Taking to the Streets, and Beyond

Laura Barrett

I suspect that many of us who have been active in progressive advocacy over the years are getting frantic calls from friends and family – people who may have always been sympathetic to just causes but now feel an urgency to be a part of something bigger. To fight back against illiberal policies. To turn off our screens and march in the streets.

As people of faith, what is our obligation to defend the rights and dignities of our sisters and brothers? How does our faith inform our activism? How do people who feel called to make a difference navigate barriers that discourage them from following through on their good intentions?

New Testament Takeaway

Years ago, I had a friendly argument over how best to serve God and God’s will on earth. The disagreement between me and my friend focused on how we read the New Testament and what we take away from the stories of Jesus and his disciples.

My interpretation of Jesus’ message is to love and serve others, particularly those most in need. I declared my belief to my friend: to model our lives on Jesus’ is to help the poor, organize and agitate against the money changers, preach love over hate. I described how my own life’s work is inspired by my faith and the stories of Jesus.

My friend just shook his head.

In his view, charity and service were merely “works” that, no matter how noble their intention, distracted from Jesus’ central message: that faith in him, acceptance of him as the Son of Man, is the singular path to truly serving God’s will. In other words: to serve God is to proselytize, not organize.

Urgent Tasks

We agreed to disagree that day, and over the years we have lost touch. But that conversation always stayed with me. I continue to view my work as an outgrowth of my faith and my service to God. And I wonder how my friend feels today. He is a good man who cares deeply about the welfare of all people. I wonder if, facing the harsh winds of this latest national election cycle, he still feels that recruiting people to church is a more urgent task than, say, making sure full-time working people can feed their family. Or that they have a way to report wage theft or unsafe working conditions. Or that every American has access to affordable health care.

I suspect that he may feel differently today.

There are many wonderful faith-inspired traditions that enhance economic conditions, hope, and solidarity – I think of liberation theology in Catholicism, the kibbutz movement in Judaism, the Zakat pillar of faith in Islam. But for too long, a gulf has separated spiritual conviction and social justice among American progressives.

An Overdue Resurgence

The element of religious faith in the ranks of American progressivism is due for a resurgence. It’s crucial that our actions in congregational life attract people to faithful efforts that endeavor to improve lives in pragmatic ways. This means not only to worship together and strengthen our churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, but to face injustice head-on together, using the tenets of our faith to demand a better world, one that is more aligned with God’s image of fairness and equity.

Dorothy Day wrote in The Catholic Worker in 1953: “But I am sure that God did not intend that there be so many poor. The class structure is of our making and our consent, not His. It is the way we have arranged it, and it is up to us to change it. So we are urging revolutionary change.”

Even as we’ve seen stunning displays of solidarity across the country and the world this year – including January’s historic Women’s March – we must recognize obstacles to further activism on behalf of the justice movement.

Countless News Stories

Days after the inauguration, a friend called to tell me she had joined every email list she could find, signed petitions demanding the defense of the Affordable Care Act, immigration protections, climate policy, and much more. She had called her senators and was sharing countless news stories on social media. Yet she still felt she wasn’t doing enough.

Her apprehensions reminded me how important is the most basic currency of organizing: relationships.

So this is the first obstacle to getting involved: the temptation to equate your activism with screen time. It’s good to keep friends and family informed about issues important to you, and keep making those phone calls to legislators. But you’ve got to get out and meet people, have one-to-one conversations, attend town halls, visit your lawmakers’ offices. Find your community and plug in. It will feel a million times more powerful than clicking “send” on social media.

There are cultural obstacles to getting involved. Have you ever been talking about an issue that you’re passionate about at the office or at a dinner party and get told to “lighten up” or “don’t worry so much”? Maybe you get dismissed as one of those “social justice warriors” who are too politically correct to be taken seriously. Don’t cave in or withdraw in silence. The chance calmly to engage this resistance and explain why you care about a particular issue will be just as important as finding a group of like-minded activists to join. Again, we can’t simply have these conversations online. We must talk in person, seizing the moment to find common ground or improve and toughen our arguments.

Finally, there is the economic obstacle. We all have to work to pay the bills, some people many more hours than others. For many, showing up for a  meeting or a protest after work means summoning energy that is difficult to find.

Economically and vocationally, this hits students especially hard. Those who want to pursue a field of study focused on service or causes of justice may find their plans derailed by the college debt payments they will soon owe. For a graduate with $100,000 in debt from loans, taking a $25,000 entry-level activist job may no longer be feasible.

These systemic challenges to activating oneself in the fight for progress have always existed. What is different now is the moral imperative so many of us suddenly feel, maybe for the first time, to join a movement.

This is no time for intellectual arguments over works vs. faith or quarrels over whose religious doctrines are correct on every point. This era calls us all to reconsider how we operate our lives day to day and how we might be better servants of the will of God.

Perhaps, in a perverse way, we should be thankful for this distinct moment of clarity.

Laura Barrett is executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, based in Chicago. IWJ advances the rights of workers by engaging faith communities into action that ranges from grassroots organizing to shaping policy at the local, state, and national levels.