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Salvatierra, A., Heltzel, Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World

By: Benjamin Knoll

Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World

Rev. Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel

The authors here often draw a contrast with "Alinsky" style organizing

What is Faith Rooted Organizing?

  • Organizing is the practice of bringing people together to create systemic change in their community.

  • Advocacy is the process of calling on leaders (whether corporate or governmental) to make public commitments to use their power in ways that respond accurately and effectively to the needs of those affected by their decisions.

  • Faith-rooted organizing is based on the belief that many aspects of spirituality, faith traditions, faith practices and faith communities can contribute in unique and powerful ways to the creation of just communities and societies.

  • the mystical-prophetic underpinnings of the great organizing movements of the twentieth century,

  • Central to both the prophetic and the mystical is love.

  • Love is, therefore, the avoidance of any act of violence or dominance over another.

  • They did not capitulate to the powers that be, for that is not prophetic. They stood their ground calling for an end to oppression. But neither did they capitulate to the vilification of their opponents, for that would be a rejection of the mystical work of love inspired in them by God.

What is the DREAM to which we're aspiring?

  • as a political process toward achieving it—nonviolent love.

  • So King proposed to dismantle the “powers and principalities” of racism, poverty and war by building a large-scale, nonviolent coalition for justice.

  • The people of God are to protect the lawbreakers until they can get a fair hearing and a just punishment for their crime. This biblical tradition has resulted in laws all across the globe protecting the right of faith communities to offer protection to lawbreakers who fit into this category.

  • Roman Catholic ritualism, with its deep symbolism and ancient traditions, inspired the most well-known faith-rooted action by California farm workers: the pilgrimage from Delano to Sacramento. Lifting a cross intertwined with grape leaves, Chavez walked not only to publicize the plight of California farm workers but


  • In short, you need goals—both ultimate goals and interim goals.

  • In faith-rooted organizing, we believe we can answer the question, “How do we want the world to be different because of our efforts?” by casting a common vision rooted in God’s vision.

  • Sin acknowledges the tendency for human beings to abuse power and for institutions to be sites of systemic oppression. This is a more realistic assessment of human institutions. Neither the rich nor the poor can escape this innate temptation to oppress others.

  • Faith-rooted organizing aspires beyond democracy to establish the beloved community. Our colleagues in organized struggle are not instruments; we make revolutionary friendships for the long haul. For faith-rooted organizers, the love of God and the hope of the beloved community wake us up to work on behalf of the marginalized and the oppressed.

  • In contrast to Alinsky-style organizing that seeks to amass power for power’s sake, faith-rooted organizing asks “Power for what purpose?” What kind of community, society and world are we trying to create? Faith-rooted

  • The conception of justice in the Hebrew Bible is thus not just a matter of personal morality but refers to how all people in the community, especially the marginalized, are treated.

  • But it has been demonstrated that constant emphasis on remembering pain and agitating anger in community organizing wears people down physically.


  • The liberating trends in the great religious traditions often invert and subvert standard societal perspectives and corresponding beliefs. While most societies ascribe status to specific groups, allowing higher-status groups the right to define social reality and normative behavior, a consistent religious message is that the most accurate vantage point for viewing the world is from below.

  • In the life of Jesus of Nazareth a new socio-economic order is born, a promissory presence for a coming, fundamentally just and compassionate future. Hendricks contends that Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God includes an egalitarian socio-economic order that takes responsibility for the well-being of all. It refuses to be hindered from the task of serving the needs of the dispossessed and the vulnerable by official sanctions, traditional narratives of social control,

  • For Hendricks, Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom illuminated that God sees the needs of the poor and marginalized as holy.

  • we cannot give the same weight to everyone’s analysis of social problems and solutions. All voices are important, but not all voices speak the truth in a way that reveals that which we most need to know about social reality and the process of change. What the privileged often fail to see and recognize in everyday life is what is most important.

  • The first faith-rooted litmus test for an issue is how it impacts the poor—according to the perspective of the poor themselves.

  • The people at the bottom of society, Jesus spent most of his time with them. He was in solidarity with them.12

  • While recognizing the value of every vantage point, faith-rooted organizing also understands that a fair hearing of differing perspectives is necessary for truth to emerge. Fair hearings for those with low social status are hard to come by, however.

  • This is the strong intersectionality positions: the more overlapping oppressions you have, the more you should get to "go first" in the sharing of views and perspectives, and the more heavily your perspective should be weighted.

