This is the second of a two part post on building a national movement around immigration reform with mainline denominations leading the way. The first part, which you can read here, recalled the vital role mainline denominations played in the Civil Rights Movement.
But one thing kept bugging me as I read Findlay's book many years ago. I honestly could not even realize what it was until these last few years. Throughout Findlay's book, Findlay showed how the mobilization of mainline church people happened almost without exception by an organization formed outside the actual denominations. Findlay showed the power at that time of the National Council of Churches and particularly of the newly created Commission on Religion and Race, which facilitated much of the partnering work between civil rights organizations and mainline denominations on the ground, while the NCC directed much of the faith direct advocacy in Washington DC.
The creation of outside organizations to focus on organizing faith communities for struggles for social justice - whether that centered on immigrants' rights, farmworkers, anti-nuclear and anti-war peacemaking efforts, or globalization - has become somewhat of a modus operandi in mobilizing mainline denominations. While denominations have been engaged in educational efforts, or passing resolutions, or making statements to show their dedication to the work of justice, the actual work of organizing - building movements among people in ways that are significant and politically impactful and have a direct impact on real improvements in people's lives from a national scale have largely been accomplished by outside organizations.
Why is that? Why aren't denominations on the front lines of building grassroots movements in the struggle for justice on a national scale?
I honestly do not know all of the answers. I can only speculate. Perhaps denominational leaders, whose members are both fully engaged in the struggles for justice and fully engaged in maintaining the status quo, have been absent in building national movements because they fear angering a good portion of their base. Perhaps denominations have been absent in building national grassroots movements because they value abstract educational efforts and institutional actions like passing resolutions and making statements more than the far more difficult relationship-building work involved in movements. Perhaps denominations have been absent from building national grassroots movements because when institutions are dying the inclination among denominational leaders is institutional maintenance and turf protection rather than missional engagement and incarnational relationships among people directly impacted by broken systems.
I doubt one or perhaps even all of these reasons fully explain why, but for whatever reason, mainline denominations have depended on outside groups to create national movements for justice. Until now.
Over the past four years United Methodists have engaged in close to 900 public witness events in support of just and humane immigration reform. This has been done without the help of any extra-denominational organizations. Notably, the organizing focus has taken place largely outside the basic structures of the institutional church as well. In fact, the primary structure recently created: Rapid Response Teams, which are started by unpaid volunteers in their conferences dedicated to mobilizing their conference to defend and support the rights of immigrants. The established church structures have at times followed the lead of the momentum of the grassroots mobilization efforts begun by the Rapid Response Teams, but these established structures have not created the momentum themselves. That is done by these teams, largely made up by people who are immigrants or who have close relationships with immigrant communities.
These incarnational relationships are the very heart of the work of organizing for the Rapid Response Teams. United Methodists in local churches have focused on creating spaces for incarnational relationships between church folks and those directly impacted by the broken immigration system and from that advocacy naturally emanates.
Therefore, all of the advocacy and political engagement is innately missional in nature. United Methodists are not politically engaged in such large numbers or with such tremendous results because we have gone after United Methodists with similar political leanings. Instead, the numbers and results flow from biblically-based, missionally-charged, passion-filled incarnational relationships between a predominantly Anglo denomination and immigrant communities. And as far as I can tell from conversations I have had and from the books I have read, this kind of movement-building has never happened this way before from within the denomination. But it is definitely happening now.
One thing that has been truly fascinating to watch is the little that established structural assets have provided in this work. Mandated positions and structurally-ordained committees have provided limited help in building the movement among United Methodists unless they were peopled by those individuals with passion and who valued and practiced incarnational relationships among immigrant communities.
There is certainly a role for established structures in building movements for justice, but the belief that institutional structures automatically mean that effective advocacy and justice-oriented ministries incarnationally connected among groups directly impacted by broken systems are happening is an idea whose time probably never came. Mandated positions and structurally-ordained committees probably make us feel better, but they rarely build national movements for justice. I am not ready to openly advocate for their entire removal, but I strongly believe that they should focus their work on identifying teams of individuals incarnated among people directly impacted by broken systems and take whatever resources they have at their disposal and use it to support those efforts to mobilize and build movements.
While the media focus and funding money have largely been spent focusing on efforts to recruit high level religious conservatives (otherwise known as grasstops), a slow but steady undercurrent has been happening that has gone for too long unrecognized. A fledgling but increasingly growing movement among United Methodists and other mainlines dedicated to developing incarnational relationships among immigrant communities has been making an impact no matter how little attention and resources have been shared.
The obituaries for mainline denominations have long been written. And they actually may be correct - mainline denominations may be slowly dying and the direction might be irreversible. But they ain't dead yet and while they still have life they have much they can and frankly, must give towards building movements for justice. The work of United Methodists over the past several years prove that mainlines do not need to wait for someone or some group outside the denomination to come and use them redemptively. We have all we need right now and we must not wait any longer. The only question in front of us is if we dare to think creatively, love sacrificially, relate incarnationally, and advocate passionately, then we have all we need right now. So, lets build us a movement why don't we?