian churches at 314,000. A full forty-percent of Americans say that they attend church on a regular basis, which at 118 million people is the most substantial organizational demographic there is(Hartford Institute). This is more participation than either political party, any social interest group, and definitely any union or community activist organization.
For many people, the church is the only non-commercial social institution that they may engage in at all. The overt consumerism that tends to construct most social relationships in modern America filters to almost every area. Work consumes much of the day, friendships are often staged in restaurants and shopping centers, and generally people do not contribute their time away from friends and family to institutions where they cannot make a little money. The idea of the civic organization is barely intact in most suburban communities that often resemble “Main Street,” but include the same kind of interpersonal alienation that we often criticize urban areas for. The reality is that even the existence of a committed congregation is remarkable, and it is in this space that people often believe that they are called to behave in cooperative and caring ways. The union hall, town center, and arts organizations used to all be centers of this social communion, but in periods of decline the church stays strong. These are again reasons to revive the community organization and space as institutions, but the situation is still that nothing yet competes with the church as a social institution technically separated from the state and institutions of capital.
While churches retain a class collaborationist attitude at their core, the “blue collar” dynamic of most congregations often gets at the heart of the neighborhoods victimized by the foreclosure machine. People often attend churches directed by their area, which is especially true of lower income urban neighborhoods. Even the most massive mega churches tend to draw congregants of a distinct region, which means that churches can often be used as a bit of a central beacon by which to identify an area. In some of the densest cities in America you can even find churches define a street or block where it also serves as a social center and usually a hub for receiving some social services like warm clothing and canned food redistribution. They also retain a sense of authority and authenticity in a community, as Donna Day points out in her report on community organizing in churches in the Philadelphia area.
Within the community, congregations are often the primary, if not only, local institution with a grassroots constituency. As such they "bring to the table" legitimacy within the community, they have been part of its past, usually associated as a stabilizing factor. Further, the futures of church and neighborhood are intrinsically related to each other. Research confirms what church leaders have long known to be true, that the likelihood that congregations are growing is correlated with the growth of its community (Roozen, 1993). Therefore, congregations have an institutional stake in quality of life and indeed, viability of the neighborhoods and communities in which they reside.(1)
If the numbers are obvious and the institutions massive, there must be a clear reason why they are not the constant targets of campaigns (though experienced community groups and unions will still be found calling ministers regularly). Often times the obvious is at play here: many churches have actually counter organized other issues that activists may have worked on. LGBT rights, abortion issues, and other social movements have seen the church in direct opposition to goals, often times being the most powerful voice on a socially conservative agenda. The perception of the church as an institution of power is relatively reasonable given the history of its development as the legitimizing wing of the state. Throughout history the church developed as the reason for the authority of the state, only separating from it officially a few hundred years ago. Today the two are still locked at the most fundamental levels since the whole notion of law, social contracts, and even American individualism were developed within the context of God’s kingdom on Earth. There is not, however, an implicit relationship between the church and the state or conservative principles that somehow supersedes any interpretation that may find itself in a progressive or radical bent. The marriage of the free market far right and conservative religious values is a recent re-imagining of what has “always been,” but for years we have seen left-wing revolutions and social movements using the rhetoric of the church to highlight equality and liberation. All of this does, however, take leaps to make political connections from any avenue, but the point that is important is that there is nothing implicit. The church is an institution that preaches transformation and egalitarian values, which means that the stage has been set for an argument to be made.
Today most churches have left the influence of the state (though some still are, and reflect the ruling elite in their membership), and a decentralized set of churches has dominated the American landscape. With the rise of the smaller churches we see even more accountability to the membership. If an issue affects the membership, it becomes an issue for the congregation and the attendants in leadership.
While continuing to parrot right-wing politicians and conservative mores, the church has historically continued to challenge many of the institutions of capitalism consistently. This is often done with the language of “corruption” or other euphemism, but the main focus is always on the things that break the sacred covenant of living a meaningful life and serving God. This is not saved for the most liberal churches or those with a historically oppressed congregation, but even the large, semi-political mega-churches. This can be seen where many churches have asked their congregation to forgo purchasing health insurance and instead have all members simply pay people’s medical bills together, which lowers their cost and gives a stake in community health support.
