Simon Cuff explains the concept of community organizing, and its affinities with Catholic social teaching
What unites a 17-year-old who chairs a meeting with executives from a well-known national media corporation, a community of nuns who deposit a month’s worth of collection in loose change at a high streetbank to force the chief executive to meet with them, and a Conservative Prime Minister who declares that the living wage is an idea whose time has come? The answer: ‘community organizing’.
Community organizing is a process of working together for the common good. It originates in America, with the work of the community organizer Saul Alinsky and his Industrial Areas Foundation. From the outset, the affinities of this method with Catholic social teaching and the potential of this work for the business of living out the Catholic faith have been noted. Not only does the early correspondence shared between Alinsky and the Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain (published as The Philosopher and the Provocateur) bear witness to this, but also the number of (Roman) Catholic churches, schools, and other affiliated institutions which have joined the charity CitizensUK — the main body associated with community organizing in this country.
CitizensUK is Europe’s biggest alliance of churches, schools, other faith institutions and community groups. It began life in the early Nineties in East London, as the East London Communities Organisation (TELCO). It has grown rapidly. In addition to being London-wide there are also groups in Milton Keynes,
Nottingham, Birmingham, Leeds, Cardiff, and wherever there develops a community interest in this work.
Community organizing is a distinctive approach to working for change in our local areas. Its distinctiveness is part of what makes it so amenable to Catholic social teaching. Community organizing prioritizes the achievable. It does not ask for that which cannot realistically be achieved. This realism means that it has often delivered real change in the lives of individuals in its member communities and across society at large. CitizensUK’s campaign for a living wage, for example — the campaign for a wage above the national minimum wage and calculated to enable employees to be able to afford quality time off with their children and families — has changed the lives of tens of thousands of people for the better. It is also worth noting that this is an idea which has been championed by the Catholic Church for over a century, even before Monsignor Ryan’s A _Living Wage (1906).
However, such high-priority campaigns can cause us to lose
sight of the bread and butter of community organizing.
Community organizing prioritizes ‘one-to-ones — face-to-face conversations which enable those involved really to listen to the needs and concerns of people, instead of paternalistically telling people what their needs and concerns might be. This is where community organizing is of most interest to those of us engaged in parish ministry. Such ‘one-to-ones’ offer a strong framework for pastoral engagement that encourages us to make time for those members of the congregation who might otherwise slip under the radar. The training offered by CitizensUK reminds us of the importance of pastoral engagement with those who are neither the most needy (the long-term sick or aged) nor the most active in our congregations.
It is regrettable that, while there are some notable counterexamples, Anglican churches in general have been less likely to appreciate the potential of community organizing for Christian mission. As Catholic Anglicans, we can and should follow the lead of our Roman sisters and bro thers. Community organizing, and the fruits it offers, are an advantage in the toolbox of each of our clergy and every faithful Christian.
Dr Sonia Dore, Parishioner, St Luke’s, Shepherd’s Bush, comments:
Community organizing as a Christian and active parishioner has enabled me to put into practice the values and principles of my faith. For me, being a Christian goes beyond gathering in church on a Sunday. When we receive the dismissal at the end of mass, we are told ‘Go, you are sent’. In other words, we are sent out from church with a task to do, a task to help those less fortunate than ourselves, a task to build relationships with others in our community, a task to give a voice to the voiceless, a task to take up the cross of Christ not just in private but in an action-orientated way for the common good of an unjust society that we live in. Part of being a Christian in the twenty-first century is about dealing with real issues in the world, and being involved in CitizensUK exemplifies this core element.
For example, I was fortunate to recently attend the five-day community organizing training which CitizensUK offers to individuals from member institutions, which allowed me to develop my leadership skills and network with other like-minded organizations working towards the same agenda. I have also attended a befriending action, which involved going out into the community to visit older people in Pimlico in their homes. It is practical action like this that makes me proud and motivated to develop the work of CitizensUK.
For more information on the work of Citizens UK, or to meet with
a community organiser in your area, contact