“I can’t believe this is happening.” I plopped into the chair in my colleague Joe’s office, eyes glued to the Twitter feed in my hand. The world was waiting for the announced press briefing with President Donald Trump, when, presumably, we would hear whether or not the United States would declare war on Iran.
“Oh, I can believe it,” he replied. “I’ve just been trying to wrap my head around becoming an anti-war activist again. You know, not that I stopped, but gearing up again.”
“I hadn’t even gotten there yet. I don’t have time to organize another set of protests or to teach people to hate war.” We laughed in recognition and aggravation. The ethical focus of our preaching, teaching, community work, and programs had been primarily on anti-racism and economic justice.
“Why don’t we add the Great Litany to the service today?” I suggested after a few moments of fruitless swipe-swipe-refreshing.
“Yeah, if there were ever a time ‘of war or national anxiety,’ this would be it,” he shrugged, quoting the litany itself as he flipped through his copy of the Book of Common Prayer on his desk to read the rubrics.
The Great Litany is a series of prayers of petition calling for God’s intervention. This long form of prayer traces its origins back to the early church, and the litany was the first English language rite crafted by Thomas Cranmer for the English prayer book. In contemporary use, it is particularly appropriate for Lent or on Rogation Days, when the precarity of our subsistence on this earth is acknowledged as we pray for God’s provision. The Great Litany is meant to be prayer in motion, started as the ministers take their places or even continued as an ongoing parade for the duration of the prayers and responses, a rhythm of steps and intercessions.
O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth, Have mercy upon us. . . . Spare us, good Lord, spare thy people.
The United States, of course, did not go to war with Iran in 2019, although our country’s military engagement in the region continues in problematic ways. That day didn’t mark the start of our pivot into anti-war organizing in the parish, at least, not in a formal sense. There were no grand statements, no initiatives in response to current events, but in a regular service of worship, we strategically chose a liturgical piece that brought peace and lament into focus.
That chat and liturgical decision are just one moment in the ongoing picture of how organizing within a church takes place slowly and incrementally. In a world that seems to be carrying more than a reasonable load of brokenness, the church and the priesthood can become the center of all sorts of advocacy and change work in its call to love, including climate activism, anti-racism, peace building, educational advocacy, economic and development organizing, and dozens more forms of issue-based activism and care. When communities of faith recognize their call to love for all persons and begin this work, incredible transformation is possible. When a church is convinced of its call to care, begins to notice patterns and systems, and embraces its role in modeling a social ethic and working to bring about a more just community, it is on its way to organizing. God’s call to big-picture mercy leads to the long-haul work of church community organizing.
I am certainly not the first to consider the boundaries between the sociopolitical world and the church or how the church’s call to love the world and work for justice and peace intersects with the work of various fields of community organizing. But part of the work of parish ministry is reflection on these intersections, and in my early career as an Episcopal priest, I can see the ways I’ve explored those overlapping spaces. And I’ve also seen how the long-haul, multifaceted work of church community organizing can emerge through truth-telling, ritualization of a community vision of love, and the ongoing work of spiritual accompaniment. It turns out that the ancient liturgies and practices, the prayers and scriptures, might just be organizing all of us, clergy and people alike.
What’s a Priest to Do?
Clergy are not legislators or political analysts, advisers or generals, not even peace activists or community organizers, per se. As a priest in the Episcopal Church, I am charged to proclaim by word and deed the gospel of Jesus Christ and to fashion my life in accordance with its precepts. I’m to love and serve the people among whom I work, caring alike for the young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. I’m to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessing, to share in the administration of holy baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ’s body and blood, and to perform the other ministrations entrusted to me. As a solo parish priest, this calling takes its shape in leading and planning worship, facilitating and encouraging study, praying, leading service programs, running the 501(c)(3), supervising staff and volunteers, tending facilities and resources, offering care and counsel, and administering the sacraments.
For all of us, the code and commitments that undergird weekly work carry political weight. Love and service, impartiality, and recognition of the presence of God in the affairs and worries of human beings should spill out of Sunday service into the ordering of our common lives. Paul reminded the Philippians that their first citizenship was in heaven, and Christ’s teachings and work showed that the kingdom of heaven, calling for a peculiar loyalty and citizenship, is at hand, very near, being glimpsed and lived in the here and now. This is a comprehensive spiritual and social vision of healing that includes removal of abusive power and abolishment of relational alienation from the family to the polis. It is the vision toward which our community’s preaching, liturgies, ministry, and practice should be organized.
