Rev. Pickett, what does it mean to think of Jesus as a community organizer?
Basically, this is a way of responding to an idea of Jesus as an abstract figure who hovers above time and space. I think we have removed him from his context. What if we put him back in his context and ask what he’s doing?
What he’s doing: He’s gathering people and galvanizing them around a shared vision he called the kingdom of God, he’s forming leaders – this is a kind of community organizing practice – and he’s responding to circumstances. Mainly economic oppression and social marginalization.
Was the apostle Paul an organizer?
Again, if you ask what Paul is doing, he’s basically forming communities. We obsess about Paul’s theology, but I’m trying to retrieve a kind of practical dimension and say that Jesus and Paul are both about community.
And when they talk about community, they aren’t just talking about the church. Jesus is talking about all the villages around Galilee. He’s talking about the whole community.
Is this what you see some Lutheran pastors doing recently?
Yes, in a way. It’s a model that’s a little out of the box. You start by building relationships in the community and then you build something from that. It’s not the traditional model of starting a worshipping community and then trying to market it.
Traditionally, we developed churches on the growing edges of suburbs, and a lot of times the churches grew because they were strategically located.
So is the newer approach mainly for cities?
It often is. About five years ago, when I was reconnecting with community organizing in Chicago, I discovered there is somebody in the ELCA* who is in charge of faith-based community organizing. Her name is Sue Engh. Sue invited me to a meeting of a network of pastors and leaders from all over the country who were adapting the principles of community organizing to engage the larger community, most of them in urban contexts.**
They all are using the arts of community organizing in very different, creative ways. They’re gathering people, not only in the church but outside the church, on issues that affect their communities. It could be economic issues or environmental issues or whatever.
Two alumni of PLTS, John Cummings ’05, M.Div. ’10, and Meghan Sobocienski, M.Div. ’07, started something in Detroit called Grace in Action. They moved into a working-class section of the community (they’re married), and they started a Bible study. But they also started a co-op of youth. They have a T-shirt printing business and a technology business and more.
Another is in Portland, Salt & Light Lutheran led by Melissa Reed, M.Div. ’08. They have a congregation, but then they have a not-for-profit. They were attracting people who either didn’t have faith or were discerning what their faith was and wanted to be a part of what the congregation was doing. And now they have a unique structure with a joint board that oversees the two parts of the organization.
There’s not one formula for this. But instead of saying that the point of church is to get people in the church, it says, “No, the point of church is to make a difference in the community.”
What would you want to know about a community before starting a church or something like a church?
Who is this community? What’s the profile of this community? What are the concerns of the community?
Precisely what you would do – and these are skills that people can learn – you would do demographic research, you would do asset mapping, you would learn about and begin to talk to institutions that serve people in the neighborhood. So you would do community research on a number of fronts, and that would be a basis for how you’d engage.
Will PLTS be training people to do this kind of work?
I think that change may be on the horizon, but I need to have many more conversations. PLTS is doing some of this already. The people I mentioned were exposed to community organizing in seminary. So I think we want to teach people those practices and maybe get them involved while they’re in seminary. That’s my hope anyhow.
* Cal Lutheran and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary are affiliated with the Chicago-based Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
** With two Cal Lutheran co-authors, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda (PLTS) and Victor Thasiah (Religion), Pickett is researching a book about the network, which is known as the Organizing for Mission Cohort.