Most folks willing to risk arrest at an eviction blockade would easily laugh at lines like “America’s maverick spirit,” but we should at least acknowledge the unique cultural character that marks the states. Both the founding revolution and the massive war against Southern slavery were waged with religious language, the protestant reform still in high gear both as a form of puritanism and protracted progress. Throughout almost every significant movement of the people, from open rebellion to well quaffed liberal posturing, has been cased in the language of the New Testament. This permeated the language used throughout the Southern Civil Rights struggles. After the Southern Christian Leadership Conference provided the seed money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to follow in the footsteps of the sit-ins in Greensboro and Nashville, there was a strong connection between the churches and the burgeoning movement. The language that was used is especially apparent in the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and his contemporaries, often drawing parallels between the plights of the Israelites escaping Egyptian bondage. This is where we still have phrasing with terms like “Zion,” “promised land,” and “salvation” for the oppressed peoples.
In Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s classic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which was written after civil disobedience acting as President of the SCLC and working with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Here he immediately tied his struggle in the current political climate to the classic archetypes faced by Jesus.
“But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.” (3)
He continues to note the connectedness between different communities and noted that the rights that they were fighting for were not just ethical, but bestowed from on high (“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights.”) This is really only one of hundreds of examples and can be looked at as an example of where the seeds of an anti-oppression narrative were planted in many of these growing movements, which largely still remains when discussing overcoming adversity. He continued this language throughout the escalation of the confrontation with the old Southern order of legally mandated white supremacy, even becoming more explicit. Analogies straight from Biblical hardship marked his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech from April 3rd, 1968.
“Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land.” (4)
What this does is directly inserts this struggle into both a socio-historical context as well as presents it as simply a facet of a larger human struggle against oppression. From here it is easy to diversify the struggle, challenging imperialism and class inequality as he later did.
There was a back and forth relationship between the language and interpretation of the scripture by certain black churches in the American South and the necessity for a social movement that was burgeoning in the middle of the center. As Juan Williams points out in Eyes on the Prize, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was established to be a Christian specific wing of the movement developing out of the coalition of bus boycott supporting organizations. Reverend T. J. Jemison, of this organization, noted that making obvious that the SCLC was a Christian specific organization was easier to take at the time, as well as represented the membership.
“Since the NAACP was like waving a red flag in front of some southern whites, we decided that we needed an organization that would do the same thing and yet be called a Christian organization…. We Chose “Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” so they would say, ‘Well, that’s Baptist preachers,’ so they didn’t fear us.”(5)
The correlation is not vague in any way as many of these organizations coming out of the Civil Rights Movement acted as innovators in identifying the issues as housing as a new type of Jim Crow segregation. An example of this was in some of the talk of expansion at the 1966 Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Here there was a focus on taking the same analysis that targeted identified segregationist policy in the south to see how the same social systems were in place in the north without the legal framework.
In the proposal SCLC officially opined that Chicago with its housing segregation and limited educational opportunities was the “prototype of the northern urban race problem.” Having defined the Chicago problem specifically as “simply a matter of economic exploitation” that was manifested in education, building trades unions, real estate, banks and mortgage companies, slum landlords, the welfare system, federal housing agencies, the courts, the police, the political system, the city administration, and the federal government, the SCLC reiterated its philosophical approach to social chance.” (6)
From its strategic orientation in the South they jumped into a dramatically different racist infrastructure in the North, which lead directly to housing issues. They then began to target housing, among other issues, as a part of the economic oppression and targeted racism that people of color faced in larger urban centers. This analysis was by no means a reach and the politics of housing remained implicit for much of the identity of rebellion that the historically black churches had as the struggle continued. Though many of these churches, or churches that inhabit the same social space that the active civil rights churches had, are no longer active in social struggle, their legitimacy in the community was still founded on their history of activism. The focus has continued over the years as housing justice often takes a less controversial stand in its moral and ideological implications than other intersecting struggles. A good example of this is with the Communities Creating Opportunity project in Kansas City as a coalition project between “faith and community leaders.” The primary focus of this was to target the destruction of their Southeastern neighborhoods and have had a sequence of campaigns since the seventies such as a focus on creating basic services for poor neighborhoods, helping with utilities, targeting fair lending and “economic empowerment, and their new “healthy communities” project. (7)
As the history of the American Civil Rights movement, as well as pretty much every other social movement, the dimensions of what kind of religious institutions are involved is not fixed. As came in the later years, the Islamic communities became a major fulcrum of civic engagement. It is even here that it was noted that the dividing line of participation cannot simply be membership to a particular faith or congregation, and inclusiveness needs to be paramount. Malcolm X spoke directly about this as it became necessary to see all religions and ideological positions supporting black emancipation as being important allies.
Although I’m still a Muslim, I’m not here tonight to discuss my religion. I’m not here to try and change your religion. I’m not here to argue or discuss anything that we differ about, because it’s time for us to submerge our differences and realize that it is best for us to first see that we have the same problem, a common problem, a problem that will make you catch hell whether you’re a Baptist, or a Methodist, or a Muslim, or a nationalist. Whether you’re educated or illiterate, whether you live on the boulevard or in the alley, you’re going to catch hell just like I am. (8)
It is here that we can begin to see that the multi-faith approach can already be embedded in the religious community, and years of interfaith work in the past may pay off now in finding congregations of different faiths coming together in common social projects.
The Center for Responsible Lending has documented the statistical face of foreclosure in America and has proven what many of us knew intuitively: people of color are more at risk. As with any form of inequality, the inclusion of racial minority status simply inflates that already victimizing class position. 21.6% of black family homeowners remain at risk of imminent foreclosure, coming from more than sixty days of payment delinquency. This is true for only 14.8% of white families, and every non-white racial category is still higher than whites. While this may be obvious for most situations of financial hardship, what it also shows us is the color of the neighborhoods and what types of churches affected neighborhoods may be tied to. With 790 black families likely to lose their homes for every 10,000, only 452 white families will. Unemployment rates also follow this trend with black families consistently seeing a higher unemployment rate in under every condition. (9)
While the idea of civic engagement, resistance to the conventional social order (whatever that may mean for them), and the support of individual congregation members may be in tact, it will be more challenging to shift that charity mentality to one of solidarity. Churches have long built a foundation of community engagement on the notion that they must help the least fortunate among the community, usually reflected in the poor and those with disabilities. The church calls on its congregation to engage in “God’s work” by recognizing those in need and making sacrifices to help. This is fundamentally presented in a moralistic framework, which only makes sense since the church is a moral institution. This is always going to be a starting point, but is also a place where some of the greatest issues with church engagement can be seen. While the charity mentality is often a leap from the kind of alienation that the consumer culture of late capitalism creates, it is a far cry from the solidarity that can create mass revolutionary movements. The neighborhood movement is going to be successful through the mass solidarity of neighbors. This transpires because of its necessity, not its place as a moral point system. People will engage in the kind of organizing that can permanently transform neighborhood social and commercial relationships when it is materially advantageous, not simply because they feel ethically compelled. The labor movement, for example, did not find success simply because people thought it was just a nice thing to do for each other. This means that when targeting organizing campaigns through churches this charity mentality needs to be acknowledged and then developed into the type of logical solidarity, whereby each member of the congregation can see the benefits of standing in support. Luckily, many congregations continue to use this language of solidarity in their spiritual education, and now it just needs to be transferred to the practical organizing world.
It should be noted, however, that it continues to be the most central area where people in a community engage in volunteer activities and essentially determine for the community what has moral value. Again, Dorothy Day asserts that the church as an institution serves to turn the individualistic elements of the congregations into a system to reach outside of themselves.
Congregations are further attractive to community organizations because of their ongoing work of producing social capital. Central to their institutional purpose is the building of consensus through the reinforcement of values and worldview. Congregations are the only institutions in communities in which volunteers participate for the purpose of individual and collective systems of meaning-making. As individualistic as congregations can be in their interpretation of transformation, there is necessarily an ethos of transcendence, connecting members to that which is outside of themselves. Members therefore participate regularly in affirming that they are part of a larger purpose and reality. Further, most congregations of all faiths reinforce the value of public participation and service. In message and program, most congregations encourage some form of engagement with the public.” (1)
This process may be necessary no matter what the context since it is important to transfer the idea of what makes change from the individual to the collective. If presented in the context of economic inequality the church can often be bypassed from the more reactionary forms of “social engagement” it delivers to members, such as anti-gay and anti-choice activism.
