“Creative maladjustment,” King’s riff on Paul’s message in Romans 12:2 emphasized by Adam Taylor in his new book Mobilizing Hope, is the base line of community organizing. The seeds of maladjustment were planted in me several years ago when, as a college student, I volunteered with a men’s homeless shelter affiliated with a Christian church in Chicago. One night, during the Bible study held after dinner, the staff person teaching the study (who, incidentally, was also the person who decided whether or not each man was allowed in for the night for dinner and shelter), raised the issue of capital punishment. I’ll never forget how several of the shelter guests sincerely questioned his view that the Old Testament proves God’s support for capital punishment. “Didn’t we just learn last week that Jesus said to forgive your brother seventy times seven times?” one of the men asked. Even more memorable than the question was the response. In a tone dripping with condescension and an inflated sense of his authority, the staff person refuted the connection and made it clear no further objections were welcome. As a young woman without theological training whose role at the shelter was minimal, I hesitated to speak up…even though anger burned within me. What right did this staff person have to force his views on these men who were dependent on him for their night’s food and lodging?
Although I wasn’t brave enough at the time to challenge his abuse of power, I could no longer fully embrace the Church’s traditional approach to ministry and charity. I became, in a word, “maladjusted.” Through community organizing, I have found a creative and faithful way to act on my maladjustment; my anger toward injustice and my belief in the dignity of all of God’s children. Whereas, as Taylor puts it, “as people of faith, we are often uneasy about power and blind to the power we possess,” community organizing emphasizes that effective work for social change cannot happen without a clear understanding of the power dynamics at work in a given situation. Power, like money, can be used for good or for evil. As Christians working to help realize God’s Kingdom of peace and justice, we must be strategic in our engagement with power. I have learned over the years that many campaigns I participated in failed simply because our efforts were directed at the wrong people, or they weren’t directed anywhere at all. (How many times have you participated in a prayer service or vigil that allowed you to walk away feeling good about doing something, but which didn’t result in much else?)
Community organizing is about believing the world can be different; that we can make concrete changes that bring us closer to the world God desires, if we work together across the lines that too often divide us. Through forming deep relationships and acting strategically to address our shared concerns and dreams, we harness the power of everyday people. The seeds of creative maladjustment were planted in me long ago, but I continue to find hope in the belief that God calls us to work for a world where every person has a voice, and has the ability to make that voice heard.
Christa Mazzone Palmberg is an Organizer with Sound Alliance, an organization of diverse religious institutions, labor unions, education associations and other civic nonprofits organizing for the common good in the Puget Sound. She is serves on the board of directors of Sojourners and is an active member of First Covenant Church, Seattle.
For more stories from “Modern Mobilizers” such as Christa, visit the Patheos Book Club, where you’ll also find resources on Adam Taylor’s book Mobilizing Hope, including a book excerpt and author Q&A.