I’ve been bothered by a snippy comment from Sarah Palin’s speech the other night, and have wanted to write about it. But Jim Wallis beat me to it. So, this morning, I will simply cite a few of the highlights of his fine blog –whose title I have borrowed as the title of this one– and direct you to it, in the hopes you’ll read it too.
More than anything else, Palin’s comments have opened up an opportunity to remind the nation of just how important “Community Organizers” have become, just how connected they are to faith communities, and just how much “responsibility” they really do shoulder for the rest of our society.
Jim Wallis, as you may remember, is the well-respected head of the Sojourner’s Community, and the author of great books like “God’s Politics: Why the Right is Wrong, and the Left Doesn’t Get It.”
So, if you don’t already know Jim, just note from the beginning that he’s often an equal-opportunity critic of politicians across the spectrum.
Here’s Wallis’ original post, found at his Beliefnet.com blog.
Wallis starts by juxtaposing two things that happened to him on Wednesday. First, he heard from a former Sojourner’s community member, who is now a community organizer in Louisiana. During that phone call, Wallis heard how…
“…their community organizers were responding to all of this — responding to hundreds of service calls, assisting local officials in evacuation plans, aiding evacuees without transportation, coordinating shelters and opening new ones, providing food, essential services, and financial aid to those in most need. Since Katrina, Perry’s Louisiana interfaith organizations have played a lead role in securing millions of dollars to help thousands of families return to New Orleans and rebuild their homes and their lives.”
As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve taken three mission trips to the Gulf Coast the past three summers. And every time, we were certainly aided by “community organizers” who work side-by-side local residents to assess damage, to prioritize clean up and repair work, and buy materials and supplies. They have labored in what was first an emergency situation, trying to deploy resources to places with no food, water and electricity. They have seen that situation morph from rescue to clean up…from clean up to repair.
And now that the news media and the most Americans have ignored the Gulf Coast for about the last year (Gustav put an end to that…) they have gone the most difficult job of all: keeping the focus on the work that still needs to be done, making sure that the families still living in trailers will finally get back in their houses.
Without them, the great volunteer surge that has blessed the Gulf Coast could never have happened.
So, the first thing that happened was that Wallis talked to this friend and heard how “community organizers” had changed their focus yet again: they’d moved back into crisis mode, helping displaces persons evacuate.
Then, like all of us that night, Jim Wallis heard Sarah Palin say this line, one that she has repeated with glee the past few days:
“…a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.”
To which Wallis certainly speaks for me when he says:
“The convention crowd in St. Paul thought that was very funny. But it wasn’t. It was actually quite insulting to the army of community organizers who work in the most challenging places across the country and have such a tremendous impact on the everyday lives of millions of people. I guess Palin and her fellow Republican delegates don’t know much about that. The “actual responsibilities” of community organizers literally provide the practical support, collective strength, and hope for a better future that low-income families need to survive.”
Wallis points out what many of us in the church have known, and appreciated, for years:
“Community organizers are now most focused in the faith community, working with tens of thousands of pastors and laypeople in thousands of congregations around the country. Faith-based organizing is the critical factor in many low-income communities in the country’s poorest urban and rural areas, and church leaders are often the biggest supporters of community organizers.”
Wallis then quotes several of the folks he’s heard from the past few days. Including, this Bishop from the Church of God in Christ. And, just so nobody thinks this is partisan, note the guy’s party affiliation:
“As a lifelong Republican, the comments I heard last night about community organizing crossed the line. It is one thing to question someone’s experience, another to demean the work of millions of hardworking Americans who take time to get involved in their communities. When people come together in my church hall to improve our community, they’re building the Kingdom of God in San Diego. We see the fruits of community organizing in safer streets, new parks, and new affordable housing. It’s the spirit of democracy for people to have a say and we need more of it,” Bishop Roy Dixon, prelate of the Southern California 4th ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ”
Down on Interstate 10, right at the border of Mississippi and Louisiana, a memorial is being planned. It is perhaps one of the most unique memorials I’ve ever heard of, and it’s called “The Katrina Volunteers Memorial Fountain.”
The memorial is planned to honor…
“…all the volunteers, named and unnamed, who risked their own livelihoods to help recover our own. When we were down, they were there for us—coming by the thousands from every state of the Union and many foreign countries as well. They still continue to come surrendering spring breaks, vacations, retirement time and even suspending businesses, careers, and investment ventures.”
I have never heard of anything like this. It’s a beautiful gesture of gratitude, dedicated to all those who literally saved the Gulf Coast. As we have heard on our trips these past few years, everyone on the Gulf Coast acknowledges the importance of the non-governmental help they have received, and the generous outpouring that’s occurred there.
Friends, behind every volunteer who came, there was the work of a community organizer. Working for hundreds of non-profits and “NGOs,” they have provided the structures that have made the volunteer work possible.
Ironically, because their “staffs” are so often hordes of untrained volunteers, community organizers have to be simultaneously more organized, and more flexible…more structured, and more responsive…than government officials (like, say, a small town mayor) ever could be.
That’s why volunteers, and their community organizer leaders, were so effective in responding to Hurricane Katrina. That’s why the residents there are so grateful that they’re building a memorial in their honor.
And that’s why whether it’s Gustav, Hanna, Ike, or the next one, they’ll be there again…laboring with little fanfare or accolade…providing services, working with local people at the most local and basic levels, and living out their very real “responsibilities.”
As he’s very good at doing, Jim Wallis concludes by bringing our attention back to the most needy in our society: the poor. Wallis points out that no one in America, including politicians, does more directly for the poor, than community organizers.
“And when you put the accomplishments of politicians alongside those of community organizers for poor families, it isn’t even close. Without the pressure from community organizers and the movements they lead, there would often be nobody to hold politicians accountable.”
“Palin’s effort to attack the experience of Barack Obama, a former community organizer in Chicago, turned into a bad joke and an insult. Palin owes a lot of good people an apology.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Thank God Jim Wallis did.