Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Environmental Stewardship and an Unprecedented Opportunity in Illinois

Faith in Place is a wonderful example how people of faith and people of compassion have come together to make a difference in protecting the environment and helping people learn how we can live more sustainably. At the heart of Faith in Place has been real conversations between and among people, often of diverse faiths. They have developed great tools for congregations and individuals to use. And they have become a critical part of environmental advocacy in Illinois. All because people wanted to grapple together with how we human beings can more faithfully steward the resources of creation. 

My friend and colleague Rev. Clare Butterfield founded Faith in Place sixteen years ago in Chicago. Clare galvanized interest and commitment through intentional conversations. I first encountered Faith in Place twelve years ago when I first moved to Illinois.  At that time, Faith in Place was inviting congregations and individuals to buy into wind power when wind power was hardly known as a source of clean energy. And congregations and individuals did so as a moral act on behalf of the environment--first just a dozen and then that grew and grew. People of faith helped make wind power a viable clean energy source--and not just a fringe alternative, and over the last few years, wind power has been embraced by state and federal government. 

Faith in Place is Hiring in Southeastern IL! ThumbnailFaith in Place has continued to grow and engage people of faith and people of compassion. Every year they affiliated with more congregations through the state, now over 900 congregations. Five years ago they opened a Springfield office, and suddenly they became a significant presence in the environmental advocacy movement. The former head of that office is now the new Faith in Place executive director--and Brian Sauder really knows the best of advocacy work!

I love the vision and mission of Faith in Place. Their vision: Faithful people caring for the earth. Their mission: Faith in Place inspires religious people of diverse faiths to care for the Earth through connection, advocacy, and connection. 

A few years ago, they set their sights on limiting the environmental degradation by hydraulic fracturing--better known as fracking. They were a part of a coalition of environmental organizations that sat down with leaders of industry to address current concerns about fracking. A compromise bill for responsible fracking was developed. It didn’t ban hydraulic fracturing, but it also didn’t allow unlimited fracking. It was a meaningful first step, especially to get the costs of fracking into people’s awareness. And so the environmental coalition gathered people together to talk to state legislators in Springfield about the importance of responsible fracking. Faith in Place turned out the largest number of any of the groups. I was among them. The collective efforts of many thoughtful people brought this responsible fracking bill to pass. And it is now the law of Illinois.

Some environmental activists were upset with me and Faith in Place for supporting “responsible fracking” rather than a full moratorium. We were, according to them, “selling out.” No, we were taking the opportunity to make a real and meaningful step to limit fracking. Social change doesn’t mean getting everything you want, but instead finding meaningful, achievable steps. And the work is always one step at a time. For if all environmentalists had outright opposed any kind of fracking, there would have been no bill whatsoever. Fortunately, we now have guidelines for all current fracking efforts. It is a good first step.

Just this week, significant new legislation has been introduced by Senator Don Harmon (Illinois’s Senator Pro Tem who happens to be my Senator) to reduce energy use by 20% by 2025, increase the amount of renewable energy that our society uses by 35% by 2030, and create an estimated 32,000 new jobs annually in the emerging clean energy sector, once these policies are in place.  If this legislation passes, it will be the largest piece of renewable energy ever passed in Illinois--and it will dramatically transform Illinois’ energy landscape. The Senate Bill 1485 and House Bill 2607 that calls for this dramatic reinvestment into clean and renewable energy is a fabulous and unprecedented opportunity.

There’s only one thing that is required for this bill to become law: grassroots support. What can you do? First, go to and sign the petition and then ask your state representative and senator to support this legislation. 

Now, how did I learn about this bill? Because I read what Faith in Place sends to me! So, another great way to get involved in climate justice work is to learn more about the fabulous work of Faith in Place at People of faith and people of compassion are joining together to share ways we can move to a sustainable way of living. Faith in Place is one of the great hubs of such great people.

Take a look at this great video:

And, if stewardship of the environment is where love is beckoning you, find great people to join with at Faith Place!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Listening Conversations: Where’s Love Beckoning You?

