Saturday, December 02, 2006

Community Organizing and Urban Education III: The Limits of Churches as Representatives of Impoverished Communities

[To read the entire series, go here.]

In the last installment of this series I explained why most of the largest community organizing groups in America are made up of coalitions of churches. Here I discuss why churches can be problematic representatives of communities, especially impoverished ones. Again, I think it is important for educators to understand the tensions involved in different approaches to community organizing because, despite their limits, they represent one of the most promising avenues for supporting struggling urban schools.

I want to emphasize that I am still very much a learner in the arena of religious sociology. I would welcome corrections from readers.

Much like schools, churches in America are extremely segregated by race and class. Unlike schools, however, church segregation is less a result of geographical boundaries than of the character of individual churches themselves. For our purposes, it is helpful to focus on two groups of churches: mostly middle-class, mid-sized mainline congregations and (especially among African Americans) usually smaller, mostly working-class Pentecostal/Holiness (often storefront) churches.

In general, congregational organizing groups are made up in large part of mainline churches. Why is this the case?

First, from a religious standpoint mainline churches are more likely to see broad, mundane social concerns as a part of their responsibility as (mostly) Christian people. In America, it is in these churches that a “liberation theology” focused on issues like educational reform makes the most coherent sense. In fact, the class and education level of the pastor and of the congregation is directly related to the likelihood that a congregation will participate in traditional social justice activities.

In the Pentecostal/Holiness, or “sanctified” tradition, the focus seems to be more on engaging directly with the holy spirit in one’s life. These churches are “in the world but not of it.” It is important to emphasize, as McRoberts and Sanders do, that the sanctified tradition is in many ways just as interested in social justice and in the creation of an egalitarian society as are mainline churches. But they seem more likely to focus on engaging individuals in religious transformation and on direct services more directly related to religious actualization as opposed to concrete action for systematic social change. It is also usually the case that these churches have fewer resources to expend on non-church functions.

Second, the dominance of a middle-class discourse is, to some extent, a self-perpetuating phenomenon. People who “belong” in the congregational organizing group I work with, MOVE, speak a certain way and, despite important differences, often worship in a particular way. While progressive whites may sometimes be uncomfortable with more expressive mainline African American and other traditions, these are not as alien as the practices of sanctified churches. In general, a poor person without much education is going to quickly feel out of place within a context dominated by those with at least the basics of familiarity with the dominant discourse. Even less privileged members of participating mainline congregations may feel uncomfortable in this setting.

As you can see, these differences are much more complex than simple distinctions between “conservative” and “liberal” can capture.

The class segregation of congregational organizing groups is often difficult for outsiders to detect. In part this is because churches are increasingly unlikely to draw from identifiable geographic areas. Many inner-city churches, for example, have mostly middle-class congregations that live nowhere near the actual church, and there are still white congregations (think of Catholics tied to historic churches) who worship in areas where the racial and class composition has shifted. Thus, the location of a church often says little or nothing about especially the class make-up of congregants.

Even insiders generally seem unaware of the extent to which an organization like MOVE represents a fairly narrow segment of the population. At a MOVE Education Committee meeting this week, for example, an African American reverend suggested that we survey members of our congregations to get a sense of the kind of changes parents face in the public schools. I had to tell him that we’d actually tried this a few years ago (with the same intention), and had discovered that almost none of the congregation members surveyed had children attending the most struggling schools in the city. Apparently, they have enough cultural and social capital to negotiate the intricacies of the schooling bureaucracy to get their kids in better schools.

In general, then, congregational groups represent a range of segments of the middle-class, including relatively few of those who are actually suffering the most from the effects of poverty and geographical segregation. You will not usually find a single mother working a second shift job for $7.00 an hour at a MOVE planning meeting (although she may come to a rally or a large public meeting). And even if you do, it is not likely that she will return next time. Interestingly, these class issues are rarely noted, in my experience, in writings about congregational organizing.

Of course, this raises important questions about how much even congregational organizing groups based mostly in the inner city actually “represent” these communities.

There is more to be said about the problematic ways class and race intersect in congregation-based community organizing. Here, I have focused on social class. In a later post I will examine how class issues can intersect with issues of race to produce destructive patterns of racial exclusion in congregational groups like MOVE.

No comments: