September 2010: Sydney Alliance
Want to start a program for the homeless? Get people involved in social ministry? Revitalise your congregation and at the same time really change the rules of the game to give people at the bottom a better chance?
Why don’t you look into community organising? According to a recent edition of Sojourners magazine, it’s got the answer.
Congregation-based or institution-based community organising is a process by which ordinary people, working through their faith community, become involved in public action to make social change on issues that they themselves have identified as important.
Now one of the largest social movements on the American scene — it’s where Barack Obama started out — congregation-based community organising had its roots in the work of Saul Alinsky. From the 1930s, Alinsky had great success building neighbourhood organisations founded on the democratic principle that the people of a community should have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.
Today, as local institutions disappear and cities devolve into collections of suburbs, organisers strive to create federations of member organisations that span an entire metropolitan area or region.
According to Sojourners, the most important institutions in which people still meet face-to-face to consider questions of value and meaning are churches, synagogues and mosques.
Alliances including congregations, schools and unions can become practical models of interracial and interreligious cooperation and “universities of public life”.
Organisers and leaders are trained to listen and to help people develop the skills and confidence to express their own values and interests in the public arena.
Pastors Sojourners talked to said that their participation in community organising had enriched both their ministry and the faith life of their people.
The method has caught on in the UK, where London Citizens is a powerful grassroots charity working with local people for local people. Its goal is social, economic and environmental justice and it trains people of all ages, faiths and backgrounds to take action together for change.
London Citizens says its experience of practising broad-based community organising across the UK confirmed that the threads that once connected the individual to the family, the family to their community and the community to the wider society were fraying and in danger of breaking altogether. “We believe these strands, connections and alliances are vital for a healthy democracy and should be the building blocks of any vibrant civil society.
“We believe that UK public life should be occupied not just by a few celebrities and politicians — but also by the people themselves seeking a part of the action.”
Now, with the Advent of Sydney Alliance, a similar opportunity for change has been presented to communities in New South Wales and the ACT.
With the Uniting Church a key participant, Synod Moderator Niall Reid says, “Not only will we be contributing to creating a better, stronger, more cohesive society, but also providing the opportunity for others to ‘meet Jesus’ through the relationships we build.”