Nothing strengthens a community more than its members becoming more aware of and engaged with other members around what is truly important to them. Seeds of social change get planted when a group of people cultivate relationships based on sharing what really matters for them. 

And its a nourishing way of pursuing social change to cultivate relationships through face-to-face, 1-to-1 conversations. When we practice this unique form of conversation that makes use of open and honest questions, we create the kind of connections that increase our capacity to be of greater influence in the world.  We challenge ourselves to articulate who we really are--and we learn who in our midst has similar motivations and passions and hopes. 

It all begins with showing up to 1) listen and 2) share honestly in 1-to-1, face-to-face conversations. These conversations are a unique form of relating, for they aren’t about creating simply social connections or business connections. Instead they are about two people getting real about what is important to each of us, what motivates us, what is at the source of our hope. They are conversations that deepen our awareness to challenging questions like “If there’s one thing that you could have a real impact on, what would that be?” “What breaks your heart?” and “Where is love beckoning you?” 

These questions are intimate questions. They invite a level of intimacy that we don’t typically share with others, and it is precisely this intimacy that makes these conversations so revolutionary. And so these conversations can’t be had between people who are complete strangers. There needs to be some common bond, whether sharing the same congregation or sports league or neighborhood. And the conversation needs to be held with the clear expectation that neither person is there to convince the other of anything; but instead this is an opportunity for the two people to discover what the other person is about. 

To have this kind of conversation takes courage. So I like to call these “courageous conversations.” It takes courage to sit down with someone who is different than us, who we don’t know well, and show up as we we really are. When we have these kinds of conversations, we are strengthened, for we know what kind of people we are in connection with. Following a 1 on 1, you will hopefully know where that person stands, what is important to them, and when it would make sense to call upon them in the future.

So you start by calling someone up or asking them in person--don’t send an email--and ask, “I’d like to sit down with you for 30 to 40 minutes and learn what matters to you and why and will gladly share with you what I’m about. Lets meet at a neutral place--a cafe, a park, wherever would be convenient.” Explain that this is a relational conversation, and you can say, “This isn’t about trying to get you to think, buy, or do anything. It is simply an opportunity for the two of us to get to know what the other is about in the world or what we want to be about in the world.” 

So how would you react if someone offered you such an invitation? I would be flattered as well as nervous. It is an invitation to show up as you really are. And this isn’t easy. That’s why these conversations take practice, at least at first. It’s also why this listening campaign I’m launching is for the next 18 months! The first few months are simply practice conversations, getting the hang of them. 

Houses of worship are a great place to hold these relational networking conversations. I have launched a Where Is Love Beckoning You? Listening Campaign in my own congregation. I invited my folks to participate--to practice this unique form of face-to-face 1-to-1 conversation so that by the end of the summer a critical mass of us are having these conversations with people who we don’t yet know. And I hope that this will spread well beyond Unity Temple into Oak Park and then beyond Oak Park into Chicago and neighboring suburbs. The wider this spreads, the stronger we will be as an interconnected people.

Social change begins with a critical mass of people recognizing a whole new way of being in relationship with one another, where members truly listen and share with one another what matters, motivates, and sustains us. As relational networks get created, meaningful change becomes possible. But it begins with the simple, nourishing work of sitting down with one person after another for an intentional conversation where real listening and showing up happens. As such conversations spread, the fabric of community becomes strengthened and the possibility of strategic action for real change emerges. 

Thomas Merton shared with Asian monks a profound awareness of what is possible. 
He wrote: 
I stand among you as one who offers a small message of hope, that first, there are always people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk. And among these people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest level is possible. And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech and beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are. 

I see relational face-to-face 1-to-1 conversations as helping each of us become what we truly are. It takes some critical self-reflection to become aware of what really motivates oneself, what one is truly passionate about, and the source of one’s hope. Often it’s painful to get real about these things, because it means coming to terms with the depth of brokenness in the world and in ourselves. We don’t typically relate to others in this way. Yet, there is great power in sharing honestly. 

