“Community is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another” wrote religious teacher Henri Nouwen in his book Bread for the Journey.
I have had the fortunate grace to be surrounded by family and community for most of my life. I’ve written before about the Italian neighborhood where I grew up; where every mother and grandmother watched out for every child on the street. And, there were are lot of children to protect. On summer nights, we would play a game called Release (sometimes known as “Jailbreak”). It is essentially a game of hide and seek played with two teams. We would start the game at dusk and play until near midnight on most nights. The entire Westside neighborhood was the boundary: from 5th to 8th street and from the Youghiogheny River to the main east-west street, Crawford Avenue. The teams were massive, co-ed and comprised of all ages: it was not unusual to have 20 kids per team.
Unions were another version of community that I took for granted from my formative years. Western Pennsylvania, where I grew up, was steel, coal and coke country; all of which were hotbeds of union organizing. In the 1920’s during a bitter coal miner strike a group of 200 women from my home county, armed with knives, clubs, salt and pepper, marched on the strike breakers and attacked them. If they couldn’t beat or stab them, they threw salt and pepper into their eyes. And when the police intervened they turned on the police, attacking them as well. The union culture was so strong that when I moved to Wisconsin as a Vista volunteer just out of college, I was shocked to learn that there were factories where the workers weren’t protected by a union. In western Pennsylvania, it was just understood that workers were unionized.
Given this background, it should be no surprise that I became a community organizer and that the work of organizing came easily to me. I believe it is something I just absorbed, growing up. Organizing is first and foremost about creating relationships; about creating community and ultimately about striving for justice.
As we witness the after-glow of the 3 million + women and men who marched in cities and towns across America in protest of the Trump administration agenda, I think it is important to ponder the words of Henri Nouwen in the opening sentence: “community is first of all a quality of the heart.” To be successful over the long-term, the drive to organize must be sustained. One-off marches like we saw after the inauguration are good to make a statement, but creating systemic change takes a continuous effort over a significant period of time. Those who marched in the light of solidarity must now become ready to do the foot soldier’s work of organizing. Everyone must be ready to carry on with the phone calls, the legislative visits, the letter writing campaigns, the election campaigns, the fund raising, the public actions even in the face of crushing defeats. And there will be crushing defeats.
I predict that those who are fired up by the hatred of president Trump and the policies he supports will be the first ones to wither away when the defeats begin piling up. But, those who organize by building relationships, by supporting community, who understand that we are here both for ourselves but also for others: they will be the ones who will ultimately win the hearts and minds of America and who will bring about lasting change. To change systems, we must first change hearts. And the first heart we should think about changing is our own. To win, we must be motivated by love and we must work diligently to build community.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.