A professional organizer from the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) has helped organize such groups in DC (Washington Interfaith Network or WIN) and in Montgomery County, MD (Action in Montgomery or AIM). He's been working with clergy in Northern Virginia for a couple of years and has the clergy from more than 40 congregations (mostly churches, a couple of synagogues and no mosques, thus far.)
On Sunday, these clergy convened a meeting of lay leaders from their institutions to talk about next steps.
As bad luck would have it, the entire Northern Virginia Jewish community held a service of memorial and remembrance for the victims at Virginia Tech on Sunday, in a location so far from the church meeting that one had to choose between the Virginia Tech service or the organizing rally.
My shul's Rabbi was one of the folks leading the memorial service, so he recruited me and two others to at least show a presence at the organizing meeting.
Two other synagogues sent pledges of support to the meeting, which were duly read and applauded, but the three of us from my synagogue were the only Jews in the church.
It was a fabulous experience. IAF starts from the premise that you must build the relationships within and across institutions before you choose the issue(s) you're going to agitate on.
This model has worked in DC, where WIN won significant concessions for community development during the city's negotiations over bringing the Nationals to town and building them a new stadium.
It's worked in Montgomery County, where AIM won passage of a "living wage" bill when all the pundits declared such a thing a hopeless cause.
It's worked for IAF affiliates in getting affordable housing built in the Bronx and education reforms passed in Texas.
I start out dubious about this model, because it asks congregations to make major commitments of volunteer time and, down the road, significant commitments of money, before we know what elements of a "social justice" agenda we can reach consensus on.
But the successes cited above have left me open to persuasion on this point, and boy did my afternoon in church go a long way toward persuading me.
The room was full --- with a couple of hundred folks in the pews and several very eloquent preachers in the pulpit. The atmosphere was electric (and a little warm).
The event was staged with exquisite timing. Just enough time for informal introductions among people who'd never met and still enough time for the preachers to get their sermons/calls to action/meditations out before the crowd.
The event ended with representatives of each institution present rising, coming forward, and declaring their commitments to:
1) the general organizing plan we'd heard about,
2) getting our respective boards, committees trustees, deacons and elders to "wrestle with" ponying up the costs our clergy (and IAF) tell us the effort will require. (Taking a cue from one of my sisters from an A.M.E. church, I promised our leadership would "rassle" with this problem, adding that I hoped we'd pin that devil to the mat),
3) numerical pledges for the number of our fellow congregants we will encourage, pester, harass or otherwise entice to attend additional organizer training sessions, and
4) dollar pledges for the effort's near-term budget (for just the coming fiscal year).
As I said, the whole shebang was timed and planned for maximum effect.
All the goals the clergy had set for the meeting were met, they announced, and a couple of hundred people walked out as more committed evangelists for the cause.
Still, the question is, "What cause?"
From the discussions and the speeches and the sermons, I got the sense that consensus on economic justice issues will be easier to reach than on some other things. Obviously, we'd never come to consensus on reproductive rights or civil rights for homosexuals.
Even immigration reform seems to have too many sides to it for unanimity in this diverse bunch.
But speaking truth to power --- and delivering bodies to county board meetings, to rallies and to the polls --- on issues like:
- responsible, affordable development, or
- a living wage, or
- addressing the performance gap between the poor and the not-so-poor in Northern Virginia in academic excellence
More on all this as developments warrant.