I have experienced just how challenging these conversations can be. When entered into with the right spirit, such conversations can open up whole new worlds, when suddenly we can see our own passion through the lens of another, and it becomes all the more evident where love is beckoning. Almost every 1-to-1 conversation, in my experience, generates joy and energy--for here is one more person that I know who is walking through this world, and I now know some of what motivates them and what they long for. This ultimately is not simply communication but communion.

So, here is my challenge to you. Over the next 18 months, I challenge you to engage the practice of face-to-face conversations, aiming for two a month. Each month, beginning March 8, I will host sessions where we will practice this art of conversation and learn from our experiences. And I will have a lot more to say about this kind of conversation!

Will you join me in the practice of entering into face-to-face 1-to-1 30-40 minute conversations? If so, email me at You are welcome to join our practice sessions at Unity Temple, the first one is on March 8 at 12:30pm. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Alinsky with Love

What image comes to mind when you hear the phrase “community organizing”? For years I thought of people much different than me doing hard work that was important to them. Then, a decade ago, when I read about Barack Obama’s engagement with organizing in Dreams of My Father, I thought more romantically about the practice, imagining what it was like for a charismatic young Columbia educated man to move to Chicago and bring together people on the south side of Chicago to stand for meaningful change. But sill community organizing seemed foreign to me. Never did I think I would be called to engage a form of it.

My first brush with “community organizing” was disillusioning. I was part of an effort to ensure that low-income housing remains available in my neighborhood, here in Oak Park. Following one public meeting, several of us gathered around a professional organizer to debrief the meeting. Rather than cultivating a conversation, the organizer chided us on how poorly we pushed our position. He said that we had missed an opportunity to stand strong and instead had been too soft, polite, and dismissive of our own power. Looking back, he was right. But the way he communicated this was not helpful. I had no relationship with this guy who came off so condescending. After that experience, I distanced myself from anything that smacked of organizing. Instead I went about my various endeavors essentially as a lone ranger. 

I know a lot of people have been turned off to community organizing based on the model created by Saul Alinsky. It relies on gathering people through our shared anger and then to make forceful shows of strength for the sake of bullying community leaders into giving in to their demands. It identifies the establishment as “the enemy.” This kind of organizing can smack of uncompromising righteousness. And I can’t blame anyone for wanting to stay away!

That said, Alinsky was a genius. He brought people together in a given community to talk to one another about what they really needed. He recognized that the voice of the oppressed and the most vulnerable in society is the most important voice to prioritize. The first community he organized was workers in the 1930s who labored in the Chicago stockyards made infamous by Upton Sinclair. The Polish and Irish communities he organized not only gained better working conditions but their communities significantly shaped the city of Chicago. Because he was called to serving the needs of the oppressed, he began organizing the growing black ghettos of Chicago--to the ire of Richard Daley. And he took his organizing to some of the most troubled neighborhoods in the country, for the sake of lifting up the voices of the most vulnerable.

The basic building blocks of social change, according to Alinsky--and I think he is absolutely right--are 1-on-1 conversations among a matrix of people. However, the implementation of his model often leads to the disrespect of women and of those identified as “the enemy.” For example, one of his “rules” in his Rules for Radicals is “Ridicule is man’s most effective weapon.” I beg to differ. I believe that love is man’s--and woman’s--most effective weapon, as demonstrated by Martin Luther King, Jr. Sure there is confrontation and controversy, but the demands made retain the respect for the worth and dignity of all people. 

Community organizing groups often can develop approaches that rely on manipulation, trying to recruit people through their 1-on-1 conversations to achieve a specific goal. That's not what authentic relationship building is about. And when there is a sense of manipulation, rather than authenticity and openness, that gets communicated. 

Another one of his basic contentions is that the world changes through two means: organized money and organized people. If we go about our efforts as lone rangers, we don’t have any real power. If we find ways to connect with others and stand together, then when can have real influence in the world. But how we develop this shared influence and how we wield our power is critical.

And so I am interested in honing an approach to organizing that I call “Alinsky with Love.” I’m so glad that others have already done a lot of reflection on just this. Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heitzel articulate so beautifully a “faith-rooted” approach to organizing that begins with moving from the source of our hope and joy rather than relying on our anger. For anger as a motivation is not sustainable. Anger, as important as it is in justice-seeking and justice-making work, cannot be the foundation or core motivation. Instead, the foundation of effective community organizing, I believe, draws on the humanity of who we are and the humanity we encounter in others. 

