By Rev. Deborah Lee
Bringing forth an inclusive, fair, and humane society will require a coordinated movement of diverse sectors of society working towards this compelling vision. I am heartened and hopeful that faith communities can be a key building block in the construction of this vision for just society. But I don’t take that for granted, nor as a foregone conclusion. For many secular activists and sectors, religion lies under a shadow of suspicion as a harmful or counter-force to justice, as characterized by Manifest Destiny, the “opiate of the masses,” or the Christian Right. Sometimes I, myself, as a religious insider, fear that faith communities have become so marginal and irrelevant as a social and moral force in an increasingly secular country. I hope this article offers some reflection on what the role of faith communities might be and how it could be strengthened to help advance a vision of inclusion and belonging.
A meta-narrative of faith
Current political and economic realities in the US require us to critically examine and reflect on how we have arrived at the present moment. Clearly we have been up against a well-organized, well-funded infrastructure that has systematically attacked the values and institutions that support our collective life and survival on this planet. It has unleashed a message that fosters racialized fear, anxiety of others, and a fragmentation of the human family.
The B4B project suggests the need for a meta-narrative of belonging that can challenge the values of fear and fragmentation that have become the dominant narrative.
A meta-narrative is an overarching interpretation of society that reflects a worldview, a set of values, and a vision for the future. In many ways, religions themselves are meta-narratives that offer for their followers meaning, values, and an ultimate vision.
Faith and spirituality seek to offer reflection and answers to basic questions like: What does it mean to be human? What is a just society? How do I live authentically? What is my relationship and responsibility to others? How do we walk in this world? These questions are critical in helping us remain human.
The current dominant narrative, based on capitalism, violence, and racism, has created fragmentation, isolation, and individualism. It seeks to destroy and undermine our fundamental sense of relatedness. We are increasingly fearful and separated from each other, as well as separated from our natural environment and the earth. This has led to alienation, hopelessness, and a crisis of meaning that longs for belonging and reconnection.
A new meta-narrative must include and speak to this thirst for healing and connection. Spirituality is fundamentally about relationship and relatedness: the wholeness of relationship with oneself, with others, with nature and with the divine. For faith communities to engage with a broader meta-narrative, this narrative must be tied and reinterpreted so that it resonates and speaks the language of faith. A new meta-narrative must answer these questions that are central to re-stimulating hope and meaning: Does my life matter? What purpose does my life have? How can I make things better? How can I promote a more humane world? The language of faith sees beyond the nation-state to sisterhood and brotherhood, is committed to racial equity, and speaks not of zero-sum but of an abundance that must be shared.
A meta-narrative for faith communities taps into the basic tenets that underlie most religions: interconnection, sisterhood, love of neighbor, solidarity, unity, compassion, and community.
Addressing the past in order to go forward
Although faith actors have been an integral part of many US social movements such as abolition, civil rights, and sanctuary, Christianity has also historically been an instrument of domination, genocide, slavery, misogyny, homophobia, Christian hegemony, white supremacy, and capitalism.
Faith traditions have sometimes also promoted a false division between faith and politics, emphasizing the spiritual realm over the material, influencing the disengagement of faith communities with “political” life.
The Christian Right, of course, has no problem melding faith and politics to fit its conservative agenda. But in every religious tradition, there exists a liberatory and active stream that recognizes that human beings, though spiritual, also need housing, healthcare and justice in this life, and have thus engaged in the struggle for freedom and a just society. For communities of color, though religion may have been imposed by colonization and domination, it has also been a double-edged sword: the religion of the oppressor as well as a liberatory force for emancipation from that oppressor. Faith has been a force for survival, resilience, and resistance in African American communities in the face of enslavement and modern-day forms of exploitation and racism. In immigrant communities, congregations are often one of few civic institutions serving those communities, providing a community, resources, and a place to build resilience and agency in the world.
In order to go forward to create a different future, we as a nation will need to address and reckon with serious transgressions of our collective past. For faith communities to be engaged in the construction of a vision of justice, we have to begin by addressing the core transgression of white supremacy and racism that is the foundation of this country's history, including the near-genocide of indigenous peoples and racialized chattel slavery. The history and ongoing legacy of both of these historical occurrences have not yet ever been fully repented or acknowledged by our nation and faith communities. This sort of awakening, along with a collective process of repentance, recognition, and reparations is a key building block towards a movement for justice and equity. Failure to address these foundational lies will prevent us from facing other lies that continue to diminish and divide.
Strengthening a faith infrastructure Collaboration
The faith sector in California is substantial and multi-faceted, but fragmented and not well networked across regions or across issues. Across the state, there are interfaith councils and relationships which connect local faith communities. There are also numerous organizations, like mine, that organize faith communities to be active on specific issues such as immigration, anti-violence, affordable housing, and other advocacy issues. But despite the number of organizations and faith-inspired activists, we have not effectively organized and coordinated ourselves to consider a broad overarching narrative that could connect across issues and regions and advance a broader vision.
