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Faith in Our Streets


There may be fewer people in the pews but faith is playing a powerful role in our streets.

Those of us who care about faith in America might find Pew Research Center's recent Religious Landscape Study depressing—Pew said that overall the number of people who identify with a religion is declining in America. But our experience gives us hope, because we don't think Pew is necessarily looking in the right places.

The two of us—a Christian minister working at a Jewish nonprofit and a Muslim community organizer—see people every day experiencing their faith outside the walls of a church, synagogue, or mosque. It's harder to quantify the role faith plays for people expressing their values through fighting for justice, but it's an important piece of the current puzzle of faith in America that we won't find in the Pew study.

This fits with another finding of the Pew study: a broadening perspective of who is considered one's "neighbor" among people of faith in America. Christians are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, switching religion is a common occurrence, and religious intermarriage is on the rise. As demographics change and religious plurality rises, there is a groundswell of people working together across faith lines, mobilizing around social and economic issues. Personal faith is impacting public life.

Last fall, faith leaders joined ranks with peaceful protesters in Ferguson to demand justice for black lives and capture the stories of heartbreak and hope lost in the news. This past Hanukkah, Jews and Muslims demonstrated together in New York City to decry police brutality. An interfaith rally led by Pastor Jamal Bryant united the Baltimore faith community in hopes of healing after the death of Freddie Grey in police custody. These voices made an impact and the other week, President Obama announced banning military-grade weapons at local police departments.

Sacred texts and religious traditions provide narratives of hope and justice that are a powerful counter to our everyday experiences of growing economic inequality and exposed systemic racism. The contradiction between the world as it is and the world as it should be catalyzes people to put their faith into action. This week, 40 Jewish, Muslim, and Christian community organizers from around the country came together in Los Angeles for the first time, to organize across racial, ethnic, and religious divisions and build on the success of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Fight for 15 campaign to work for racial and economic justice.

When we express our faith in the streets, we are working towards personal transformation as well as social transformation. Last November, California voters passed Proposition 47 by 60 percent of the vote, taking a small step towards ending mass incarceration of communities of color by downgrading some non-violent felonies into misdemeanors. Proposition 47 largely passed thanks to the volunteer work of faith leaders from California's biggest faith-based community organizing network, PICO California. As part of that effort, we had a chance to meet Debbie, a community leader with PICO affiliate LA Voice and Homeboy Industries. Working alongside fellow community members led Debbie to her own personal transformation and filled her with hope. "We can do anything together!" Debbie exclaimed after Prop. 47 passed statewide.

Too many people associate faith activism with those who abuse faith language to promote exclusionary and regressive policies. We saw that recently in the language used to promote Indiana's so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which promoted discrimination against the LGBT community. People in power often abuse faith to divide and keep communities separate from one another. However, as the American landscape of faith becomes more diverse—racially, ethnically, and religiously —we can expect to see more diversity in how faith is expressed and the impact it has—personally, communally, and in our streets.


Geoffrey Nelson-Blake is Director of interfaith Community Organizing Residency at Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.  Sarah Jawaid is an organizer, writer and artist. This article originally appeared on Huffington Post Religion, and was reprinted here by permission.

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