When I arrived at Unity Temple eleven and a half years ago, the congregation wanted me to develop their social justice ministry. There was just one problem: I didn’t have a clue how to do it. I was up front with them about this -- that we would need to learn how to do this together. But here’s what’s hard to admit: for nearly eight years in Oak Park, I remained in the dark about how to do social justice work effectively. I remember trying to support a few good folks, but try as we might, we’d get very little traction.
Everything changed when I attended a three day training at Community Renewal Society for faith-based community organizing. I took four of my leaders with me. We learned that the heart of relational organizing is having genuine conversations with others, conversations about what we value and what motivates us so that we develop an ever expanding network of relationships and we know who is committed to what issue. We also discovered that this kind of faith-based organizing connects us not only with each other but with people much different than us. Over these three days, several leaders of Ceasefire were also being trained as were members of FORCE, Fighting to Overcome Records and Create Equality. We got to know these folks and others who had profoundly different life experiences yet so clearly shared our commitments. We bonded. Ever since, these conversations--these connections--have motivated us.
I hadn’t realized until having conversations and making these connections, just how many people in the Chicago area live with felonies on their records, all because they have drug convictions--and how people of color are arrested at far higher rates than whites, even though the rates of drug use are very similar. And so I joined the effort to get legislation passed to allow felons convicted of non-violent crimes to seal their records four years after doing their time.
Because my congregation created UTCAN, the Unity Temple Congregational Action Network, we turned out 100 people out to a Martin Luther King Day action that joined several hundreds of others from churches throughout the Chicagoland area. Since Unity Temple had so many people there, my senator, Senator Don Harmon, agreed to sponsor the bill. Three months later, we took 30 people to Springfield. Members of my congregation persuaded two Republican legislators to sign on the bill. And it’s now the law of Illinois.
This is my awakening: social change is not rocket science!
Only a few people can build rockets, but anyone and everyone can participate in social change. And when people come together to stand strategically for a clear, meaningful, and attainable goal, ordinary people--organized--have tremendous power. I have witnessed this several times.
It all begins with relationship building. This is what makes the journey joyful, nourishing, and meaningful.
This year, UTCAN turned out 95 people to join nearly 1,500 people to the Martin Luther King Faith in Action Day, held at Liberty Baptist Church on Chicago’s south side to take action in the spirit of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We gathered for the sake of taking action to reduce violence, repair lives, and rebuild communities. At Monday's gathering, community leaders asked pointed questions of Chicago mayoral candidates, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, seven Illinois State Senators, and ten State Representatives. All of them committed to support the vision we shared. Go to http://www.communityrenewalsociety.org/building-power-winning-victories-mlk-assembly for more information.
May this journey of learning how to love ever more courageously be infectious and bring so many more of us together for the sake of bringing about ever more justice, equity, and compassion among us all.