I know a bit, vicariously, about good community organizing. My spouse is an organizer who has worked with national networks for equitable urban development, with grassroots coalitions of workers and immigrants, with the AFL-CIO, and most recently, with a Tennessee-based organization that works for social, environmental, and economic justice. For nearly a decade, he’s given me a front row seat to organizing campaigns and to social and political techniques that educate, equip, connect, and mobilize communities in advocacy and activism around issues of social injustice. When we were both graduate students at Vanderbilt University, I attended many of his organizer trainings too: the nonviolent tactic workshops, de-escalation trainings, civil rights education sessions, and protest security team briefings.
The field of community organizing is both practical and theoretical. There is a whole body of knowledge from a history of collaborations and solidarities as religious, political, and other movement groups have worked together for social change. The practical wisdom of power analysis and strategic partnerships, of starting with deep listening to the needs of communities and centering the leadership of persons who are most affected by social oppressions are just a few of the incredible tools neglected in vocational ministry training. And while there are some clear distinctions in the ways that the church prioritizes its mission and social impact, these tools have the potential to help keep ecclesial institutions honest, connected to their contexts and the larger landscape of justice and human community.
Often the first work of church organizing is to raise our awareness of the foundational call to social action, the implications of the gospel on our work for justice and peace. As activist, artist, and (for a season) Catholic nun, Mary Corita Kent put it in some of her incredible prints, “Why don’t you give a damn about your fellow man?” Far too many Christians, clergy, and laypersons do not appear to give a damn beyond Sunday morning worship or the concerns of their in-group. The corporal works of mercy—to feed and give drink, clothe, shelter, visit the sick and incarcerated, and bury the dead—are fundamental human needs that Christ directly addressed. Hunger and lack, poverty, illness, and incarceration are not just individual instances of bad luck but part of a social pattern. In situations in which social harm is occurring, the structures of our common life and our polis need to be reorganized so that all can flourish; isolated acts of charity alone cannot accomplish that work. If all the fish in a lake are sick and dying, the solution for the damage is not to cure one fish but to fix the water pollution.
A church community first has to understand and struggle with its practical, material call to love and healing in this world; it has to give a damn. Without understanding a call to care, and without understanding the social and political contextualization of suffering, it’s easy to ignore the church’s role in systems of harm and oppression. As Dom Hélder Câmara noted, “Religions, in capitalist areas, run a very grave risk of being caught up in the system. They are courageous in broadcasting beautiful principles, but without sufficient energy to carry them through, for the very reason—though perhaps an unconscious one—that they will be themselves affected by the process of incorporation.”
Charity, then, is only one piece of living out the beautiful principles of Christianity. Religious communities are also called to actively address social dynamics, political systems, and economic conditions that inhibit justice and peace. Complicity in oppression is a far more common tale of religious institutions than resistance. It matters whether clergy retirement accounts are ethically invested. It matters whether the historic parish is a relic of the Confederate South or holds artistic symbols of racism and sexism. It matters that we pay laborers for the church justly. The priest and parish who do not evaluate their own colonial histories, consider their economic and social practices, and stay mindful of their social privileges cannot be part of meaningful change.
For Christian organizing, the common starting point is Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and promised return. This story proclaims that belovedness and wholeness in God’s kingdom are the truest thing about humanity. This story is the start of our complex, lifelong, and necessarily incomplete endeavor to enact the truth of each of our belovedness and wholeness in God’s kingdom. It is because of this story that organizing for social change from the church can never forget that all are beloved. We cannot organize for efficiency alone or adopt methods that suggest that anyone is expendable.
In organizing work, one connects with allies in order to address and persuade or impede targets, as community resources are assessed and disadvantages are identified and dealt with. This language, the speech of strategy, is practical, clear, helpful, and, for Christians, inadequate. Alexia Salvatierra points out that the conventional language of identifying an organizing target falls apart for the Christian. God’s children include even those whose behaviors we are hoping to change, those from whom others need protection. Even the targets of community organizing are gathered into God’s redemption of all people. Everyone has a place at God’s table. In the kingdom of God, nothing is wasted, and everything can be redeemed; there can be only allies. To be the work of resurrection, our practical and strategic work must be approached through that lens of gathering all things together.
The commitment to holding all things together in Christ is always a challenge, but it can feel especially fraught when partisan polarization shouts down curiosity, when demonization is the norm. Steadily seeking nuance and complexity and consistently listening beyond the headlines can seem a betrayal of fundamentalist commitments to one position or another. The slick marketing spin of power drowns out the voices of those who are being affected by policies or development, and the urgency of the day’s news cycle dictates public awareness. But the work of recovering people’s histories and diverse perspectives on a situation shifts the power of authorship, makes simple slogans more complex, and leads to new possibilities. It also follows the example of Christ, the prophets, and apostles, who wrestled with stories and refused oversimplification in favor of larger, interwoven visions of human flourishing.
