By MegAnne Liebsch
Community organizer is a common job responsibility across the resumes of many Jesuits. But what is community organizing? And why is it an integral part of Jesuit formation and Catholic social teaching?
These are the questions that sparked the recent Prophetic Communities Conference at the University of San Francisco (USF). Co-sponsored by USF, Jesuits West, and the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center, the conference explored the discipline of community organizing as an expression of Catholic social thought.
Over three days of workshops and panels, 150 participants explored topics such as Organizing in Ministerial Formation, Organizing and Theology, Nonviolent Strategy, and Laudato Si’ as an Organizing Project. At the center of the conference was a series of conversations designed to help participants discern the present realities and challenges facing the Catholic Church in the U.S. and how organizing can build a stronger future for the faith.
“Faith-based community organizing is something that has a long history in this country, and it’s a big part of the Jesuit legacy,” says Annie Fox, who helped plan the conference and serves as Jesuits West’s provincial assistant for justice and ecology organizing. “While organizing has historically been a vital part of the Catholic social tradition, there is not much Catholic theological reflection on why this mode of justice work has been and continues to be important to the Church.”
Many prominent social movements in the U.S. were led by Catholic and Christian communities: labor and union movements during the Industrial Revolution; the anti-war movement of the 1970s; and the farmworkers movement led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Catholic leaders were involved in the initial founding of national organizing networks like Faith in Action, the Industrial Areas Foundation and the Gamaliel Network. Today, many Catholic bishops, Jesuits and other vowed religious and lay Catholics are at the frontlines of organizing efforts—from protecting voting rights to promoting environmental justice.
Despite this rich tradition, there are few spaces or resources dedicated to understanding organizing through a Catholic theological lens, according to Ms. Fox. The Prophetic Communities Conference was the first of its kind, gathering organizers, theologians, lay people and vowed religious from across the U.S.
“The gathering reminded us that the Catholic social tradition is a living tradition, embodied and shaped by people who connect their faith to the struggle for justice,” says conference planner Erin Brigham, executive director of the Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Social Thought at USF. “Too often, Catholic social thought (CST) is understood as a set of abstract principles. But the stories of communities organizing for social change gives meaning to solidarity and human dignity—the foundational commitments of CST.”
More than a means to achieve policy reform or systemic change, organizing builds relationships. Both the conference planners and attendees agreed—this is spiritual work. In convening this diverse gathering, the planners hoped attendees would build deeper relationships with one another and come away nourished by these connections.
“The Catholic Church finds itself in a critical moment to rediscover the power of relationship as we embrace the call to synodality under Pope Francis,” says Ms. Brigham. “Many Catholics in North America don’t know how to practice this way of being Church. Organizers have a lot to teach us about how to discern where the Spirit is moving us as a community.”