By Lois BinghamA mouse and a frog met every morning on the riverbank. They sat in a nook of the ground and talked. Each morning, the second they saw each other, they opened easily, telling stories and dreams and secrets, empty of any fear or suspicious holding-back. To watch and listen to those two is to understand how, as it is written sometimes, when two beings come together, Christ becomes visible. (From Essential Rumi, 13th Century Sufi Poet)
V.O.I.C.E. (Virginian’s Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement) is an affiliate of the IAF in Northern Virginia and last night I attended an Action Team meeting of 75 leaders from congregations across Northern Virginia. I found myself sitting beside a lovely woman who reported that she had never been to an Action Team Meeting. She had been involved in V.O.I.C.E. for some time and had even pushed for her congregation to join some years ago, and thought it was time to expand her knowledge and experience with the Community Organization. I had a small role in the meeting and afterward she leaned over to me and said, “I didn’t realize when we first spoke, that you were actually a leader here.” Her comment took me back to my early days when my congregation became involved in Congregational Community Organizing. It took me back to my very personal and internal struggle around becoming a leader in V.O.I.C.E. at both the community level as well as my church team level.
I was drawn to the idea of congregations combining forces – organizing people and money – to bring about real change in the places that really count: across race lines, in ecumenical and interfaith networks, and in civic and legislative discussions around issues of social injustice. As my church wrestled with its concerns about how best to engage these issues, I wrestled with mine, namely, what did I think I had to offer? I had never been an activist by any stretch and I did not see myself as a church leader.
At those early VOICE meetings, I listened to people’s stories: people losing their job, leaving the country of their birth to come here to find work but finding difficult working conditions instead, difficulty finding affordable housing near ailing family members or jobs, family members deported and other immigration issues, complicated dental problems that have a domino effect in people’s lives, lack of housing for the chronically unemployed because of mental illness or multiple medical problems – stories about the things that concerned them most in their lives and stories that made my heart sad every time I heard them or read a newspaper.
However, as time went on, I caught a vision of the possible cultural change that was possible, certainly for me, but also for my congregation. You see, community organizing is all about forming relationship with members of a congregation, and influential people in any community. These relationships cannot be shallow or transient – they must be consistent and persistent. I think it was the possible depth and power of these intense relationships that captured my imagination because I believe this is how people grow and develop. These intentional relationships can bring about change at every level.
Because the work is shared, and because training was available and even required, I slowly began to believe that I could contribute to this change – one day at a time. I was filled with both fear and determination to build relationships with people who share the values and concerns that I care about. Over time I have been changed by V.O.I.C.E. It has been a learning curve including all that is inherent in a learning experience. Even at age 72 I feel that I am still learning to be a true disciple for Christ as I try to discern the human need in my community and church. With the power of the Holy Spirit moving us forward, we continue, as members of Fairfax Presbyterian Church, on this journey of encouraging others to speak to issues that are unfair and unjust.
And like the mouse and the toad, Christ has become visible to all of us.
Lois Bingham is a VOICE Core Team Leader at Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia.