Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Moving Beyond Clout and Towards Direct Action Organizing

The room was full of one of the oddest assortments of folks I've ever seen. Ages ranged from 2 years old to seventy-odd-years old, though the toddler did not participate as much as the senior citizen. The group was fully multi-ethnic and multi-lingual. There was also a very obvious wide range formal education and personal health. Folks represented churches, labor unions, community groups, businesses, senior citizens centers, and just their blocks.

And oh-my-God it was chaotic.

I went to a community meeting last Thursday to discuss and plan actions to bring back a city bus to run on 31st Street in Chicago, and that is what I saw. It was beautiful in the way that uncleaned home is when you unexpectedly visit it. It was a brutally honest view of my neighborhood, just letting it all hang out there. People rambled. People ranted. People got up and left entirely. People ran up and down the room squealing (okay, that was just the toddler).

Ah, community organizing in Bridgeport, Chicago.

See, I've recently committed to staying more in Bridgeport to get to know the neighborhood and hopefully draw the very diverse crowds together into some sort of working community group that can speak and act on its own accord. There are several campaigns going on in Bridgeport currently--to shut down the dirty coal power plants and to bring back the 31st Street bus, just to name two--but they're largely organized by outside organizations like the Sierra Club, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, and the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization. I am very glad that groups are organizing my neighbors, but it touches a bit of a nerve.

The philosophy can be summed up in a favorite quote from Mother Teresa: "Don't wait for strong leaders; do it alone, person to person." I try to reframe the quote a bit to focus on collective action, but the point remains that we shouldn't wait for others to do what we can do ourselves. Of course the counterargument is strong as well. One middle-aged woman at the bus meeting insisted that we before we put too much effort into doing it ourselves, we need to get the one Daley brother still in the neighborhood to fight for us. After all, the Daleys' got clout, y'know?

I'm all for good advocacy. As a Christian, it is my duty to speak and act for those who can't do it themselves. However, especially as good ol' American citizens, we depend too much on our elected leaders. We lull ourselves into passive outrage and eventual apathetic disillusionment as we continue to vote for congresspeople and presidents that won't get the job done. We believe that America is exceptional, that its representative democracy is unique in the world, that the grand experiment of the Founding Fathers was an unquestioned success.

And if you believe that, then I have bridge to sell you. For the exact amount of my college debt. Cash preferred.

In Bridgeport, this myth was manifested by the Mayors Daley, Richard J. and Richard M, and life was good. While the neighborhood's favorite sons ruled city hall (for a combined 43 years), life was good. Streets were well paved, crime was low, city were jobs abundant. Oh, and only white people lived there. But wait, Daley the Younger didn't stay in Bridgeport...and neither did all the nice things.

So the myth is shattered these days. While Bridgeporters thank God that they're not like the rest of the South Side, they spit venom when talking about North Side politics. I hope that we will stomp the shards of this myth even more.

The more I get involved in community and labor organizing, I become more and more convinced that the most effective methods of effecting social change lie in what the Midwest Academy calls self-help and direct action. Self-help is an action that a group does by itself to accomplish its goal without the help others. Cooperatives, whether worker- or resident-run, would be a particularly imaginative example. It could also be as simple as a community crime watch group.

Direct action means classic organizing to pressure others to do what you want. It challenges standard operating procedures and hierarchies. It can be as little as a letter with a lot signatures or as dramatic as civil disobedience. It is not getting someone elected--it is getting the folks whom you elected to do what you want.

In local politics, even politics as complicated and corrupt as Chicago city politics, I have seen how this "grassroots" organizing can really change things for the better. It might take a long time, and it might require a stroke of luck as much really smart strategy (like a certain sitting mayor deciding not to run for another term). National politics is a much different, more frustrating beast which I won't discuss in this post.

In Bridgeport I am seeing the beginnings of both of self-help and direct action. Our alley isn't plowed of snow yet? Fine. We will shovel our own alley, having a wonderful, community-building time while doing it. And then we will take that snow and block the 11th Ward office with it. Do you see how self-help and direct action can quite happily work together?

So--I amend Mother Teresa's quote. Don't wait for strong leaders; do it together, person to person.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Why I Am Uncomfortable with Mission

Mission work in the Christian church is booming all over the world, and I am very honored and blessed to be a full time missionary of the United Methodist Church.


Talk to young people in missions today, and you will very likely hear that contrarian conjunction drifting off into the ellipsis of thoughts uncomfortable. Young people in churches love to go on mission trips. I have heard from many different sources that the mission trip today has taken the place of summer camp in previous generations. However, short-term mission trips often allow the participant to be a “religious tourist”, as one young pastor recently put it, and she is not any different from when she is at youth group.

She would not likely call herself a missionary.

I do call myself a missionary. It’s kinda what I do.

This does not make me any kind of academic expert on missions. There is a branch of ecclesiology called “missiology”, and I am but a casual reader. Having said that, I do still have a voice and opinion of some weight. I think the official commissioning grants me that much. And so that allows me to speak of my, and my young adult colleagues’, uncomfortableness (not quite discomfort, mind you) with being identified as a missionary.

Let me explain more. During my missionary training we did an exercise one night where we drew pictures with crayons of what we think of when we hear the word “missionary”. There were pictures of hearts and crosses and perhaps a physiological representation of femininity. Keep an open mind, please. I drew a scene from “Heart of the Darkness”, the influential novel by Joseph Conrad about rescuing a civilized Englishman from his own madness deep in the Congo jungle. There was a Bible, a flag, a musket, and a mysterious collection of greens and browns and blacks meeting the edge of a river. You see, by end of my undergraduate experience I had learned of the parts of missions that I hadn’t learned in Sunday school. Like how conquistadors had priests with them to baptize indigenous people as they were being slaughtered. Or how the mission outpost doubled as a fortress for the imperial forces of Europe (think “Things Fall Apart”). In the colonial context which I was trying to draw, imperialist violence was almost always accompanied by the presence of a clergyman, who often gave his blessing to the expansion of Christendom over the devil’s dominion of the heathen. 

That is not really something I want to connect myself to.

But I still chose to go into the mission field. I like to think that my reasons were quite different than the imperialist accompaniment of the conquest of the New World.

See, for me, mission, in the Christian context, in the 21st century, is much more about connecting groups of people who are normally separated by vast geographical and cultural distances. For example, the average Methodist church with a children’s choir and the occasional pot luck dinner will not have much of a concept of what people in Ulaanbaatar are like. Nor will the Mongolians know really what people in Iowa are really like. However, the missionary connects these two groups in the love and grace of Christ that knows no boundaries. The Iowan church will then likely support the ministry of the missionary in Mongolia, hopefully in a financial way because, believe you me, mission work rarely lands you in a penthouse apartment.
And that brings us to a very interesting discussion about the differences and the interplay of ministry and mission. Really, I believe the differences are more or less just semantic, but let’s just accept for now that they are different. Individual churches, eklesias, have ministries, like youth group or Sunday school or music or collecting food for pick-up to the local food pantry. It is something local and routine. However, mission requires you to go outside of your routine and your comfort zone, which likely means you aren’t staying local either. It does not require you to travel long distances, but perhaps you may have cross 49th Street to the “real South Side”. Or indeed get on a bus or train or plane or ship and cross time zones. The point is that mission work is not terribly routine, and that break from the routine requires a leap of faith. Hence the commissioning ceremony that brought tears to my eyes last fall.

What motivates that leap of faith is what truly separates my generation’s thoughts of mission from those who were commissioned long before us. For me, it is compassion, mercy, and justice. God broke my heart with the terrors and evils of the larger world, filled me with righteous indignation, and now I work to clear some metaphorical money changing out of my Creator’s temple. It not so much about converting the unbelievers as it is helping people find Christ where they already are. And giving the devil a swift kick in the captain’s quarters. With picket signs. And TV cameras, if possible.

Glory and Jacob Dharmaraj write in their small book, Mutuality in Mission, “the ultimate goal of Christian mission is to make men and women fully human—the way God wants them to be—not merely turn them into religious or spiritual beings” (7). That is something I can connect with. There may be parts of a certain group’s behavior that really isn’t compatible with the Way of Christ—be it corporate greed or child brides—and we then must help those men and women become more fully human. That is a very difficult thing to do because I for one know I am not very good at being fully human all the time. However, if indeed, as missionaries, short-term or long-term, we share the love of Christ with everyone and bridge the gaps that divide the body of Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven is truly coming on earth.

And I am most comfortable with that concept.