It’s where I live. Literally. Last summer, my wife Natalie and I moved into a small studio apartment in San Francisco at the intersection of Mission St. and Cesar Chavez St. Come to find out, it’s next to a club. This joyful establishment of fellowship provides a soundtrack to our urban lives till 2 am every day, even Mondays. I guess they forgot to mention that in the Craigslist ad.
Two blocks from this intersection is my work. I spend my days organizing congregants and clergy from churches, synagogues, and mosques around the city to put their mission into action in the public arena. My job title is congregation-based community organizer.
I haven’t always lived here. After graduating with a Masters of Divinity from Andrews Seminary, Natalie and I lived in San Diego, where I had the privilege of serving as Associate Pastor at Paradise Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church in National City (just south of San Diego). My work there started just as the economy was tanking.
The church has been known for years for its thriving community service ministry, and in the fall of 2008 our food and clothing ministry began bursting at the seams. Lines formed at 5:00 am on Tuesdays—four hours before the food and clothing distribution center opened—double or triple the numbers who had previously been served. Every week, both church volunteers and pastors were making multiple trips to the local food banks. As the trips grew more frequent and the needs increased, I became frustrated. Why wasn’t anyone asking why our lines had doubled and tripled? Wasn’t anyone asking the bigger questions?
It turned out, somebody was. The San Diego Organizing Project (SDOP) is part of the PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) National Network, a network made up of multi-faith, non-partisan, congregation-based community organizing affiliates around the country. I started attending the monthly luncheon made up of clergy from all over San Diego. I was inspired dialoguing with a religiously diverse group of community leaders who valued the depth and differences of each other’s faith traditions, and who had joined forces to work for a more just and equitable city.
Over the next year, the Paradise Valley church leaders (pastors, elders, and others) met with SDOP staff to explore becoming a member congregation. In the spring of 2010, we joined. I was excited about this step and ready to jump into working on what I was sure would be the most pressing need of our community—hunger. But I quickly learned that’s not quite how organizing works.
We started with a listening campaign. Our organizing ministry leaders met with church and community members and handed out a survey during multiple worship services. Through this process of listening to the needs of our community, the issue of street safety in front of the church emerged as most pressing as it had been the site of car accidents and pedestrian fatalities for decades.
So we organized. Four of us from our organizing ministry team, along with our organizer, met with the mayor, vice mayor, and city engineer of National City to share with them the stories we had collected regarding street safety in front of our church. It just so happened that Mayor Morrison and Vice Mayor Sotelo-Solis were running against each other in the National City mayoral race, so they were happy to out-promise the other when hearing the concerns of their constituency. The city engineer mentioned that National City had recently received a $3.3 million grant to improve some of the main arteries in National City. We knew it was time to act.
On Thursday evening, November 11, 2010, the PV Church fellowship hall—a space usually filled with the sweet smell of Special K loaf and deviled eggs, was filled with local news cameras, the mayor and vice mayor, church members, and our church’s neighbors. The room buzzed as people whispered to each other in their seats. Five leaders from our church’s organizing team sat behind a table in the front, just to the left of a table with the mayor and vice mayor. The Pathfinders led the opening ceremonies, and I shared a brief faith reflection to set the tone for the evening.
After several members of our community shared personal stories with the mayor and vice mayor illustrating the dangers of East 8th Street, it was the time to ask our guests to commit. Danelly, a young adult on our organizing team, stood at the pulpit and looked the mayor in the face to ask him three questions:
“Mayor, do you commit to using the grant money for making changes to East 8th St?”
“Mayor Morrison, do you commit to adding a left-hand turn lane, enhanced striping, and additional traffic signs?”
“Mayor, do you commit to seeing that this job is finished within six months?”
“Thank you.” Danelly smiled down at the mayor and sat back down in her seat at the front. After Vice Mayor Sotelo-Solis answered affirmatively to the same three questions, we broke into applause.
Several months later, Natalie and I were driving into the church parking lot for the last time before our move to San Francisco. A sense of fulfillment washed over me as I noticed the two new crosswalks with fluorescent striping, flashing yellow lights signaling the crosswalks, and a freshly painted left-hand turn lane. No church bake sale or car wash could have raised the funds necessary to make these lifesaving changes in front of our church. No church resolution or charitable service project could have put church members in that kind of relationship with public officials. It was the organizing process that gave us the power to make our neighborhood a safer place. It was the organizing process that enabled us to put our faith into action.
Once a month throughout 2012 I’ll be sharing stories on the Spectrum blog of how organized people are putting their faith into action in the public sphere, from issues as local as street safety to national issues such as the housing foreclosure crisis.
Cornell West observes, “Justice is what love looks like in public,” and it is my hope that my posts will testify to how people are learning to love in the public arena. These stories, whether local or national, will always come from my home—at the intersection of Mission and Chavez.
—Geoffrey Nelson-Blake, M.Div., lives in San Francisco with his wife Natalie, and works as a congregation-based community organizer with the San Francisco Organizing Project, a part of the PICO National Network.