This “moral” inspiration is not going to be inherently alienating. It is important to consistently understand the language conventionally used within the church is substantially different than that used in organizing circles since one developed out of a system of power, and the other a system to challenge power. The churches today rest on a moral imperative that is not necessarily legally backed up by the state, but is still present in the minds of parishioners. This is the very element that can be of issue for many in radical communities since these moral values often reflect sexual repression, heterosexism, and submission. At the same time, these values are additionally expressed as compassion, support, understanding, forgiveness, and other qualities that are crucial to building human communities and social movements that can challenge inhumane structures. This sense of moral obligation to the social order is intact in most congregations, even those not conventionally associated with social movements. An example is from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, whose tagline is “working to end poverty and injustice in the United States.” Their organization has worked to answer questions as to why Catholics should engage in community organizing when they had not otherwise been exposed to it.
Becoming involved in community organizing efforts is one way Catholics can exercise their moral responsibility to participate in public life. ‘It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This obligation is inherent in the dignity of the human person’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1913). …Community organizing puts Catholic social teaching principles into action when such efforts are geared toward protecting the dignity of the human person, ensuring that basic human rights are fulfilled, and inviting individuals and institutions to carry out their duties and responsibilities. Community organizing brings together people of varied socio-economic, ethnic, and religious.” (10)
They continue to reference the unionization tactics of Saul Alinsky as an inspiration for their organizing strategy and goals, which was becoming somewhat common around its 1968 formation. Now this language does play itself out as electoral reform and class-collaborationist methods (since they are not suddenly going to excommunicate the rich), but this is merely an example of the language implicit. The reality is that manifestations of this “moral responsibility” have run from reactionary support for Fascist dictators to the most radical forms of Liberation Theology. The point here is that the desire is implicit to transform the congregates into a block of people with the ability to make change, and it is up to those in the housing campaign to investigate and find what types of congregations may share the idea that this change begins with community control over land and housing.
The sense of charity that churches do have has long been channeled directly into the people that Jesus mentioned in red ink: the poor and hungry. There are over 3,000 registered homeless shelters, the majority still being operated by churches. Feeding America reports that fifty-five percent of soup kitchens and food pantries are affiliated with some type of church or faith based agency (Feeding America). Beyond this, rehabilitation centers, clothing drives, and other projects are directly targeting people with housing insecurity already within the church overview.
Additionally, civic engagement by churches has often been perceived to be limited by either adherence to the rule of law or some type of strict pacifism. While laws are often things that create barriers, this is more because the people involved may be new to creating a direct challenge and therefore see the idea of illegality and arrest as ominous. The issue of non-violence tends to actually be a non-issue in almost all situations as, strategically, non-violent civil disobedience is much more expedient for mass movements in which the churches may engage. The church often fits into the more clearly “anti-violence” point of view that is in line with most anti-authoritarian positions, which looks more specifically at creating a society and culture that is opposed to violence and coercion of all sorts. It may be seen that because of this non-violence then self-defense when immediately challenged could be out of the question, which actually creates quite a problem when people are putting themselves at risk and have a strict pacifism. This is kind of strict pacifism is actually a radicalism of its own tradition, basing itself on the idea that incurring the violence of others is a noble and effective protest tool. While there may be a lot of respect for this approach both inside the church and the inside the larger activist community, it is actually a lot more diverse in the church movements of the past. Even Martin Luther King Jr. used to discuss that there is a range of approaches when it comes to nonviolence.
The principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi, who sanctioned it for those unable to master pure nonviolence.” (11)
As was mentioned before, this is largely a non-issue since violent clashes are not a normal part of housing justice work. What is more important about this distinction is that it notes that there is not an implicit position on tactics from the church, but instead a thoughtful approach. Since it is not useful to engage in violence against agents of the state in these situations, then non-violence is an adequate tactical approach. What is different, and perhaps a good thing to appropriate, is that violence is thought of within a moral framework rather than a tactical one.
This focus on housing instability and poverty has two important factors to it. First, they are already often dealing in these issues at some level. This means that they have institutions and agencies that already target housing issues in that they either provide people with some sort of shelter, temporary housing, or housing assistance. This means that they are essentially working in the same field, yet seeing different outcomes and targeting a different part of the fundamental problem. Organizers working in radical housing solutions are rightfully immediately critical of this Band-Aid approach, but these services are still badly needed in our current situation and they are often driven from the same ethical place.
The second is that the people involved in this work have already been exposed to the reality of the current housing crisis in very intimate ways. This means it is much easier to present systemic arguments about what must be done to combat the rising rates of homelessness and the deteriorating communities. For individuals completely insulated from this, even those going through hardship themselves can sometimes not see the emotional enormity of what is actually happening in real people’s lives. The statistical news report about foreclosure rates has walked directly into these peoples’ daily lives as they participate in their church’s community engagement projects. What many people even forget is that many folks involved in these projects used to depend on them for essential services, and all people involved have long experiences with the reality of homelessness in an area. This is often lacking from radical community spaces where there is still a romantic perception of squatting and where the groups are still predominantly white, males, and, at least marginally, class privileged.
We see a housing justice movement that primarily needs to grow, increasing its connection to affected people, and developing more areas of resistance and confrontation. When we look at the religious spaces and organizations as areas to work with this does not simply mean a place to recruit for existing organizations, though that should always be an option provided to people within them. Instead, there should be the development of a coalition atmosphere that is necessary to create the kind of mass movement that actually gets people inspired to participate. Allow the church to engage on their terms with their names. This can be done in a useful way be simply presenting them options for how to participate that are deemed useful for the campaigns and organizing that is actually happening. If this option is too narrow they may pass because they don’t see their own principles and ideas directly represented, and if the options are too varied and open to interpretation then you will often see churches attempting to either create their own project or simply do support and charity work. Instead, show them that this is a movement where they can begin support the actual organizing that is happening because it ties in with their history, their stated mission, their ideas about social justice, and the issues that affect their congregation. Simply having a church show up as the church to a protest or event is going to be a great first step.
The church can also be a major outpost in the community as the organizations and movements expand. Regional and local meeting spaces are important so that neighbors can develop a working affinity for each other, which can be difficult if an organization only has one meeting space and time. Instead, as a housing organization grows it can begin to have neighborhood or regionally specific meeting spaces and times where people of that neighborhood organize specifically for their neighborhood, yet still stay connected to the larger organization and movement for support and building. The churches can then possibly be these outposts, especially since they have such a connection to those communities already. This is incredibly true for meeting and event spaces, which community groups often request from churches already. If we begin expanding and start seeing that the churches can be locations for different neighborhood breakaway groups, and those congregations are then getting involved, we are seeing sustainable growth through the influx of the faithful.
Like any organization, the church can become a place in which to agitate. The focus of religious rhetoric is often transformational, especially when looking as the messianic traditions a model for transforming the self into a spiritual life. This can often be interpreted as an introverted goal, bringing the change in the self. This can be positioned next to an extroverted interpretation of scripture that says we should also reach out and transform the world around us, beginning with relationships and then with the fundamental shift of values in a society. This is a point of conflict on which to begin to transform the conversation and to deal with the church like any institution that someone begins to work with. There are dualities everywhere and a dialectic that can be formed, and it is easy to see a way to begin showing how to put many of the values expressed into concrete action in the community. This does not necessarily attempt to alter the point of view that the church tends to hold about religious theology, but instead how the tenets are to be practiced.
This does not, however, mean that it is advantageous to undermine the spiritual work of the church as a way of getting people further involved. This can lead to incredibly cynical and unhealthy forms of manipulation using the same religious language that leaders have for years. Instead, it is great to simply think about this as a social institution that shares certain values with the people organizing and a place where tactics, the methods used to achieve the goals of those values, can be argued. Here the language may simply be a little different, but the end results of engagement could be the same.
Each church begins to redefine its own interpretation of the social struggles it approaches, even in minor ways. This is often affected by the larger bodies attached to the church in governance, but churches are more often rogue agents within a larger conservative body. There are very few religious denominations that do not have minority agents within them that take stances that are individualistic, such as Catholic congregations that support LGBT struggles and membership. What happens, however, is that most of the perspectives on a given topic are achieved at with relatively limited engagement. This can again create an avenue for community movements connecting since the way that the issue is defined is up for interpretation. When well presented and connected arguments and actions are made directly to the church’s congregation and leadership you help to create a hard analysis that connects their ethical and social ideas in a way that is much more concrete. In this way you help to add definition to their own perspective of what social engagement is simply by creating a solid example that they do not have a tactical objection to. This can, in turn, affect their approach to other issues by helping to shift what they believe the spiritual necessity of their church is. This could then have a positive effect on the intersecting struggles around anti-austerity, human rights, and environmental movements.
