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Community organizing seeds planted: LTSP alumni lead to positive change

How does today’s church bring hope to those experiencing the profound frustration of hopelessness in communities and neighborhoods marked by poverty and injustice?

One approach is through community organizing involving congregations that collaborate to rally their neighbors to bring about needed change for themselves as individuals, and for others.

Pr. Livingston, Dr. Day, Bishop RoysterLast month, two alumni from The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP), Bishop Dwayne Royster and the Rev. Ed Livingston, gathered with Professor Katie Day, the Charles A. Schieren Professor of Church and Society, to discuss the role of community organizing in today’s church world, and how the seminary’s training has helped them become leaders in community organizing initiatives.

Bishop Royster is the senior pastor at Living Word United Church of Christ at Philadelphia’s Oxford Circle and executive director of “Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild” (POWER), an initiative of 41 Philadelphia congregations focused on faith based community organizing aimed at promoting racial justice, dealing with issues of poverty, and overall organizing citizenry to play a larger role in determining the direction of their city.

Since graduating from LTSP in 2007, Pastor Livingston has immersed himself in community organizing initiatives in Columbus, Ohio, and, more recently, in Camden, New Jersey. In Camden, he is leading “Camden Churches Organized for People,”  part of PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing), a national initiative.

“I’m so excited that the seminary is producing leaders like these two men who are such influential leaders in community organizing,” Day said. “In the 1990s, President Krey and I started the Metropolitan/Urban Concentration at the seminary in order to teach our students what we wish we had known before the two of us became involved in urban ministry. We have long hoped that our teaching on community organizing could contribute and make a difference to our students. Poverty is not an abstract condition. What Dwayne and Ed are doing is real ‘on the street’ ministry, and we are offering real training in it. Through immersion experiences we are helping our students catch a glimpse of the skills required and the possibilities that can happen as a result of the kind of work Ed and Dwayne do.

“The Nones, people who say they have no religious preference, are saying that today’s church is not helping them feel their faith is coming alive,” Day said. “And that is a factor in the declining numbers churches are experiencing. Community organizing is a factor in many places where the church is growing. Community organizing is literally helping people to pray on their feet.

“It is so gratifying to teachers like me to see the people we teach take the tools we provide in our instruction and then set their sights on a direction as Ed and Dwayne have done,” Day continued. “It is so gratifying to see them living out their faith and growing, making a real difference based on their strong understanding of theology. It is why we do what we do.”

Day also lives out what she teaches. She chairs “Heeding God’s Call,” an initiative which seeks to end gun violence. (Royster was the chair before her.) The Philadelphia expression of the initiative involves participants of all faiths in gathering each month at a murder site resulting from gun violence. “We organize people of all faiths to witness to the carnage, to say this is not God’s will,” Day said. “Pastoral leadership is doing more than funerals and pastoral care. We hold an interfaith service at such a site to say we are standing with families of victims, and their neighborhoods.” She said Harrisburg’s expression of the initiative visited each one of 35 homicide sites involving guns in a recent year. “But in 2012 Philadelphia had 288 such crimes, and we just can’t keep up with them all,” she noted. The ministry seeks the support of Philadelphia gun shops to discourage sales to “straw buyers” who resell the weapons on the street to those who cannot legally purchase guns .

Royster explained he first became involved in community organizing in 1991, and learned the basis for it as a member of Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia and through the mentoring of Pastor Leon Sullivan. As a seminary student at LTSP, he said the school “gave me a framework, a deeper understanding of the Bible and theology to take the tools I already had and help me shape my reasoning and thinking for my ministry.”

Livingston said the seminary helped him wrestle with biblical texts like the words found in Micah 6:8. “My seminary education helped me learn to love kindness and service, to think about what it means to do justice,” Livingston said. He added that these days he enjoys organizing people to come together and make change and press for solutions.

Livingston explained Camden’s $138 million budget is vastly more than the income the city can raise from revenues ($21 million). “There’s been a tremendous transfer of resources to the Camden suburbs over 40 years of disinvestment,” Livingston said. “Those left behind leave the city with no real tax base, low incomes, and few jobs. The result is a concentrated poverty vacuum that leaves Camden’s citizens dehumanized. We work to restore dignity and provide a counter narrative through the work that we do.”

Livingston said a focus of his ministry is on health care improvements. “We have established an innovative health care program,” he said. “Half of Camden’s population uses emergency rooms for care because there simply aren’t enough doctors. Our organizing initiative has connected with local hospitals, health care organizations, and doctors to rewrite what healthcare can look like. We found hospitals and doctors are similarly frustrated about the delivery system.”

In a city high rise, Livingston said, research revealed that hospitals had billed the residents of that one building $19 million for health services in a recent year. Through gradual gaining of trust of residents, working with the building’s owner and with a hospital six blocks away, the organizing initiative developed a model to have a doctor and nurse available in the high rise. Private dollars were raised to remodel a space in the building for a clinic.

“About half the residents of the high rise now use the in house care program,” Livingston said. “And that has dramatically reduced the number of hospital visits and other costs.” Health care is also more convenient for those residents, he said.

Royster said POWER “pulls on the traditions of hope offered by churches, where people go for spiritual nourishment.” The organizing initiative goes beyond traditional church activities to work with people “who don’t think they have influence to make change. We provide a framework for the biblical narrative to let people know they are empowered to bring about change not only for others, but also for themselves.”

Issues they confront include immigration reform, low wages, and full and fair funding for public schools. “It is better if we make use of the power we have together than if we just do nothing,” he said.

An example of POWER’s influence is an initiative launched in 2011. “The Philadelphia Airport had announced a $6 billion expansion, and we were concerned that the Southwest Philadelphia neighborhoods in the vicinity of the airport would not sufficiently benefit from the proceeds of that project,” Royster said. He gave an example of a ground service employee, a woman in her 50s who has worked at the airport for seven years pushing passengers in wheelchairs through the facility. “The city owns and runs the airport,” Royster explained. But the woman is employed by a company subcontracted by the city to provide many airport workers. “She gets a minimum wage, but only takes home about $5 an hour. These employees are not allowed to ask for tips,” Royster said. Thanks to advocacy by groups like POWER, voters can decide May 20 to approve a referendum that would double the income of these employees and add benefits to their package, Royster said.  “I look forward to celebrating with them when that approval happens,” he said. “Thirty percent of Philadelphians live in poverty, and 40 percent of the city’s children go to bed hungry each day. Through our advocacy efforts, we are working to change that reality for the better. If this referendum passes, it will have a positive impact on the economy of all of Southwest Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.”

Royster believes that clergy are reclaiming their prophetic voices in these challenging times. “They are saying to government and authorities — with boldness and conviction — God cares about issues like the reality impacting airport employees,” he said.  “Sometimes in the past we have not leaned into expressing our prophetic voices. But in a time with a growing distinction between the haves and have nots in our culture, we are letting authorities know that God has something to say about that. We are learning how to hold secular authorities in check over such matters.

“There was a time when Reformer Martin Luther nailed 95 theses on doors of a church to call church authorities of the day to account,” Royster noted. “And with today’s authorities we are doing the same thing.”

Watch an extended interview with Prof. Day, Pr. Livingston and Bishop Royster

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