Community organizing as interfaith action

Hi there. This is my first guest post at NPS, which Chris has been trying to get from me for months and months. We first started corresponding after he noticed some comments I was leaving on his posts concerning EDMD. In real life, we’ve never met in person. Which is a little odd. Not only did we spend some time studying simultaneously at schools with adjacent campuses (Meadville Lombard and the University of Chicago), we have several mutual acquaintances, mostly through the intersection between his interfaith work and my involvement in community organizing.

This post is in part a plea to enlarge that region of intersection. -Toby

Christians protect praying Muslims during protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt

As regular readers of NPS know, recent weeks have offered up a series of disheartening displays of Islamophobia in America. A few days ago we witnessed Rep. Peter King ‘s hearings into the loyalties of American Muslims, reenacting some of the most shameful periods of modern history. Not long before, 2 elderly Sikh men were gunned down in a suspected case of Islamophobia combined with an incapacity to distinguish between Muslims and Sikhs. And just a few days before that, we were confronted with the grotesque spectacle of protesters (including elected officials) hurling slogans of hate against a group of Muslims attending a fundraiser, and telling them to “go home”. Many of those Muslims were, of course, American, and know no other home than the US. As for the fundraiser, it was being held to support women’s shelters, among other good works.

These are also difficult times for those concerned with issues of social and environmental justice. As far too many people have their attention focused on the spectre of sharia law overtaking America and other fictional dangers, here in the real world we face an ongoing foreclosure crisis, an unemployment crisis, struggling small businesses, unfolding disasters in the global environment and in local environments here and abroad, and on and on.

I believe that these two sets of enormous problems are akin to a system of equations in mathematics: they share a common solution.* In this moment of economic and ecological crises lies a tremendous opportunity to heal the wounds that currently exist, not only between Muslims and Islamophobes, but between all people who stand on opposite sides of the countless lines of suspicion and division which currently scar the face of humanity. There are two components to this. First, there is a clear and present need to address these crises. Second, if any individual or parochial group is to do so, sooner or later the time will come when they will be forced to reach outside of whatever bubble might enclose them, to join hands and stand in solidarity with those they may have been taught to fear and despise.

Consider one example: people of all religions (or none at all), of all races or ethnicities, from every point in the spectrum of gender and sexuality, are becoming increasingly agitated around the foreclosure crisis. Maybe my own home is in foreclosure, maybe my neighbourhood is being ravaged by foreclosures. Or maybe this is happening to my relatives or friends or people at my place of worship. In any case, the foreclosure crisis is hitting me personally, and so I feel the urgent need to do something about it. But now what can I do? If I am working as an individual, very little. Even where there are programs in place which say that people are “supposed” to get modifications that will keep them in their homes, the banks rarely cooperate. How can this be? The banks are free to act with impunity due, ultimately, to their immense wealth, which yields them immense power.

Now, I can’t compete in terms of wealth. But what I do have, if I get together with others who share these same concerns, is people power. (In community organizing we divide power into two main forms: organized money, and organized people.) But is it enough for me to get together just with the people in my community, however tightly I draw that boundary: that small segment of the population whom I know and get along with, the people who look like me and think like me? In this situation, no. Rather, I need as many allies and partners as I can get. Whoever or whatever you might be, and no matter what I might have been taught to think about you, if you are also out to stop waves of foreclosures and change how the banks deal with homeowners, then I need you. If I am Islamophobic and you are Muslim, I still need you. Similarly, if I am racist against African Americans, and you are African American; if I am homophobic and you are LGBTQ; if I am antisemitic and you are Jewish; if I am a male chauvinist and you are a powerful and outspoken woman; if my heritage is marked by persecution at the hands of Christians or white people, and you are Christian or white… I still need you to be on my side, and I need to be on yours. And that means I cannot afford to continue to be against you. This brings me to a confrontation between the fearful fantasies in my mind, and the urgent needs that press upon me in reality. And here I think we find ideal conditions for reality to get the upper hand against fantasy.

This is more than a dream. It is something that happens. It is even backed by psychological research. I have myself caught glimpses of what is possible, through my involvement in grassroots community organizing that brings people together in common struggle around shared issues, cutting across lines of religion, class, race, gender, and sexuality. And I hope to say more about this in a future post.

* I would also argue that the there is a causal connection between economic and environmental injustice, and a great deal of the intolerance we see in the US today. I think it is vital that interfaith activists come to grips with the extent to which the flames of hatred are fanned by those with a vested interest in distracting the populace from real issues threatening our livelihoods and the habitability of the planet. What I have in mind here is corporate power.

Toby Chow is currently studying for a PhD in philosophy at the University of Chicago. He is a leader in SOUL, a community organization on the Southside and South Suburbs of Chicago, and chairs SOUL’s task force on bank accountability. He is also a member of the Soutside Solidarity Network, a student group at the UofC focused on community organizing, and of Augustana Lutheran Church of Hyde Park, both of which are member organizations of SOUL. Follow him on twitter @tobitac.

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