A church’s congregation is not going to be a universal one in terms of ideas, class consciousness, ability to engage, and so on. According to recent Gallup polls, people who identify as conservative and republican make up the largest political identity in the church at fifty-five percent. This compared to Democrats at thirty-nine percent and Liberal at twenty-seven percent. The average age is dramatically over fifty and more than half are from the geographical American South. Though most people engaging in direct action focused organizing would dismiss that much of the “liberal” body will make up much of a support system, it does say in what direction the politics of the congregants may lie. This may make values discussion in certain congregations incredibly difficult. For example, if you present the idea that extreme poverty is a negative aspect of the current housing problem there may be a politically conservative response that attempts to counteract that logic by resorting to racism, meritocracy, and free market arguments. (12)
While the political edge may lie on the conservative side, fifty-five percent of the congregations still identify as black. Beyond this, different Hispanic groupings are also much more highly represented than whites. This presents an opportunity since many of these communities are much more heavily affected in rates of foreclosure and eviction (as was mentioned before), and many of the churches also have a history of activism from earlier civil rights, labor, and immigration struggles. This often presents a space where this particular issue may be acceptable to the church, while most congregants may still not be on board with LGBT issues.
What this presents is a strategic choice for how you want to go about the interaction. First, some churches can simply be written off as not compatible. This could happen simply because they refuse to engage, or their body and leadership retains a too entrenched sense of bigotry and political ignorance. At the same time, you may find that some congregations are mixed, yet it is in a strategic area and may have a lot of great congregants who want to get involved. In these situations it may be a good place to begin the challenge of really doing the work to argue ideas and to separate regressive bigoted ideas away from the engagement of the congregation. Separating out those who would disrupt progress is something that happens in almost all communities across the globe as people fight for change, and inside the institutions that share our work should be the same place. Just as racists, sexists, homophobes, and anti-worker ideas should be marginalized in unions and community organizations, they should be split inside the church as well. In these cases you can even attempt to create a “safe space” atmosphere where bigotry and anti-worker congregants no longer feel welcome. If certain congregations become divided on social and political lines you will also begin to see them as a militant force for certain ideas within the faith communities themselves, and eventually long-term allies on a range of issues.
So the question is now where we seem to be at in relationship to the churches? This is the most fundamental question since it is an assessment about where we may have strongholds already. If the answer to this were that the churches have never been engaged around the issue of housing inequality then it would be mute, as it would take too much start up time, rebranding, and new dialogues to see it as a grounded seedling of growth. The reverse is actually true in housing justice circles as churches were engaged from the beginning, but the scale can only improve now that the foundation has been laid in many communities. There has always been the relationship between certain churches and traditionally “progressive” causes such as LGBT issues, anti-war movements, and women’s rights. These have not been universal by any means. An example is the recent string of anti-Monsanto protests that swept the globe. While you will see the usual congregations such as Unitarians, liberal Christian groups, and progressive Jesuit bodies, you additionally saw conservative and isolationist sects like Mennonites. This is because the issue affected them very personally in that Monsanto’s seed patents and GMOs had a direct result on their farming economy, and therefore they were inspired to get further involved. This example is one of many, and what we have to do is to look at this general network of “single issue” churches and see what ones would logically want to be involved. The Mennonites, for example, may be inspired to be involved in more rural branches of the movement if farm foreclosure is a serious issue that begins to come up. The general interest progressive churches can often be assumed, but they are not always going to be the strong hold of where people affected by foreclosure are. The challenge is to further engage the neighborhood churches in urban areas, which are often used for economic resources and as community centers. Assessments should additionally be made in other congregations with the idea that they are likely only going to match up if they have a connection to the issue through existing work and congregation demographics. The economic downturn has seen real and sustained increase in church attendance universally (alcohol sales are also up), and so new and those with recently increased attendance will likely be discussing these very issues right up front. Church attendance is also often aligned with requests for economic support, so these are often places where people are in serious need.
Sustaining involvement is also going to be a different animal altogether as the kind of respect that is put on the clergy far supersedes anything that community organizations usually encounter, especially those with anti-authoritarian outlooks. The pulpit often legitimizes participation in a social movement when tied to the church, so appealing to the leadership may be unusually important. This can also be problematic because this means that a few church leaders have the ability to undermine the democratic structure of a group, and it also may bring in certain submissiveness. This simply needs to be acknowledged and then combated by having a truly anti-authoritarian praxis within the group that sees when informal power structures are taking shape, which outside authorities are creeping in, and when people appear unable to grow as leaders. It also means that there is going to have to be a particular language that congregants are going to have to get used to, so it should be understood that there may be some communication issues between seasoned organizers are church goers new to getting on the ground.
