Just before the July 4th holiday I attended the national gathering of the National Organizer’s Alliance (NOA) , a network of community organizers, labor organizers and social activists from across the country. I was there to learn about community organizing work that was being done at the grassroots level, and came away with that and so much more. The folks at the gathering represented a wide variety of groups and concerns: gay rights, environmentalists, immigration, drug policy reform, labor unions, women’s issues, anti-racism groups, church networks and much more. The group was racially, ethnically and generationally diverse, and leadership was shared equally and seamlessly across all the differences. While there were several “old-timers,” people who had been involved in social activism since the 1960’s, there also was a healthy contingent of late adolescents and twenty-somethings whose contributions and commitments were affirmed and celebrated. Despite all the apparent differences, there was a common commitment to radical social change and to “the movement” that will hopefully bring it about.
I met one African-American brother who had spent several years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and when he was released he returned to his home in rural South Carolina to work for economic and racial justice. He was elected as a county commissioner, but even that did not spare him from being harassed and threatened to the point of death by white supremacists in the area. However, he spoke gratefully of the support and assistance given to him from his colleagues from NOA during some of his most trying times. He saw the members of NOA as his extended family and community of support.
One night we were entertained by the D.C. Labor Choir, a group of union folks who got together weekly to sing and support each other. Like the NOA group, the choir was made up of Asian, Latino, African-American and White folks of all ages. Several of the songs they sang were gospel songs (with the words slightly altered) that originally came out of the African-American church, which of course had been the heart and soul of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s and 60’s.
As I was listening to the choir and reflecting on my experience with these ordinary folks committed to extraordinary change, I felt like I was in “church”; not church in the stuffy formal sense that many folks think of church, but “church” in its best and fullest sense. The feeling of mutual support was true community, the music spoke to the depths of my soul, the commitments expressed were infectious, and the vision of a new world brought about by the movement reminded me of Jesus speaking about the Reign of God that is here and is to come. Furthermore, as I spoke with folks individually, I learned that many of them were strengthened by a deep sense of purpose that came from their religious faith, be it Jewish, Christian, Muslim or undefined.
Krista Tippet, the author of Speaking of Faith, and host of the radio show by the same name, says that in our current age with its tendency toward extremisms of all kinds, our society and world is in need of religious “moderators,” people who do not deny the importance of faith but instead “bring the best of their traditions to bear on the world.” I felt that I was in the presence of such moderators, folks who were drawn to a vision of a world of equity, peace, fairness, health, safety and cooperation with nature. Cynics and “realists” on the Left and Right denounce such visionaries as impractical. That cynicism leads to the life-destroying policies of both the left and right, and only breeds greater enmity between the two. The Rush Limbaughs, Ann Coulters and Bill Mahers of the world scoff at such visions, and only leave us in despair. By contrast spiritual moderators imbue us with a sense of optimism because they see through the present struggle to a brighter horizon where hope lives. Such hope does not hide or deny present struggles and suffering, but helps sustain us to keep working toward a world free of unjust suffering.
My experience at the NOA gathering was so moving because 25-30 years ago when I was marching against Vietnam, nuclear power, U.S. support of the contras and other causes, there was a great deal of anger and enmity on the Left toward spiritually oriented people. While there were always religiously oriented leaders like Jesse Jackson and William Sloane Coffin involved, I felt that they were tolerated because of their political leanings and basically ignored (by most) for their spiritual convictions. What I sensed at NOA was something quite different; I felt an openness to the Transcendent that pointed to a deeper spirituality infusing those seeking social change.
One of the great things about this postmodern age we live in is that I can affirm my Christian roots and motivation, while someone else can affirm their roots from another tradition, and we don’t have to feel like one of has to “win” the other over. Instead we can stand in the space that our common commitments create for us despite our different sources of inspiration. In such encounters I am reminded that God or Allah or Yahweh or the Higher Power or whatever we call the Transcendent is far too vast for any one of us to fully grasp, and therefore large enough for all of us to be covered by the Divine grace and shelter of love.
Robert Mulholland writes that often God comes to us from the margins of life in what he calls a “decentering experience.” In other words very often the Transcendent is found in the places where one would least expect to experience a deep sense of a spiritual presence. I did not go to the NOA gathering expecting to experience “church;” nonetheless, God met me there in deep and profound ways, and I am deeply grateful for being decentered yet again.