  • Solidarity is a term commonly used in Latin America to describe the commitment and engagement of those who are not poor in struggles for justice.

  • A commitment to solidarity often requires the development of structures which intentionally equalize power. According to religion professor Sharon Welch, recent research shows that the balance of power shifts only when at least 15 percent of the leadership represents a disadvantaged group.

  • In faith-rooted organizing it is important that organizing work be led by people who are most affected by the present injustice.

  • Faith-rooted organizing requires that we prioritize the perspective of the poor for the sake of the common good. It calls for processes and structures in our organizing that ensure that this perspective is consistent in word and deed. When we discern our issues, we must begin with the question, “Whose voices are present in this conversation, and who is being excluded? How can we respect and support the leadership of those most affected by this issue? How can the poor lead the process of organizing from analysis to advocacy?” Faith-rooted organizing is a poor-led movement for justice, involving conversion on all sides.

  • In faith-rooted organizing, issues are not decided; they are discerned.


  • In the New Testament, kairos refers to a different sort of time, a moment in history when God intervenes and change dramatically occurs.

  • Lies that we often believe

  • “those who have more materials goods deserve their wealth and those who are poor, their poverty.”

  • “we are not connected and not responsible for one another’s well-being.”

  • “the threat of the other,”

  • “each person can and should lift himself or herself up by the bootstraps;

  • “there is not enough room in the boat for everyone”—an

  • This is basically a theology of strong social justice activism.

  • Another lie is that the church is for economic justice and equity when it is complicit in neo-liberal capitalism.

  • Everyone is needed; no one is left out. This stands in contrast to one of the most pernicious lies that the church has supported, directly and indirectly: women are less qualified and called to lead than men. The lie is particularly tragic given how much leadership women have shown in important faith-rooted movements.


  • a context analysis always includes a power analysis. Who has the capacity and legal right to make public decisions? Who and what influences their decision-making process?

  • A traditional power analysis assumes that there are essentially three forces that determine public power: force (including the government’s implicit capacity for force), wealth and control of resources (which includes the capacity for mass communication), and numbers. However, if we assume that there is a God who is (a) on the side of justice and (b) active in history, the power equation changes. There is an invisible ingredient in the mix; it’s possible to work in partnership with a force that makes individual actions toward justice more powerful than the sum of the parts.

  • The power of the dove is not always this successful of course; the risk is real. And in any case, it requires immense courage.

  • Power mapping is a way of identifying who has various kinds and levels of decision-making power in our communities—as well as who influences those decision-makers.

  • This alternative power map first names the special power possessed by the “last and least,” effectively inverting the perceived power structure.

  • The scriptural vision of justice within shalom calls us to the practice of intelligent love. We have to respond to the needs of our neighbors as effectively as possible. Moving beyond charity to community development is an act of intelligent love.


  • We need to be known for our humility, respecting the contribution of each

  • Members of healthy congregations that engage in justice movements learn how to work as a team, taking turns on the front line, caring for each other’s families and making room for the gifts and interests of each as needed. While this kind of caring is not sufficient in itself to address systemic problems and barriers, these circles of care offer a great service to the movement for justice.

  • Through prayer, fasting, confession and repentance, music, moral dialogue, the Circle of Care and other acts of hospitality, congregations have a unique role to play in the struggle for justice. When people draw energy from their congregational identity and the resources of their tradition, their engagement in broad-based initiatives is enhanced. And as we’ll see, clergy and other faith leaders in particular can enhance the work of justice in broad-based initiatives by leaning into their traditions and leveraging the tools and training of their vocation.


  • be lovers of Christ and neighbor. How can we have the strength to love our enemies? This takes a special courage. Releasing this courage is the call of the faith-rooted chaplain.

  • In addition to being attentive listeners, we also encourage those we are working with in the movement.

  • Chaplains bridge the gap between the love of God as a Thou and the acknowledgment of the thou-ness of the poor and powerful alike. In faith-rooted organizing our opponents are not targets but fellow human beings, made in the image of God, acted on by the Spirit of a loving God, called to do their part in the battle for justice and human dignity.

  • Dear Alina and Yehsong: Warriors on the battlefield for justice need chaplains to remind them of what they believe and who they love so that they are not disabled by fear and loss. The powerful and the poor, the privileged and the oppressed, all alike need moral en-couragement. If the faith community doesn’t bring this gift, no one will.

  • We have a treasure trove in the faith community of symbols, rituals and music that can multiply the impact of our messages if we choose to utilize them in our public communication.

