Church and Community Activism

olympic rings

What do the Olympics and the Detroit Action Commonwealth have in common? Yep, you guessed it, breaking belief barriers of what was once thought humanly possible. I’m kind of kidding, but as I was reading about DAC in the article by UM’s own Gregory Markus ‘Organizing in Detroit Soup Kitchens for Power and Justice,’ the connection came to mind. Few people who have studied and/or practiced community organizing believed that a group of transient, housing-insecure people could organize and have political power. But DAC is accomplishing that and more. As a result, DAC is functioning as a model for other groups and can be added to academic considerations for organizing.

But unlike many of the athletes competing in the Olympics, DAC members are not exactly looking to achieve a gold medal in community organizing. They’re doing their lives as they know how to live them, and with the help of the resources and relationships through DAC, are able to confront barriers to societal participation, probably in ways they never believed they themselves could personally attain to, even before they needed the assistance.

As a Christian, I think a lot about belief. I also think a lot about the role of the Church as the global body of people who follow Jesus. And I think a lot about the role of the church as a local community player, and how it can often be an agent of support to members of a community. Church bodies support the Capuchin Soup Kitchen which became the backdrop for organizing homeless and indigent people in Detroit, and factored into the conversations with community members from the video by the Young Educators Alliance. When people meditate on what it means to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and then ask themselves “Who is my neighbor?” compassion happens.

But we also know the reality of power and control. Churches are gathering spaces of likeminded individuals that have their own needs, wants and desires. Sometimes that aligns with the needs of other people within a geographical area or political space, and sometimes, those needs directly oppose the needs of other groups of people. Churches are not always the hero of the story, and even when they are, every hero has their flaws.

I mention churches because of their influence on my personal examples of community organizing, group participation, and expansion and change. Being part of church is often a position of privilege for me, even when my relationship with churches has sometimes been uncomfortable (see my post “Who am I and what am I doing here”). I’ve been part of a large church, and seen what it looks like to broker relationships with the community when it needs to expand, and I’m currently part of a small church that’s learning how to care for its body, as well as give compassionately to needs outside of that community, and identify its capacity to help. It’s a balance, but one that all of us have to weigh out in our own lives.

Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation is a valuable tool in analyzing how the church as a global body and my own church interacts with communities and upholds the mandate to not only love God body, soul, mind and strength but also to love our neighbor as ourselves. My church is striving to have the capacity to welcome anybody, from any background, but realistically it is largely composed of people who are part of the working professional middle-class, some people from the area, but others from other states here for education, work, or as part of the church. This is also reflective in senior church leadership even as those leaders strive to incorporate a broader perspective. Knowing our composition, we are also figuring out our role in the community and in what ways we can speak into what we see and know, and how we partner with people actively leading out in different community initiatives. It’s valuable for me to learn about entering, engaging and exiting communities to convey that knowledge to people who want to learn and grow, but are unsure of how to do that.

As I take this frame of reference into consideration, I understand very clearly my role as a potential tertiary contact or even a secondary contact depending on what agencies I work with and for. As someone who has had a variety of global experiences related not only to my ethnic background but also my educational experience and volunteer experience, I am accustomed to delving into the awkward middle and thinking critically about how I engage communities different from my own. In identifying next steps, I would like to learn how I can communicate my classroom and field learning into this church community that I am a part of. Within the strong desire to “love your neighbor,” there are so many avenues to take, but if my objective is to learn to be present and love the people directly in front of me, I believe the way is a lot more clear than it may seem.




2 thoughts on “Church and Community Activism

  1. Hi Gabby,

    I really enjoyed your application of the course material to your life and your critical analysis of religious organizing. I agree that churches can be a driving force for community organizing and a huge part of how many people define their community. I worked a the Grand Rapids Pride Center over the summer, so I’ve seen first hand how impactful churches can be to peoples’ lives -positively and negatively. Many religious LGBTQ individuals are abandoned by their religious communities after coming out, which can be devastating for those individuals. However; I also had the opportunity to interact with several inclusive churches in the Grand Rapids area, which was really great to see. I hope to hear more about your experience as you begin to navigate community engagement within your church!


  2. I was so enlightened hearing about ways in which to engage within ladder of influence in that those who do not always identify with the community we are advocating for to be at secondary and tertiary contact, as it is so important for us to reflect on what ways we should engage with communities. It was so interesting hearing from your experiences of the Church and your beliefs about “love thy neighbor” within your practice. I think loving the people directly in front of you, interacting with them, listening to their experiences, and befriending others different from yourself, is one of the best ways to engage throughout life in general and within our work as agents for change.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s