Identifying and questioning public narratives and the power behind those narratives is critical for developing a community-based story or collection of stories. As Catherine Meeks, the director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing, says, “Telling the truth is the only path to real healing.” For some Christian traditions, biblical or theological truth is insisted upon as static and nonnegotiable. As a teen, I attended an evangelical Christian high school, where students were trained to be literalist biblical apologists. I dutifully studied a handbook filled with comparative charts, ready to defend God’s big T Truth against any threat of heresy. But this is a defensive approach that may not be the most beneficial or nuanced prophetic work. The truth-telling work of the church is not a matter of nailing down one objectively true worldview or categorizing orthodoxy within an inch of its life.
Instead, truth-telling in the church can be an ongoing spiritual practice. A spiritual practice is a form of prayer and discipline of the heart in which we put into practice attending to the Holy Spirit in our lives. We return to it again and again, and the truth, the deepest story of the community, is refined and changes over time as the church’s stories are retold and new voices join in the telling. This approach to truth-telling recognizes the limitations of our own subjectivity and that of the biblical writers and audiences, saints, theologians, and communities throughout the history of our faith. It refuses to set up an idol of a singular human claim. More than speculation, this is the work of expanding our listening in each new season and moment. We wade into the notion that we can’t fully know, and yet we must continue to show up and ask, to give voice or ear to silenced stories and then point to what can be known and build from there.
Rituals of Love
Although the ritualization of this community vision takes shape differently according to our specific tradition, liturgy, and cultural context, the rituals of belovedness and the call to live out the divine love in the world around us is a feature of all Christian worship. In a worship service, there are prayers, Scripture, proclamation, community care, perhaps music, and often, sacrament. We gather to be spiritually nourished, reminded of our citizenship in God’s kingdom, and to encounter the presence of the Holy Spirit in our common lives.
In community worship, and particularly in the sacraments, a space connected and apart from our lives is created, a liminal or transitional space. We place ourselves for an hour or two in this different space and time, all with the intention of encountering the divine. In consultation with generations of the faithful, we cocreate a time and space in which we might glimpse the connection and care of God’s kingdom. This liminal function of liturgical ritual is especially clear in the sacraments. At baptism, the Christian tradition creates a ritual of citizenship with the saints, a loyalty beyond all nation, party, movement, or practice. In the Eucharist or Communion, there is an abundant, equitable economy; the food and drink are abundant, and everyone receives the same full measure.
The liturgies of the church perform and invite an alternative spiritual reality. Does that qualify as an effective community organizing strategy? Of course not. But gathering with an intergenerational community with members not of our choosing; creating beauty in song and prayer thousands of years old; speaking and hearing a vision of God’s presence in Scripture, prayer, and preaching—these practices all have the potential to transform us beyond the liturgy, if we are willing.
Of course, corporate worship and the spiritual power of liturgy are more than an organizing tactic, and the essential focus on Christ is not strictly necessary for social change. However, this departure from the pure political method leans into the realm of social psychology, recognizing that this creative and ritual space can build unlikely solidarities through emotional attunement. Christian organizing that neglects to gather in worship and prayer will lose its tether and foundation; worship and prayer can fuel community empowerment for social change unlike any other practice of the church or skill of the clergy.
Along with worship, the church carries the peculiar work of lifelong spiritual accompaniment through community care and Christian formation. Its organizing is a matter of not only influencing the community without but also cultivating and nourishing the community within. This is critical because we face the question of how to grow capacity for social healing, justice, joy, welcome, and care, especially when we are struggling or suffering. When COVID-19 waves and political upheaval have piled on top of the usual worries and woes of life, when people have been wrung out to dry, how can we ask them to give a damn again? How do we balance the outward- and inward-facing calls? How can we manage to speak to or work at the conditions of the world while tending to the conditions of our own hearts?
The suffering in the world can fill our spiritual firmament and diminish our sense of agency for change making. We may find ourselves saying, “I know it’s not good, but I can’t stop watching the news,” or “I’m so angry that people don’t seem to care about anyone else that I just want to shut the world out.” Then there are the personal costs for soul-weary and grieving folks. There are the people who may say, “I know we need to get back to church, but after two years of telling my kids ‘no’ because of COVID, that’s just not a fight I want to have,” or who may say, “I don’t know how to be with people or talk about things since my husband died, and we couldn’t have the funeral because of COVID-19 restrictions.” Caring folks are still susceptible to weariness, inaction, and being overwhelmed. Good people find themselves war-torn, weary, and in need of care and restoration in their lives before they can take a step to offer it to their neighbor.