  • Being a good faith-rooted organizer entails being an artist and improviser. Creativity is critical to reaching the hearts and souls of those we are inviting to join the struggle for justice.

  • Movements for justice often depend on logical arguments to make their case. This isn’t bad, but it isn’t enough. In our faith traditions, we have colorful and emotionally powerful images and ancient actions to contribute that speak to the left and right brain alike. Get creative! Dig deep in the wells of faith for all the beauty and power that is waiting there.

  • You cannot bring people together to create change unless you can bring them together. You have to get them off the couch, away from their blinking screens and out the door.

  • The Greek word for Spirit in the New Testament, paraclete, is related linguistically to the word for “pitchfork.” Many believers throughout history can relate to the experience of the great pitchfork, making us restless until we answer the call. Our souls are disturbed by the movement of God’s Spirit and we will not be at peace until we respond.


  • Just as Jesus never issued a general call for volunteers but rather called people by name, God calls us into a community of resistance and creation through the individual circumstances of our lives and our faith journeys. The more we understand this complex tapestry of motivation in each person, the more accurately we can fan the flames of inspiration in the people in our congregations and communities.

  • What are the motivations of faith-based activism?

  • Compassion.

  • Gratitude.

  • Joy.

  • Legacy.

  • Divine mandates.

  • Most people of faith want in the depths of their souls to engage in the struggle for justice. The Holy Spirit is moving in their hearts, pushing and prodding them in that direction. Your job is to listen with your heart, understanding all that holds them back and discerning the best way to fan the flame.


  • The biblical understanding of leadership is most beautifully expressed in the concept of the body of Christ. Each part of the body has its own role to play; that role is intimately connected and coordinated with all of the others in order for the body to function well. In faith-rooted organizing we use this body image as a guide at every level of the work.

  • Our work can be much more powerful when we recognize the diversity and complementary nature of the body of Christ in our theory, strategy and practice.

  • People with the gift of justice often report feeling the pain of others inside their own body, even from a young age. They have the experience of uncontrollable empathy with those who suffer unjustly, of feeling like they cannot rest until justice is done.

  • Through the course of the project, we identified five aspects of the damage created by poverty that perpetuates it.

  • Low self-esteem.

  • Fatalism.

  • Cycles of denial and explosion.

  • Crabs in a bucket—mutual sabotage.

  • The other species dynamic.

  • To build a movement, you have to equip people to lead, each in their own way. You need to discern the gifts and calling of each and how they can best work together as a team. The contribution of faith communities to the larger movement also includes an alternative way of being a holistic and sacrificially dedicated community of leaders. If you want to teach it, you have to be first committed to live it yourselves.

  • Traditional models of organizing do not make it easy for the average person to participate. The demands are very high, and burnout—for organizers and leaders alike—is common, bordering on inevitable.


  • How do we, as people of faith, rally the expertise of our traditions and the resources of our faith to the organizing process? What disciplines, practices, rituals and activities do we incorporate into our organizing?

  • When we intentionally bring our contemplative practices and perspectives to the organizing process, we see experiences of failure in a different light. In

  • In truth, we all need times of sabbath to renew our energy and center ourselves in our connection with God. Intentional meditative exercises can be excellent tools for going deeper in our prayer lives.

  • We need sweet communion with those whom we love and who love us. We need times of laughter, deep sleep, good food and exercise in the outdoors.

  • Faith-rooted organizing is inherently work on the run—work that is moving, as part of a movement. But the endless work of faith-rooted organizing can be exhausting. With time, activism may sap our energy and health and spirit.

  • Children of organizers in the United States, like children of pastors, are often ambivalent about the movement that took away the time and energy of their parents. They often feel pushed aside, deprived and resentful.

  • Yet we know that our words and deeds are always insufficient to create all of the justice we hunger for. So how do we keep on keeping on in light of that regular disappointment? Our struggle for justice is driven by patience and progress.


  • This is serpent power in its essence: people overcoming institutional power (such as the power of organized money) by exercising the power they have as members of a community (the power of organized people).

  • To exercise serpent power faithfully is to recognize that we must work in coalition with those who bring other gifts and contributions to the struggle.

  • To exercise serpent power faithfully is to think strategically. Translate your goals into realistic, measurable objectives. Then design strategies aimed at achieving those objectives.

  • To exercise serpent power faithfully is to be conscious and nimble. The battlefield is constantly shifting. To be wise as a serpent is to be disciplined in your attention to those shifts.

  • To exercise serpent power faithfully is to get formal training.

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