Rev. Alexia Salvatierra is currently the Special Assistant to the Bishop for Welcoming Congregations for the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She also serves as a consultant (training, facilitating, organizing and leading strategic planning) for a variety of national/international organizations, including World Vision USA/World Vision International/Women of Vision, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, the Christian Community Development Association the Womens’ Donor Network, Auburn Theological Seminary, Interfaith Worker Justice, PICO and Sojourner’s. She is adjunct faculty at the New York Theological Seminary and Biola University, and has lectured at Fuller Seminary, University of Southern California and UCLA. She recently wrote her first book along with Peter Heltzel called Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World.
KW: In the midst of increased emphasis on justice your book asks an important question, “What if Christians were to shape their organizing around the implications of the truth that God is real and Jesus is risen?” How do you see that as different from the ways Christians currently organize?
AS: Most Christians who engage in organizing do so in the context of one of the national organizing networks. The granddaddy of these networks is the Industrial Areas Foundation, which has its roots in the theory and practice of Saul Alinsky. Saul Alinsky was a secular Jew whose core assumptions about human nature and society were based in his observations of a world without God (at least without a God who makes a difference.) As a result, he identified motivation with self-interest, power with force/wealth and numbers, and asserted that those who say that means are not justified by ends are those with the means to enforce their will. While some of the networks that began with his model have made significant changes (and the PICO network in particular uses a much more faith-rooted approach in many places in the country), we do not start with or modify Alinsky. We ask what organizing looks like if it is completely shaped by faith. How do we understand human motivation, power and the relationship between means and ends in the light of the Gospel? For example, Jesus teaches us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. That means taking seriously the worst and most carnal aspects of people but also taking seriously that the Holy Spirit is alive and active, at work on the hearts of believers before you get there.
KW: How does Christ transform the way we approach justice and advocacy?
AS: The whole book is an answer to this question! However, just to give you one quick teaser—to follow Jesus is to walk the way of the cross. We recognize that sacrificial love can lead to victory when it is in obedience to God’s call and part of the process of redemption. Mercy is not the opposite of justice; mercy lived out as intelligently and effectively as possible leads us to justice. The cross and resurrection also teach us that we can hope for much more than we can see with our natural eyes. This has concrete implications; when the great farmworker organizer Cesar Chavez had lost contracts covering 150,000 workers to a conspiracy by the growers and teamsters, he did not follow the counsel of his secular advisors to fold up his operation because he believed that the Risen Christ was with them in their struggle against extreme poverty and for fair wages; he said that it is in the moment when all seems to be lost that we most need to walk by faith and not by sight. They were ultimately able to defeat the conspiracy and recover the contracts.
KW: What are the principles of Faith Rooted Organizing?
AS: Organizing is bringing people together to create systemic change – the kind of change that individuals cannot create on their own. Faith-rooted organizing is organizing that is shaped and guided in every way by our faith and designed to enable people of faith to contribute all of our unique gifts to the broader movement for justice. These principles take on different forms in distinct historical contexts; we seek to connect all of those who are engaged in faith-rooted organizing around the world for the ongoing exchange of best practices and new discoveries.
KW: What are some of the biggest things you learned as you wrote the book?
AS: I never thought I could write a book; I am an organizer, evangelist and pastor, not an academic. However, I learned along the way that it really does matter to me to share all that God had given me in 35 years of organizing and community transformation with the young people that I mentor. The book helps that process. I now actively encourage other pastors and organizers to write books!
KW: If someone wanted to get started in organizing, how would you counsel them to begin? Where can people get started?
AS: There are a number of groups and organizations around the world who are now doing faith-rooted organizing. Anyone is free to contact us so that we can figure out together if someone close to you is engaged in this way. If there isn’t anyone doing it yet, join a community development ministry in your area and add an organizing and advocacy component (or start with a more faith-based rather than faith-rooted or broader organizing effort in your area and bring a faith-rooted approach and toolbox.) We have a national un-network of leaders who are doing this work that you are welcome to join for advice and support.
KW: Who are some historical examples you look to for informing Faith Rooted Organizing?
AS: We do spend some time in the book describing and citing our elders and inspirations on this road. Of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders are key as well as the leaders of the farmworkers’ struggle and Sanctuary and other faith-rooted immigration movements in the U.S., and Christian leaders of movements for justice in the global South.
KW: What do you say to people who feel organizing or activism is for liberals only or is too radical a challenge to authority? In other words, if this is something someone didn’t grow up with, are there biblical examples and advice to help open their eyes to a faith rooted form of activism?
AS: While there are many more directly justice-related scriptures, I always like to start with Matthew 9:35-37. In Matthew 9:35-37, Jesus looks at the crowd and has compassion. Compassion is an English word consisting of two Latin words, com (with) and passio (feeling). Jesus looks at the crowds and he feels with them – he feels their pain as if it were his pain, their hopes and dreams as if they were his hopes and dreams. Many of us have experienced the compassion of Jesus for us, and we have understood that we must respond by having that same compassion for others. In this scripture, before responding with compassion, Jesus first had to see the crowd; he had to understand the suffering, hopes and dreams of the people around him. The church doesn’t have a compassion problem; we have a vision problem. It also isn’t enough to see individuals; Jesus saw the crowd. We see the problem and the solution a little differently when we see the crowd. For example, if we see a boy struggling in school and we have compassion, we would naturally tutor him. However, if we see 300 boys and girls struggling in the same school, we might ask what is wrong with the school and we might seek to improve the educational system. When Jesus acted on his compassion, he gave everything that he had. It is not enough to give our hearts, we also have to use our minds – to love as intelligently and effectively as we can, being good stewards by employing all our resources in the cause of the kingdom. This means going from giving a fish to teaching to fish – and then when the fishermen discover that there is a wall that keeps them from access to the pond, finding a way to take down the wall. Advocacy is one of the gifts of democracy – the right and responsibility to participate in the process of public decision-making (the decisions that often create or remove walls.) If we are not using these great gifts for God’s purposes, we are like the servant in Luke who buries his gift in the ground. The practice of biblically-based advocacy is all about being good stewards of our influence.