I wrote this piece to present at the seasonal wrap-up of my local community organizing group. Alas, I am very wordy and had to cut some of it for the sake of moving the meeting along, so I decided to share the full text here.
Reflections on Community Organizing
Over the last few years, I’ve found that my life has – somewhat unintentionally – started to orient itself around social justice and community service.
First, I started an ethical fashion blog – which basically means I talk about labor rights, pollution, and economic policy through the medium of personal style; I promise it’s more exciting than it sounds.
Because most of the people I talk about and advocate for live in other countries and have vastly different lives than my own, I reflect a lot on how I can best cultivate a broader sense of what it means to not just shop ethically, but live ethically.
Secondly, I started managing a local thrift shop that functions as a ministry of a local church. It’s important to me that I always keep that word, ministry, in mind as I work through the tedium of sorting donations, schedule volunteers, and talk with and assist our customers, who come from many different backgrounds, cultures, and places.
It strikes me again and again that there’s no one size fits all when it comes to reaching people, or being present.
At the thrift shop, I tend to reflect on how I can best cultivate an environment of radical, universal welcome, how I and my volunteers can make each person feel at home.
And then I started working with my local justice ministry. I’d been asking these BIG questions about Ethics and Ministry and it seemed to me that working within an interfaith, multi-demographic, local community organizing group could answer some of these questions for me.
When I first got involved last fall, I thought I would just feel things out, attend a few meetings, and come to the annual events. I didn’t anticipate that I would become a team member, and then give my friend’s testimony [on the difficulty of aging while impoverished] at the fall assembly.
And then I joined a strategy committee. And then I made friends, younger, older, from different faiths and different life paths. And things since then have been exasperating and life-affirming, sometimes in the same meeting! And people have rubbed me the wrong way, and the same people have encouraged me in this work.
And I’m coming to realize that I can’t have a pet cause when it comes to justice.
It’s all or nothing – once you see injustice, you can’t unsee it. And even when the community’s and the world’s problems seem insurmountable, you start to hunger to change things. As author Barbara Kingsolver said recently at a local event: “Hope is a moral imperative.” You hope – and work – for change because you have to. It becomes your calling.
Seeking loving justice in the local, tangible way that this justice ministry does has changed me. It makes me realize how much I don’t know, and it challenges my individual notions of what is best. It has forced me to realize that the important thing is keeping the conversation and the work moving forward.
It grounds the more theoretical work I do in the realities of community and connection.
And working specifically on the elder care issue has opened me up to the challenges of my largely older volunteer team at work and to my customers young and old who sacrifice much to care for their loved ones.
I believe in justice ministry because I can see change – not just in the communities we seek to aid but in the relationships formed in this space, and in my own life. Admittedly, there were times in the last few months where I felt so overwhelmed I couldn’t think straight. I felt like quitting everything. But we need each other on every scale, on every level.
And understanding that has not only helped me do better work and write better blog posts, it’s helped me orient myself even more toward the humility, compassion, and dedication my faith has called me to.