Written by Anthony Moujaes
The United Church of Christ would like to give members around the country the tools to live their faith, love their community — through justice work. By training lay leaders to go into their neighborhoods and work toward fixing the problems that they see in their hometowns, congregation-based community organizing can make a difference.
The Rev. Kelly Jean Burd, Minister for Leadership Development in Justice and Witness Ministries, says churches can benefit from community organizing because it offers a way to engage in public work, while strengthening the life and mission of a congregation.
"I heard a church pastor say that offering community organizing training to his laity has equipped them with transferrable skills that benefit many aspects of his church’s life and increase his productivity as a pastor," she said. "A seminarian with community organizing experience reminded us that seminaries reflect the priorities of the church, and challenged us to consider the teaching of organizing skills as requisite ministry education."
Through congregation-based community organizing (CBCO) gatherings – one of which recently took place in Chicago – a group of people learn how to affect change. For example, parents can identify problems in busing, school safety or education where they live. They can begin to address those types of issues with the leadership skills they learn, and then apply those skills to what would work best in their community. The recent gathering in Chicago convened seminary, church and organizing staff for discussions on widening seminarians to CBCO experiences and skills.
Numerous UCC congregations throughout the country have seen and benefited from the results. Pastors say that participation in CBCO can be a transforming experience for congregations, individuals, and communities.
"In more than 30 years as an urban pastor in East Harlem and Buffalo I have found no more effective model for ministry than that offered by congregation based community organizing," said the Rev. Bruce McKay, pastor of Pilgrim-St. Luke’s UCC in Buffalo, N.Y. "Our congregation in Buffalo, like so many other urban UCC congregations, would now be closed or in the suburbs if it were not for our fully embracing congregation based community organizing."
"Community organizing is often misunderstood, but the principles outlined in Matthew 18:15-20 are a great guide to what faith-focused or church-based community organizing is all about: people uniting together to address a common injustice," says Daniel Romero, a community organizer and member of Wellington Avenue UCC in Chicago.
Romero says that the skills learned from confronting oppression are strong methods to revitalize churches and strengthen justice work in local communities.
The UCC’s Congregational Vitality and Discipleship team agreed to co-sponsor scholarships for upcoming CBCO trainings in 2013. Read more on how to become involved with congregation based community building on the UCC website.