Free Speech and Religion

Reflection on Faith-Based Civic Engagement in Chicago

January 8, 2020  • Religion & Society Program

Both news and popular culture today appear to thrive on the narrative of polarization, separation, and fracture. It is hard to watch the morning news or have dinner with extended family during the holidays without a mention of a growing national divide – be it partisan, racial, religious, or other. But while the narrative of division has taken root, an alternate story is also developing. This alternative story is one that sees the desire for human connection as stronger than ever and finds innovative ways for communities to connect at a local and deeply personal level. The story of connection across difference has been developing with grace and strength particularly in local, faith-based civil society organizations. Despite the successes of such local organizations, they are often siloed and insular to themselves, which results in missed opportunities for strategic collaboration, growth, and impact.

On November 12, 2019 the Inclusive America Project gathered local Chicago faith leaders, organizers, philanthropic leaders, and public officials for a meeting at the Upswell Conference to highlight the civic engagement work they were each doing and to get a better sense of what they needed in order to do that work. Over the course of the day’s meeting, we, along with panelists and participants, asked ourselves critical questions: How do we define civic engagement? How do we engage in bridging work despite deep and irreconcilable differences? How do we articulate the unique potential of faith-based organizations to engage in community building work? How can we support each other?

Our panelists answered these questions through their own stories. Their stories drew out the theme that what makes society function, our local and national governments run, and our lives meaningful and fulfilling is all the same. That necessary ingredient isn’t strategic plans, or good leadership, or even funding (though all three are necessary). The bedrock of everything else we do and hope to accomplish is quite simply the relationships we have with other human beings.

Thriving communities of faith foster deep relationships and the mindset of service to community that drives civic engagement in all its many forms. The three-hundred fifty-thousand plus religious institutions in America provide opportunities to practice shared values and mutual commitments in public too – both skills citizens need to engage in our democratic process. Our panelists’ stories were emblematic of the work that faith communities do in the world, and how their deep relationships developed in the context of faith drove that work.

Alia Bilal is the Associate Director of Development & Communications at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). IMAN is a community organization that runs programs on Chicago’s South Side that foster wellness in the whole community – through programs like holistic health care, transitional housing and job training for at-risk youth and the formerly incarcerated, access to healthy food, and arts and culture programming. IMAN’s programs win acclaim for good reason, and in 2017, their founder Rami Nashashibi won the MacArthur Genius Grant. But Alia told us that none of their work would ever have happened if funding in the late 1990s had not come through. The way it did was through a Pentecostal preacher and friend running a community organization with similar goals that was already funded. Instead of keeping his funder to himself, the pastor introduced his funder to IMAN, and said he would only accept their funding again if they also funded IMAN as a partner. Without the relationship between Rami and the pastor, IMAN may not have survived as an organization to do the good work that it does today.

Relationships too form the core of the work of the Resurrection Project, though in a different way, according to Lead Organizer Salvador Cerna-Mendoza. Their work centers on financial wellness, affordable housing, immigration, and leadership development in the Latinx communities of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, but it begins with listening. Salvador began his work by walking block-by-block to get to know individual neighbors, listening to them and their specific needs and cares. He spoke passionately about the importance of knowing and having a relationship with a community. Only then, he says, can the rest of the work begin. Only on the foundation of real, personal relationships can the housing development, immigration advocacy, and other work go forward.

These stories show the importance of building relationships that connect people whose interests are already aligned. But what about building relationships with those with whom we have deep and irreconcilable differences across faith or politics? It can be difficult to reach outside our bubbles, to make connections at all, much less develop meaningful relationships. Reverend Jennifer Bailey, founder of the Faith Matters Network and The People’s Supper, offered her work as a model for creating a brave space that allows for the hunger of many for meaningful connection to actualize. The People’s Supper works to connect people who aren’t in relationship and to build the trust needed for other civic work to go forward among partners who don’t currently trust each other. They do it all by breaking bread together. But, how they begin the necessary outreach is a critical question. Like the rest of the work, it begins with trusting relationships – invitations to such brave spaces, Rev. Bailey says, must come from trusted people and the goal must be connection not conversion.

On the theme of working with those whose views might be different from our own, Matthew Soerens, Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief, told a story that reminded us not to use relationships as leverage or tools, but as foundations. His work includes organizing coalitions of typically evangelical pastors to sign on to policy recommendations that may be viewed by their politically conservative congregations as too liberal. In one case, he saw a pastor be pulled on by a trusted organizer to signing a resolution when he himself might have been ready, but before his congregation was ready to join him. In that case, the pastor signed on, but he lost much of his flock. What was gained, in the end? Yes, there was another pastor’s name on the printed rolls of supporters, but the congregation was ultimately pushed farther away from the goal the organizer sought. In this instance, using the relationship as a foundation for innovative, longer-term action might have created a more sustainable and collective solution.

As we have reflected on the stories that were shared, we are again inspired by the individuals and organizations in Chicago and across the country that are coming up with innovative initiatives to spur human connection, build unity across divides, and weave a shared narrative.

What stands out about this gathering to us was that while individual programs are building relationships in many ways, our day together was the first time many of them had begun to build relationships with each other. The fact is that these programs simply have few opportunities to connect, and that lack of connection results in a number of issues:

  • There are limited ways to share knowledge across programs and initiatives. This means that an organization’s precious time, energy, and dollars might be spent tackling a question that may have already been solved.
  • There is not yet a shared, clear articulation of the added value of faith-based community organizations and how their diverse work contributes to advancing a thriving American pluralism. Our work hopes to address that.
  • And, because of the two above points, there is a hesitancy on the part of grant-makers to give to local organizations working on components of religious pluralism. Therefore, many of these organizations face funding challenges because funders are uncomfortable working with faith-based institutions.

One participant described her frustration with funder’s hesitancy to engage faith-based organizations by pointing out that faith communities and their organizations, “are accountable, can deliver, aren’t going anywhere, and are loyal to their causes.” We found this sentiment a beautiful distillation of what the Inclusive America Project has believed and articulated in longer form for many years. We believe that religious pluralism, meaning both the faith communities that make it up and social supports like religious freedom that enable it, is an essential component of a thriving American democracy. By gathering the practitioners, academics, and funders in and around religious pluralism, the Inclusive America Project is building the field of religious pluralism. It is through this work that sustainable relationships are formed and the real work can begin.

Collectively, we need to increase the level of giving to organizations working on religious pluralism and in the areas that make it up (see our Primer for a full picture of the field). At the current level of giving, many such organizations are unable to realize their full potential to build community, foster ethics, and promote civic engagement. We would like to continue to understand what organizations in this space need in order to have maximum impact for their work and the field of religious pluralism.
Building the Civic Capacity of Faith-Based Community Organizations: A Case Study in Chicago.