Community Organizing

Community Organizing September 3, 2013

Sometimes the events in the news get to be too much. I have been torn recently between my sympathies for my Syrian housemate and the many cries for help from that country and the views of my mostly-pacifist-American base of friends and colleagues.

I am tempted to retreat – and in fact I must retreat sometimes just to do the work I must do: teaching, reading, writing, all of which becomes a struggle, and evermore a seemingly small struggle in the face of the struggles of 20+ million people in Syria.

But again, I must.

And when the world’s problems look huge – as they always really are – it helps to come back to one’s own community. Our own communities are never really perfect either, but they are a place where we can enact change quickly when we want it. Your community, after all, is the people who will sing along with you:

My community (the most immediate at least) is a large house of international postgraduate students here in Bristol, England. They are and always have been among the most intelligent, hard working people I have met in my life.

Last Saturday we got together for what turned out to be one of those days you never forget. In the morning several of my housemates and I gathered for a spiritual mindfulness pilgrimage…. Okay, no, we walked out of the city to pick blackberries. Growing up in rural-ish Montana, I might wish I had done this a dozen times or more each year; but no. This was my first (at least successful) berry-picking.

It was organized by a woman with a clear mission and the know-how to get it done. She also had the enthusiasm to drive others. We volunteered, one after another; some hesitant, some dropping out, some giving lackluster commitment but showing up anyhow. This is the spiritual part. Spiritual in the sense of the very breath of life, of respiration and inspiration. You want something done – find the spirit to get people moving.

Walking out of town isn’t easy here (googlemap BS8 1JG): 40 minutes. For some of you I’m sure it may take hours, for others it may be a matter of one’s own vast back yard. The act of leaving the city, leaving society and the rat race, even if it is merely symbolic, sets the mind at ease. Forty minutes turned out to be just about perfect for moving our conversations away from the day-to-day and toward the this very moment. By the time we arrived and began our work, the experience was immersive. Yes we still talked, some more than others, and there were the continual important debates about how to do it right – conversations which, if removed from the actual practice taking place, would seem a bit pedantic. But mostly, we just did.

When our bowls were filled it even became hard to stop. So meditative and joyful was the experience of working together toward a common cause (even for those who weren’t eating every 3rd berry picked… you know who you are) that we just wanted to keep going; seeking out the next great branch, the next super-ripe morsel to pluck.

Hodgkin House Blackberry party
International student/berry pickers (from the USA, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Ireland, East Timor, Taiwan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria)

When everyone was ready to open their eyes and end the meditation… or put down their containers and re-join the collective, we had this great mass of merit – or blackberries – that we had together accumulated. Naturally, we rejoiced.

By the evening our efforts had already bared fruits by way of a cobbler, a pie, and a crumble. The next morning blackberry iced cream was made as well. This week my girlfriend sent me a recipe for blackberry butter, which we’ll be trying out soon. The gift of a well organised and clearly directed community keeps giving.

Let us strive to make our own communities, both secular and religious, operate so well. This is never something that we will get right in any one day or month or year even. But getting back to the simple, the basic, the nitty-gritty allows us all to see how powerful we are, how capable each of us is at bringing change when we have a clear goal in mind.

This year, along with the crisis in Syria, let us not forget the plight of workers (including myself and probably you) in America. In honor of Labor Day, please listen to one of my favorite community organizers, Utah Phillips:

And this from Robert Reich:

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