Wheaton Professor on Community Organization
Wheaton College professor and CSCO member Helene Slessarev's article, "Saul Alinsky Goes to Church" opens up a new focus for evangelical, pentecostal and holiness witness to Jesus Christ. In her article in SOJOURNERS (March 2000) Slessarev provides evangelicals some excellent material for consideration. She provides some early history on Alinsky and changes since then; presents the premise of faith-based community organization (fbco); and provides information of how churches relate and benefit from this ministry. This social justice ministry stand alongside evangelism and wins the church and Christians the right to be heard.
Church of God in Christ Bishop George McKinney tells of his commitment to fbco. "Because of the church's involvement in addressing certain social and justice issues, we have been able to present God to many who would never have come to church. Thus, community based organizing has been used by God as a tool of evangelism."
History of Community Organizing
Doctor Slessarev begins her article by introducing the Chicago Back of the Yards organization of the 1930s. Alinsky organized this strong organization by organizing existing groups into group action. But Slessarev argues that now communities are much less cohesive, "so it is necessary to build relationship first and then take on issues that grow out of those stronger bonds." She explains that this relationship building is the first step in starting a new organization. Congregation members reach out to other members of their church and listen to their concerns and issues. Then they reach out into their neighborhoods and again listen to people and their community issues. This one-to-one relationship building builds cohesion and also enables the group to develop issues that are from the grassroots.
Not only have methods changed in initial organizing, but organizational boundaries have also changed, writes Slessarev. Earlier organization concentrated on a single community. Now it has become clear that a larger power base is needed "to challenge larger institutions, including city and state governments or big corporations." Today faith-based community organizations more commonly organization citywide or even metropolitan, states Slessarev.
The Premise of Community Organizing
Professor Slesserev, the Director of Urban Studies at Wheaton, writes that fbcos begin around problems facing distressed communities, recognize that power is built by organizing people, and realize that a successful organization flows from broad-based local leaders and not from a charismatic leader or two.
This fastest growing movement of organizations centers its efforts around churches since the church is often the one healthy institution in poor areas where people find acceptance and leadership opportunities. Experience has shown that the church is the best starting point for building a powerful "organizational culture that fuses religious language, symbols, and values with organizing principles of accountability and civic participation."
The Church and the Community
Bishop McKinney's statement explains the needed partnership of social justice and evangelistic witness. In addition, Associate Professor of Political Science Slessarev also explains how community organization helps the church's health. "As a church becomes active in the broader issues of the community, she writes, "New leaders emerge within the congregation who become engaged ...in the life of the church itself. Pastors whose churches are involved in community organizing note how much better organized their own parish committees are, how much more eager lay people are to become involved and participate in church activities."
The article also reports on the 1996 Discount Foundation study of community organizations. To read the entire article go to Sojourners.