The church and its ministers practice spiritual accompaniment in all of life, and the tradition and vision of God’s kingdom makes space for this weariness in the community. Rooted in the notion of 1 Corinthians’ care for the more vulnerable members of the body, we can commit to sustainable pacing in our organizing and community work and to creatively considering how we can engage in justice and peacemaking in ways that nourish our communities and spirits as we go. We might also consider what the ancient liturgical rhythms of feast and fast might offer to weary people with a demanding call on their lives. The people of God ate well before their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. We do well to feed people, not just spiritually, but with real food. Potlucks! Pizzas! Coffee-hour snacks! Grief casseroles! Holy Eucharist! A fed body is a loved body, and a loved body is full of power and abundance to care for the world. God’s people also danced and sang as they watched the Red Sea close over their enemies. The sentiment of US American feminist activist Emma Goldman comes to mind: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.” Accompanying one another through dark and weary times requires a recovery of joy, a commitment to celebration and catharsis, and practical body nourishment.
Slow Work and the Gift of Grace
Steven Covey offers the insight that leaders should move at the speed of trust. Although there’s no way to execute this speed perfectly, putting the principle into practice is crucial for clergy. At the speed of trust, the organizing work of a church—tending to its own folks, developing community-wide credibility, and cultivating trust in the process at every step—can feel terribly slow. But Christian discipleship, the heart of the organizing, is lifelong work, slow work. It is a sign of grace that we are called to the work of solidarity and not salvation. This is articulated in the words of Bishop Ken Untener’s “Oscar Romero prayer”:
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. . . . We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
A gift of Christianity to the work of organizing is this remarkable clarity on the matter of grace for our limits. We are not the savior. This allows us to be finite, to be gentle with ourselves and each other, to look beyond our own visions to a notion of love and flourishing that is even more radical than what we could devise on our own. This eschatological vision that our work is but one tiny fraction of God’s “magnificent enterprise” also prevents hubris. It tempers the notion that we could arrive at a solution for all ills, achieve it, and manifest God’s kingdom in the present moment.
But there is, as the hymn says, “a foretaste of glory divine” in the practices and prayer, the work and the relationships to which the church is called. The limits and imperfections, the open questions and frustrations in the life and work of the church don’t prevent us from glimpses of the kingdom come. God’s grace and love shine through all of it. Church organizing—the spiritual work of truth-telling, ritual, and accompaniment—is not just a supplement to Christian worship or a set of strategies for social change; it’s at the heart of the gospel. When, like Jesus, the spirit of the Lord comes upon us, we proclaim the good news to the poor, brokenhearted, captive, and struggling world through word and deed. Social transformation is intertwined with spiritual transformation, and together they are the message of love that was proclaimed and modeled by Jesus Christ. Together, they are the message of love that the church is called to proclaim and model.
 “The Great Litany,” in the Book of Common Prayer (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 2007), 148.
 See the examination of the ordinand in “Ordination of a Priest,” Book of Common Prayer, 525.
 This metaphor was first introduced to me by trainers from the Racial Equity Institute, //www.racialequityinstitute.com/.
 Câmara, The Spiral of Violence (London, UK: Sheed and Ward, 1971), 53.
 In this essay, I’m writing in the context of mainline Christian Protestantism in the United States, recognizing that the work of ministry and organizing in Western late-stage capitalism is not the global situation.
 Meeks quoted in Michelle Hiskey, “Pilgrims Bear Witness to Racial Reconciliation at Georgia Lynching Site,” Episcopal Church, October 26, 2016, www.episcopalchurch.org/socialjusticeandadvocacy/pilgrims-bear-witness-to-racial-reconciliation-at-georgia-lynching-site/.
 Goldman quoted or paraphrased in Alix Kates Shulman, “Dances with Feminists,” Women’s Review of Books 9, no. 3 (December 1991), https://www.lib.berkeley.edu/goldman/Features/danceswithfeminists.html.
 Covey, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything (New York, NY: Free Press, 2008).
 Untener, “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, October 25, 1979, https://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/prayers/prophets-of-a-future-not-our-own.
 See Fanny Crosby and Phoebe P. Knapp, “Blessed Assurance: Jesus Is Mine!,” https://hymnary.org/text/blessed_assurance_jesus_is_mine; and Luke 4:18.