Reflections on organising in the pandemic

The Centre for Theology & Community l

The CTC team works across a wide range of London churches – from Pentecostal to Roman Catholic, and with church sizes varying from ten or twenty to the thousands. At this week’s staff meeting, we reflected on some of the common themes emerging from our experience of church-based community organising in the midst of the lockdown.

The first theme that has emerged is the way that the pandemic has revealed some previously hidden truths about our common life.

Priya Rockley is working in a Church of England parish as one of this year’s Buxton interns. Recent events have brought a maxim of Pope Francis – that “realities are greater than ideas” to the forefront of her mind. As “the agendas we have crafted and the plans we have built have come crumbling down” what is unveiled is “the very core of what keeps us bound together, what helps us battle together through these times as communities.”

Fr Sean Connolly leads our work with Roman Catholic parishes, and makes a similar point. He writes that the pandemic “strips away our foibles and white lies that get us through the day, exposing the essential truths of our being, laying bare what matters and what motivates us. When I first encountered community organizing I detected a similar instinct. In its antipathy to too much talk and insistence on taking action, we were being asked to get real. The fundamental tool of organizing is the one to one conversation. Isn’t this a means whereby leaders institutionally seek to uncover what is really going on, so often hidden beneath a comfort blanket and cant, whilst individually helping members dust off the cobwebs and discover what really drives them?

“Before the virus we spoke often about relational culture, and we may even have sometimes put it into practice, but always at our convenience. Fortunately, we did do some of that work, for now we know it is vital and we are relying on it for our very survival. Physical face to face encounters may not be possible but virtual ones are, and without them we would not exist. I never thought that the organising maxim ‘people before programmes’ would be so starkly demonstrated.”

Working in a Salvation Army congregational and homeless shelter, Rhiannon Monk Winstanley draws out the importance of putting people before programme

“Listening is a discipline. It can be easy to mishear people. I’ve particularly seen that in the pandemic. People have not reacted as I would have expected because moments of crisis throw us into disarray. So, I think organising can serve as a way to teach institutions and governing bodies about the need to listen properly, and be gracious to where people are at, putting people at the centre of our response to the crisis.”

The need for patient listening instead of anxious activism is a theme of both effective community organising and Christian spirituality – it is one of many synergies between the two. As Priya explains, “the reflective practices of church-based organising – the slow processes, the patience required – have become essential for such a time as this. Such practices go against our dominant culture even at the best of times, but now the cogs we feel the need to churn, the ground we feel pressured to cover – has all been brought to a sudden halt. We’re in need of an abundance of patience, reflection, perseverance with others and ourselves.”

Shermara Fletcher directs our William Seymour Programme, working with Pentecostal churches. She reflects on the way the pandemic reveals the importance of institutional life

“The gathering of local institutions and their ability to galvanise and support their constituents really challenges 21st century individualism which resists institutional and collective relationships. In times of crisis, the increasing individualism of contemporary western society is challenged:  the individual is weak on their own, as compared to when with communities, families and friends. Such groups also have the opportunity to share resources in a time of crisis.

“The ability to rapidly change the original programme or direction of travel to ensure that people remain the central focus is, I believe, a formidable trait of community organising and will keep it’s importance and relevance in our institutions beyond our present crisis.”

This point is also emphasised by Marzena Marzena Cichon Balcerowicz, our Near Neighbours co-ordinator and an experienced community organiser with Citizens UK:

“Institutions are anchors in our communities, offering stability and roots. Organising focuses on strengthening our local institutions, which in current crisis play a crucial role in supporting the most vulnerable, connecting with people and keeping the fabrics of society. Their role cannot be underestimated.”

As Fr Sean observes, the suffering and desolation caused by the pandemic is very real. But what it unveils is where our deepest commitments really lie – and how we might learn, even after this period is over – how to live more fully in the light of the love and hope we have in Christ:

“None of this is to take comfort in this unnerving and unseen visitation. Buy a crisis demands ingenuity and imagination that puts into practice the once more exposed values of our institutions, dusted down, so that when all is done we do not settle for business as usual but seize the moment of change to make world a bit more as it should be, a bit more real.”

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