Sustaining membership will also mean that it will be important to actually create a long standing working relationship with the church, which means you cannot simply use them for the launching pad of membership or local groups (as mentioned above). The success of the housing movement comes from having sustained involvement in the community to fight foreclosure, resist evictions, and create community support networks. While participation for large fights is great, it is long-term commitment that really brings about systemic change. This means that courting the church’s social engagement wing is going to take time since you will need to the participation of both the congregation and the leadership over a long-term period.
Some of the other elements of creating a long-term collaboration is going to be more difficult and can actually create a great deal of issues. As has been mentioned throughout, many churches are on the vanguard of reactionary and bigoted issues. Anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-women, and anti-worker are claims that are rightfully leveled against many churches working in mass capacities, and we can even see the rise of the free market right in the 80s by the leveraging of this voting block. While the churches we are attempting to reach out to are by and large not of this conventional grouping, many still have split consciousness. They may recognize that the working class is under assault in workplaces and neighborhoods, but still support “a traditional definition of marriage.” They may be willing to fight the banks with civil disobedience in people’s front yards, but they may still see a women’s right to choose as the killing of a child. There are even times when this anti-capitalist perspective comes from a deeply conservative place, which creates even more profound problems. As was mentioned, this can create an issue simply for first approaches, but it also presents a problem for sustained involvement.
Most activists involved in the housing justice movement have been involved in a range of activities. This is obvious in the connection between movements like Take Back the Land, Occupy Our Homes, Occupy Wallstreet, and various new projects. This overlap also extends to social and cultural issues, which is important since topics like queer liberation and women’s health are intersectional to class issues. When a church may be the target of movements aimed at their policy on sex education or abortion access, the church will then create negative profiles of certain individuals and associated groups that they may then be partnering with on the housing work. This is a problem that basically cannot be remedied in any meaningful way, as there is no reason people should begin to leave behind other incredibly important organizing work. What it does mean, however, is that anti-religious bigotry that is not assigned to a specific issue should be checked at the door. These institutions have often been on one of the most conservative wing of reactionary cultural responses, but that does not define them en masse and should not be used to pre-judge a specific institution. This is really a matter of responsibility and respect that should be fostered.
Personally, this situation has played out in my own life. As an organizer working on anti-fracking work several years ago there was a large protest in Washington D.C. that the entire Marcellus Shale network mobilized for. Several of us went down and had to find places to stay, and one of the places that offered up space was local church. The sanctuary was made into a sleeping quarter for several people. Several of those people immediately decided to vandalize several of the religious icons in the church, later stating that it is a response to the church’s anti-women and anti-gay ideas. This church then banned all activists from staying there, pulled their entire funding and congregation out of the movement, and was never heard from again. Several other people were forced to give financial compensation to them for some of the damage. This was completely unnecessary, as most people would recognize, but it happens on a smaller scale consistently when radicals and the church collide. It is important to set standards for what is acceptable in a community space and what is not. If a church, its congregation, or its leadership violate anti-oppression and anti-authoritarian policies of groups and spaces then they should be dealt with accordingly, but many of these churches try and respect these notions to begin with and are moving forward. If a church is itself involved actively in right-wing organizing yet still support the housing work, this may be a sign that the problems and chasms are simply to great to overcome.
Creating a long-term relationship in struggle also means uniting what success looks like. Churches fundamentally always look for converts, though for many churches this simply means a spiritual conversion rather than a new congregant. Our success is based on meeting the material goals in the movement, always moving in the fundamental goal of radically reshaping how housing works in our society and economy. Those goals must become one on some level, meaning the church needs to eventually see this transformation as a reflection of spiritual success. This again comes through agitation, but also comes from successfully connecting vague spiritual ideas to concrete, real-world situations. This happened perfectly in both the abolitionist and mid-twentieth century civil rights struggles, and this economic message has been floating around the churches for that entire span. Periods of austerity and foreclosure are the perfect moment to revitalize that discussion within the church.
Though many of the churches have decentralized and sacrificed controlling wings within the state, there is still a clear influence between the idea of the church and the political establishment. This does not mean that we can use the legitimacy of the church to make huge gains through lobbying (though if a church is intent on lobbying for housing equality, they can be my guest), especially since we know that class power comes through direct action and the state primarily serves the interests of capital. Instead, it simply presents another arguing force whose logic is already reflected in the halls of power. When a politician cites their religion in one speech, and congregants and leaders from said religion are voicing claims towards housing justice, this presents a problem for the political posturing. This happens across the board in Washington and Wall Street and can be a form of moral shaming. This is not going to make any of the needed gains on their own, but helps to soften the climate, which we will need to cut through with a sharpened blade.
We can see text appearing in history books virtually in front of us, declaring the state of our movements, as they will be looked back on my more critical eyes. The massive rate of foreclosure, eviction, and displacement is often put into the context of a crisis of personal responsibility, but that could never explain the mass transformation for the worse that has happened block by block. Though many people have tried to present contemporary conflicts as the “new civil rights movement,” this has the capacity to fit into a larger anti-austerity movement that fits the same bill. The civil rights era is quoted so often because it was successful, so successful in fact that people can hardly even exist as counters to its gains. The labor movement is often comparable in successfully achieving its goals, but since it has consistently been under attack from the managerial class and has seen many of its advances repealed it is hard to view it with such an unquestionable place in society. The civil rights movement both made substantial political and social gains, but it also forced a cultural shift where by even the ideas that propelled its opposition are no longer considered welcome. We are going to have to compel the moral institutions, such as the church, to again force this distinction ahead, allowing the kind of victim blaming that happens so much in a home foreclosure and eviction to be forcefully removed from the conversation. We have to reprioritize the values that we have in our society, and this does not come just from a powerful movement that creates material change.
History only looks favorable on success stories. If we want the outcome to have the same perception looking backward that we have with the ethical considerations we have of the movement, then we need to give it the kind of force that can actually challenge the existing power structures. Dual power structures have never been allowed to permanently exist simultaneously; one must demolish the other. Hopefully we can force it to be humane this time.
The real issue here is how to engage people where they exist in their communities. Mass movements erupt when the contradictions in the system become apparent, the community is able to find a way to join together, and institutions that break through apathy and conformity exist and are utilized. The church is, in and of itself, a paradox and a living contradiction. While exhibiting some of the worst elements of authoritarian and essentialist culture, it also exists as a counter to the alienation of consumer capitalism and the inability to connect with your neighbor. The goal here is to work with the parts we want and develop ways to separate it from the baggage it still holds.
(1) Day, Donna C. “Church-based Community Organizing: Philadelphia Perspectives.” Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
(3) King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” April 16, 1963. Collected in Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader. Ed. Carson, Clayborne, David J. Garrow, Gerald Gill, Vincent Harding, Darlene Clark Hine. Hudson Stree, NY. Blackside, Inc. 1991. ( pp.153-158)
(4) King, Jr., Martin Luther. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” Mason Temple, Memphis, TN. April 3rd, 1968.
(5) Jemison, T.J., quoted by Juan Williams. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965. Blackside, Inc., 1987. (pp. 89)
(6) Hine, Darlene Clark. “Two Societies (1965-1968).” Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader. Ed. Carson, Clayborne, David J. Garrow, Gerald Gill, Vincent Harding, Darlene Clark Hine. Hudson Stree, NY. Blackside, Inc. 1991. (pp. 288-89)
(7) “About Us.” Unlocking the Power of People. http://www.cco.org/about
(8) Malcolm X. “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Cleveland, OH. April 3, 1964. http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/speeches/malcolm_x_ballot.html.
(9) Bocian, Debbie Gruenstein, Wei Li, and Keith S. Ernst. “Foreclosures by Race and Ethnicity: The Demographics of a Crisis.” Center for Responsible Lending. June 18, 2010.
(10) “Community Organizing.” Catholic Campaign for Human Development. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Revised: September 20, 2011.
(11) King Jr., Martin Luther. “The Social Organization of Non-Violence.” October 1959. Collected in Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader. Ed. Carson, Clayborne, David J. Garrow, Gerald Gill, Vincent Harding, Darlene Clark Hine. Hudson Stree, NY. Blackside, Inc. 1991. ( pp.112-114)
(12) Gallup. Republican Base Heavily White, Conservative, Religious. Gallup Politics. June 1, 2009.