My work in young adult ministry in Camden, NJ got me involved in a day of learning about community organizing on MLK Day. This is the reflection I wrote after the experience.
January 17, 2011
Today I helped coordinate a day of community organizing sponsored by Camden Churches Organized for People (CCOP) that celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by learning about community organizing.
The Franciscan priest who hosted the event at his parish said to me this morning that he was appalled when he read all over the news that MLK day is being known as a day of community service. “We’re brainwashing our children,” he said, “by teaching them to associate MLK with service.” Service is a gospel mandate and a blessing to a community, but it’s not what MLK was about.
I hadn’t ever really thought about MLK as an organizer– even though that’s exactly what he was. Maybe it’s because until I started working in Camden, NJ, last August, “community organizing” was abstract and politically charged. It was something Barack Obama has on his resume and Glenn Beck warns against. I didn’t get its relationship to church.
But today I had the chance to hear people cry out about the injustices they face and their desire to join with others, in faith, to take action together. The connection between church and community organizing was made real for me.
Multiple news stations joined us at 1:30pm to get a statement from the people about the severe police and fire department layoffs in Camden to take effect tomorrow. A Baptist minister, Episcopalian priest, and two Roman Catholic residents of Camden and members of CCOP, spoke about how they feel like second class citizens, that they don’t have an equal right to public safety, and that they’re living in fear. They called on public officials to take action.
And then, together on the church steps, we sang, “we shall overcome.” We didn’t sing it in memory of MLK and the civil rights movement. We invoked his presence as we sang about the current inequalities that face Camden residents. It felt like the anamnesis of the liturgy, where we more than remember the words offered by Christ at the Last Supper. I cried as people from diverse communities and faith perspectives sang with hope, that the Lord will see us through, and we shall overcome.