This is what Martin Luther King, Jr., articulated as what kept him going: the faces and stories of people who struggled and suffered under the unjust and crippling forms of human-created oppression. Following Gandhi, Tolstoy, and Adin Ballou, King organized various communities to expose the blatant racism and violent, inhumane practices within our country. 

There are great people in Chicago and beyond who are organizing with this approach. 

The best articulation I’ve found of what I’m calling “Alinsky with Love” from a Christian perspective is the work of Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heitzel. Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World is a must-read for any spiritual or religious progressive who wants to bring people together to make a difference in the world. 

In the coming week, I shall launch a listening campaign in my own community, and I will invite you, wherever you are, to join us in the work of love with courage. So next week’s post will address specifically what I like to call “face-to-face” or “1-to-1” conversations look like, that hold the seeds in strengthening our communities around our most deeply held values and call each of us to articulate where love is beckoning us. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Bridging the Divide - Let’s Be Counter-Cultural

“Defeat Obamacare” was the last message on a huge homemade sign on the side of a house just a half mile from where I live. That sign once spelled out “Bush-Cheney” and “Elect John McCain.” No confusing this household’s political loyalties! When my wife and I received an invitation to a party at this very house, it came from a woman who wanted her daughter-in-law and my wife to meet since they are both from Latin American countries. We agreed to go.

Mary and John were the first people in our new community of Oak Park outside my congregation that had us over. It was a St Patrick’s Day party. That evening, I became acquainted with their extended family, an Irish Catholic clan with a broad range of political views, some as far left as Mary is right! I ventured to articulate my own core values and positions, and though many majorly differed from the hosts, the colorful conversation unfolded in the spirit of engaged and respectful dialog. I was welcome.

Five years later, Mary’s baby brother, Tom, died--much too young. Mary asked me to officiate the memorial service. Tom was a political and religious liberal, committed to serving others. This experience bonded me even closer with them. Grief and sorrow--just as kindness and compassion--transcend political ideology. Connecting with people around universal human themes transcends all divisions: political, religious, cultural. I witnessed the love that threads throughout this family.

To get to know people who are different than us--different political views, different theology and religious practices, different cultures--is a counterculture activity. And a crucial one if we want to strengthen the tapestry of community. Personal acquaintance of people who come from different backgrounds is what cultivates civility, respect, and a community strengthened by real relationships. It is not only personally edifying to know people from a broad range of backgrounds, it also makes for a healthier society. 

When I learned that their sign and house were vandalized, I was saddened that people in my community would bend so low. Such vandalism is cowardly. And such cowardly actions don't come only from the left.

I recently was talking with a friend of mine who will strike up a conversation with anyone, regardless whether he suspects there may be disagreement. For he shows curiosity for why people hold views different from his and then seeks to drill down towards common values, asserting his own perspective all the while. Over the last year he has encountered a disturbing trend. Rather than reaching a place of finding common ground, three separate conversations ended abruptly when the other person showed him that they were carrying a gun. Each of these three were successful businessmen and in one case a public official. My friend was speechless, angered and frustrated. These people seemed articulate and thoughtful and then demonstrated that a culture shift is occurring, as more people carry guns. Why would someone resort to actually sharing that they are packing heat, than to make an implicit threat? to suggest that they have firepower that they don’t need to listen to people with whom they disagree? 

There is a trend for people to carry guns wherever they go in some states. It seems to me that guns brought into and shown within the public square destroys the public square. It is a form of bullying. To reveal one’s gun in a heated conversation is an act of cowardice--as well as disrespect and distrust. How do we counter the effects of these values? How do we live out our shared values of inclusion, dialog and respect? 

I share these stories and questions because we, in this country, need to bridge the divide. The divisions between us seem to be widening, so all the more important for ordinary people to become ambassadors of love and nonviolence. Love with Courage calls us all to cultivate relationships that acknowledge our differences while finding common ground. I will share more soon about these “public” relationships that connect us to others.