If faith communities are to be part of supporting a new meta-narrative shared by other faith and non-faith actors, we will have to be willing to hold a little loosely to our own claims and see where we might come together on some shared ones to advance a broader collective good. Most of us have been preaching our own message, to our own choirs. We will have to move beyond divisiveness and competition over a sense of scarce resources and build trust, partnership, and solidarity amongst organizations and faith communities so that we can address the greater factors at stake beyond our own communities and organizations.
We will have to get rid of the exclusivity and superiority of one religion or one organization over another.
We will have to embody and practice the faith values and meta-narrative values that we are espousing. We will need serious and intentional investment and commitment to alliance and coalition-building to create the framework of collaboration necessary to achieve larger shared goals. We will need not just strategic conversations and joint actions, but an investment in building trust and relationship. Effective infrastructure will mean acknowledging that we need an entire ecosystem of organizations and institutions contributing their unique strengths to collectively move the needle forward.
We will have to ask faith communities to be places for difficult ethical and moral conversations; not simply what the Christian Right has defined as moral issues, but larger moral issues such as inequality, homelessness, police violence, and deportations. In the Bay Area, we recently embarked on a narrative campaign to address the stigmatization of immigrants and those with former convictions. In 2017, even as political allies sought to promote pro-immigrant state and local legislation, they often distanced themselves from immigrants who had committed felonies. Political allies were willing to allow “some” folks to be deported. Faith communities were susceptible to adopting the same dominant public narrative with some even remarking that they supported “sanctuary,” but not for felons or criminals. Utilizing faith communities as trusted places for discernment and ethical discourse, we held circles to discuss and deepen conversation and ethical discourse at local faith coalition. We recruited, trained and prepared “ambassadors” (immigrants with previous convictions), who shared testimony and instructed congregations about the complexity and humanity of their stories.
Faith audiences were challenged to consider root causes, real solutions, and spiritual tenets of redemption, forgiveness, and transformation.
This proactive and intentional process aimed to engage hundreds of members of faith communities and bridge false separations and the dehumanization of stigmas.
Bridging to new audiences
As we think towards the future, we will need intentional strategies to speak and connect to new audiences, especially to those “spiritual but not religious.” Today in California, only 31 percent of people attend religious services weekly (Pew)—with 37 percent of millennials in the state are “nones” and 27 percent of the general population unaffiliated. But 85 percent of the general population still say they believe in God and have some connection or relation to a higher power. Building infrastructure in this landscape will mean getting the message out through less traditional avenues like congregations and reaching those who may share our values and vision.
This new approach might include podcasts, social media, and spiritual street actions, for example.
For the past six years, our organization, the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, has been holding a monthly prayer service outside an immigration detention center in Richmond, CA. We have created a monthly public gathering attended by thousands of people over the years. These public vigils and street actions rooted in spiritual values have become prayer and activism for the religiously affiliated and unaffiliated alike. A Jewish congregation has since begun a similar street service outside on a different day each month. Events like these that reach outside traditional religious circles help us amplify our faith voices through social media channels, weekly services, public gatherings, joint events, and an intentional building of our interconnected and collective voice.
Practices of inclusion and belonging
But we still need more than just strong infrastructure or good theory. We also need human practices to embody the values and worldview that we seek. We will have to address and self-critically examine questions of belonging, inclusion, and discrimination within our own communities.
We will need to address within our own institution's structural racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, Christian hegemony and ask ourselves who feels they don’t belong?
We will have to lovingly ask our communities to keep stretching, learning, growing, and deepening.
We will have to center the voices of indigenous communities, their spiritual perspective and contemporary struggles as central to interfaith infrastructure and commitments. We will have to center religious communities who are being targeted and facing religious profiling, such as Muslims and Sikhs. We will need to strengthen our commitment as a faith sector to immigrant communities and those communities dealing with the long term devastation of violence caused by the war on drugs and mass incarceration.
We will need real practices for the journey as we move towards the vision of a world that we want. Words alone will not suffice; we will need concrete practices and creative experiences of solidarity. We will have to take seriously and listen to people's real or perceived fears. Whether it is fear of an “other,” or of the real uncertainty in the future (economic, healthcare, housing, war or climate change), spiritual practices can help people stay centered even in a time of storm, so that they do not harm themselves or others. How do we help people deal with loss and uncertainty, guilt and remorse – so that they can be healthy and whole? We look to spiritual practices of healing, empathy, and reconciliation. We need practices that sustain the struggle for the long haul and build a sense of responsibility for the world we are passing on.
We will need practices that build relatedness, connection, and understanding—and a solidarity that brings us all together.
We will need real experiences of encounter and engagement that remind us what it means to be joyfully human. And that, without exception, we all deserves this.
Rev. Deborah Lee is the Executive Director of Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity.