Faith-Rooted Organizing: A Conversation with Alexia Salvatierra

By Stan Friedman

CHICAGO, IL (February 26, 2014) — This month’s issue of the Covenant Companion looks at the growing trend of churches forming nonprofit organizations. Today and the rest of this week, we will publish stories online that look at other possible opportunities to consider when discerning how to engage in community ministry.

Alexia Salvatierra, a Lutheran pastor who led a workshop at the recent Midwinter Conference on “doing justice,” believes that community organizing is a “tool of God” and an important way local congregations can impact their neighborhood as well as the world, but that their work should be distinctively Christian.

Salvatierra’s own work has included starting a community garden where the elderly taught at-risk youth to grow produce and organizing the national Evangelical Immigration Table—the broadest coalition of moderate and conservative faith organizations to ever support immigration reform. She also has consulted on international organizing with groups that include World Vision USA/World Vision International/Women of Vision and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.

In her new book, Faith-Rooted Organizing, Salvatierra offers insights on how local congregations can adapt lessons from organizing experiences in the U.S. and internationally to their own contexts.

Covenant News Service spoke with her during the Midwinter Conference.

What is faith-rooted organizing, and how is it different from other types of organizing?

Doing justice as a Christian has to be different than doing it as a secular person. We do it as a part of a whole life discipleship. It’s not something we do on the basis of our political views. It’s something we do because we are called to it. So we do it as if Jesus is real, which has a lot of implications about power, and implications about motivation, and implications about what it means to be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove. It has all kinds of implications that are different if you don’t believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Faith-rooted organizing is being with Jesus, who is with the poor. Faith-rooted organizing is about focusing on more than one immediate issue—it focuses on community and the systems that cause that injustice.  Faith-rooted organizing looks at how we pursue our goals, not whether we achieve them.

We’re not bringing the kingdom. Jesus is bringing the kingdom. But we can spread the kingdom as we do God’s will as it is done in heaven. So to really spread the kingdom is not to just create a righteous law, it’s to create a society in which government lives out its divine purpose.

When I tell people the word of God is important in the social arena, people tell me it isn’t appropriate. But in Congress, 90 percent say they are Christians so then it’s about discipleship. The other 10 percent is evangelism.

How does a church decide which issues to address?

You don’t decide on an issue. You discern an issue. There are kairos moments. There are issues in places that may be of a particular importance, that need to be prioritized. When you’re doing faith-based organizing, you believe that the Holy Spirit has already gone ahead, that the Holy Spirit already is working there. That’s the Pentecostal part of me.

This country is so divided politically and the rhetoric is so sharp, how does the church get involved without contributing to further division?

Psalm 72 talks about the role of the king. People like to quote Romans, but my favorite is Psalm 72. In verse 14, it says, “Their blood is precious in (the king’s) sight.” Government that does what it’s called to do sees each person as precious in its sight—every man, woman, and child. It’s not a matter of one law or another law.  That’s not being a Democrat or Republican. You can see people as precious in your sight.

I feel like we are called to work with all kinds of people, and to work with great respect because we are called to be in the world but not of the world so we bring unique gifts to the world.

I think we have to advocate for principle. We can disagree on policy. We can say, what policy will embody that principle? At the National Immigration Table, we have lots of agreement on principle but a lot of differences on policy.

TV and radio are more divisive and powerful than at any other time. It’s all that more important for the church to build relationships that cross the lines. If someone has an idea that offends me, I need to remember it’s coming out of a human place. It’s going to come from someone who is a mixture of sinner and saint, it’s going to come out of a place of process.

If what you’re saying comes out of great love and humility, then people respect it. Some years ago, I was speaking at a Lutheran camp, and I was speaking on immigration, which was an even much more divisive issue then. One man came up to me and said, “I’m a right wing Republican, I will always be a right wing Republican, but you opened up my heart, and my wife thanks you.”

Change won’t happen unless we know each other. When we’re talking about immigration, for example, there’s a really powerful thing that happens when immigrant and non-immigrant churches get together. There’s this exchange of hope and passion.

Your focus is on pursuing justice. What is your biblical view of justice?

It’s the natural consequence of mercy. It’s intelligent love. It’s love as complete as it can be. It seeks the fullest solution.

You’ve devoted your life to pursuing justice around the world and in local communities. Where does that passion come from, and how do you get others to develop the same passion?

A pastor once told me, “You have the gift of justice.” I thought, “That’s not on Paul’s list.” But music is not on the list, yet we all recognize that as a spiritual gift. I think the gift of justice is feeling the injustice of others in your own body.

[pull]Anger is given to you as a way to pursue change. But I think it’s a poor sole focus or a major focus, because it’s not good for the body and it’s not good for relationships.[/pull]If you have the gift of music, then you’re supposed to be the best music minister you can be, so that others can sing. When you have the gift of justice, it’s not really your job to get everyone to organize or become social justice prophets. It’s your job to get everyone to see the whole gospel and have a focus on discipleship.

If you know that, you don’t get mad at people for not being you. You’re not mad that they don’t have the same passion that you have. You don’t win them by yelling at them. Yelling at them is not a good way to disciple them. When I say that to young people who have the gift of justice, there’s an “aha” moment. Then they realize they don’t have to be frustrated with others.

How does your faith inform and sustain you?

I became a Christian in the Jesus movement in the early ’70s and then I became a Lutheran through a long and winding road. I read Martin Luther and I thought, “Whichever church this man belongs to, I want to belong to.” I really stand with him that there is no God except Jesus Christ crucified, and that the cross and resurrection are everything, that it’s grace that transforms us.

It was interesting because years later, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be Lutheran. In some ways I’m more conservative and in some ways I’m more radical. That’s why I really do love the ECC, because I really do feel a great commonality about this combination.

How do you maintain hope in the face of continuing injustice?

I have to acknowledge the omnipresence of sin. I can’t pretend otherwise. Luther was amazing at not pretending. He would say we live on this side of the cross with a foretaste of the future. There is the reality of the two kingdoms.

I often thank God for my doctrine—I know it sounds funny to be thankful to God for that but it’s true. I thank God that I came to this place. I know that there is suffering on this side of the cross. People should not be surprised when the cross happens. But there is resurrection in the end. It might take hundreds of years, though.

Often people who are sort of armchair liberals will say, “How can you believe in a God who is an active agent when you look at what happens to people in the Third World, in the global south?” I’ll say, “You have no idea how those people are when they are experiencing persecution, when they are experiencing massacres, that they are the people with the most faith.” It says that your understanding of faith is pretty thin.

I could only believe in a God who suffered with us on the cross. That’s the promise—it will appear as if you have lost, but in the end you will win. That’s the story. We have to believe that the word will go forth and not return void. My friend who led me to the Lord won me, not with her arguments, but with the story.

Of course, there are times you have to cry and scream. That’s why you lament. You have to cry and argue with God. But that’s part of bearing the pain of others.

You talk in the book about being wise as serpents and gentle as doves. How do you maintain that gentleness when there is so much to be angry about?

A lot of organizers are so driven by the need to release their anger that it leads them to make bad decisions. It’s a sustaining force for a lot of organizers. I understand that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with anger. There is a prophetic anger. Anger is given to you as a way to pursue change. But I think it’s a poor sole focus or a major focus, because it’s not good for the body and it’s not good for relationships. I think that because I’m conflict adverse, that makes me a better organizer!

A favorite Scripture of mine is Jacob wrestling with God. Jacob walks with a limp, but he always has a sign of God wrestling with him, with God’s continuing presence with him.

I’m cowardly because I like to please people. That’s my limp, but God can use that. It helps me to give space. That’s one of the wonderful things about the gospel—it’s not just making beautiful things, but it’s making beautiful things out of ugly things.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for drawing our attention to this wise and godly woman. There is much for us to learn here.

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