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Getting organized without getting partisan

The Rev. Dr. Aaron Stauffer is a recent guest on the ‘A Matter of Faith’ podcast

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Aaron Stauffer

LOUISVILLE — Are there elements of community organizing that churches can learn from?

That was among the questions the hosts of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” had for the Rev. Dr. Aaron Stauffer, Director of Online and Lifelong Learning and the Associate Director of the Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice at the Vanderbilt Divinity School during an episode that launched last month. Listen to Stauffer’s 55-minute conversation with Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe here.

“The question of polarization is exactly where to start,” said Stauffer, author of the book “Listening to the Spirit: The Radical Social Gospel, Sacred Value, and Broad-Based Community Organizing,” an academic work that carries this discount code: AAFLYG6. Stauffer begins his book recounting a listening campaign he helped a congregation engage where the pastor told his flock, “I want to make sure everyone knows this is not a political meeting.”

“He told me later that some in the congregation were fearful we were encouraging the congregants to vote a particular way. I said, ‘You know, that’s partisanship. That’s not politics,’” Stauffer said. Politics is “about the contestation and the production, consumption and distribution of the things we hold in common,” such as health care and education, he said, and “Christian faith is deeply concerned about that.”

People often conflate partisanship and politics, according to Stauffer, “instead of thinking about how my local community is really doing or what are the statewide policies that are hurting my neighbors or myself. What are the federal policies that I really need to be concerned about? Politics is something that’s at the heart of our collective life, and Christian faith and the Christian tradition have something to say about that.”

For churches, the work is about building “relationships of liberation and love,” he said. A benefit is that community organizing efforts often build strong churches. “It’s about developing people and building leaders,” he said, and in many churches, that leader is the congregation’s matriarch, “the one who in their very person holds the identity of the community.”

In the Kansas church where Stauffer grew up, “if I wanted to get something done, I went to Sally. I didn’t go to the pastor. Sally had been there for 40+ years. Sally got things done,” he told Doong and Catoe. “More often than not, the pastor took orders from Sally. That’s just how it worked.”

After Stauffer completed his undergraduate studies, he spent a year in the Young Adult Volunteer program in San Antonio, Texas, working with the Industrial Areas Foundation, which was founded by famed community organizer Saul Alinsky. “It was hard work. It really kicked my butt,” he said. A senior organizer there told him that organizing “is about building power.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

“There are really important lessons in faith traditions and in churches that can help organizers organize better. Many people organize because of their faith values,” Stauffer said. “It’s listening to God who’s calling us into deeper relationship with each other and pushing us out into the public. You move inward into the congregation and then out into the public.”

Organizing is different from protest, Stauffer said, and power “is effective only if it is grounded in relationships. It takes time attending to the human who’s next to you.” He called that “the practical, mundane aspect of organizing. These are very sacred spaces. It’s pastoral in a lot of ways.”

Some organizations — even some churches — engage in “purity politics. If you don’t do this, you’re not radical enough,” Stauffer said. “That’s just not going to work. It’s not democratic or inclusive.” When he did anti-Islamophobia work as a seminarian, Stauffer heard an evangelical pastor say, “I feel called by Jesus to quit this hate in my heart.”

“I had never heard a progressive pastor speak that honestly about their own prejudices, their own Islamophobia, their own anything,” he said.

Stauffer suggested more Presbyterians “make an argument” and “stake a claim” to what they hold dear.

“We need to say … this is what it means to be a Christian, to be part of the church, to be Presbyterian. … I care about these institutions. They formed and shaped me,” he said. “I care deeply about the PC(USA), and so I want to give into it so it will form and shape others in a way I have found to be life-giving.”

“It’s helpful to be reminded,” Catoe said, “that we are here to do the work of love and relationship, which is really hard.”

New editions of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drop every Thursday. Listen to previous episodes here.

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