By Aria Overli, ACTIONN Community Organizer
“Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.” – Moses
What does it mean to form authentic community?
That’s a question that I think all of us struggle with. Community is not easy. It is not easy when the pressures of society and of living leave us with little time to be intentional in the work of community building, but it remains one of the most pressing issues of our lives. And it remains one of the foremost responsibilities of our faith communities.
I am a community organizer. There is a lot of confusion and lack of understanding about what that means. And honestly, I’m still figuring it out myself.
Often times, when I’m presenting to a new group of people, I will ask them if they know what a community organizer is. And the overwhelming majority of the time, I am presented with stares of confusion. Occasionally, I’ll hear that I’m a professional activist.
If I am doing my job right, that description could not be further from the truth. And that is not to diminish the importance of activism or activists in our community, but my job, and hopefully all our jobs, is not just to oppose what is so clearly wrong in our world. Our job is to become the people we need to be in order to create a prophetic imagination for a world that is not wrong. It is our job not just to oppose the world as it is, but to create a world that is different. Community building is the most important tool that we have at our disposal in creating that world.
Literally, my job is to organize community. That means helping leaders in faith communities to cultivate an imagination for what the world should be. It means having conversations with people about who they are and how they became the people that they are. It means helping to understand the ways that we can prevent each other from falling through the cracks, as too many people in our community do. It means helping people find effective paths forward to create a world that is in line with their values and their faiths.
None of that is easy. And I don’t always live up to being the person that I need to be in order to do that successfully. And I doubt that there will ever be a time when any of us are living up to that expectation fully. It’s too much for any single person to accomplish. We are human. We fail each other even when we try our best.
Nonetheless, every day, I feel a deep sense of inadequacy. An inadequacy that seeps deep into who I am as a person. An inadequacy that affects who I present to the world. An inadequacy that I carry with me into every interaction. Because this work is important. And I rarely feel that I am in the person who should be entrusted with doing it.
I question if I am the person who is able to bridge divides. I question if I am able to have honest and courageous conversations with people. I question whether I am charismatic or prophetic enough to lead people to take risks. I question whether I am capable of taking the risks that I need to take. Ultimately, I question whether I am the kind of person that people will follow.
And maybe all of that’s true, but I also suspect that I’m not the only one that feels that way. I also suspect that the feeling of inadequacy is the root feeling that keeps us from becoming the leaders that we need to be to truly live into our values, to truly live into our faiths, and to live truly and honestly in a world that is beautiful, but too often cruel.
In Exodus, the Lord appears to Moses as a burning bush: “The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering … I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’”
But, Moses did not believe himself adequate to the challenge. His inadequacies burned deeply into who he was. He said to the Lord,
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
“What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?”
“Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.”
“Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.”
But the Lord would not accept these excuses that resulted from inadequacy. He responded to Moses.
“Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him.”
Our inadequacies prevent us from seeking the help of others. They prevent us from taking the steps that we have been called to take as people of faith, but we are not alone. Even the heroes within the Bible struggled to live into who they were called to be.
Last week, I was in a meeting with members of ACTIONN’s speakers’ bureau. I said something without thinking. I said that the purpose of sharing our stories was to prove to others that we were not broken. That we are human just like they are, despite what we’ve been through.
A member of the Speakers’ Bureau interrupted me, gently but with a sense of urgency in what needed to be said. She began to speak more passionately and more honestly than I had ever heard her speak. She told me that I was wrong. She told me that she was, in fact, broken. That the years of physical and sexual assault that she endured while living as a homeless woman broke her and that she would never truly heal.
Her words spoke to the room. Every other woman in the room began to share their experiences of being assaulted and sexually exploited while they lived on the streets. They agreed; they were broken. It wasn’t their job to convince others that they weren’t broken, but to instead let others know that it is ok to be broken. Because this world breaks us. Because the world around us is wrong.
And this made me consider my own brokenness. I have shared with many of you that I grew up in a home that was far from safe and that was far from sheltered. I went to school many days without food, and I came home on many occasions to abuse and neglect. I’ve shared with many of you how our community’s neglect of issues of trauma, violence, disability, mental illness, and economic injustice shaped my childhood and has continued to shape my passion for justice and for creating a world in which we can all exist without fear.
I have carefully crafted that story to model my vulnerability so as to create a space where vulnerability is welcome and where we can use that vulnerability to create change by addressing the source of our pain. To create a space where we can use our pain to help each other heal and to motivate and inspire ourselves and each other to become the people that we need to be in a world that too often profits off of our pain.
But, ultimately, my vulnerability is about more than where I came from. It’s about how those experiences continue to effect and influence me today. I have been afraid to be truly vulnerable about what prevents me from fully living into this work: a deep sense of inadequacy. An inadequacy that tells me every day that these problems are too big and that I am too broken.
But, Celeste reminded me: it is in my brokenness that I can best lead. Moses reminds me that inadequacy lives within all of us, even in our most heroic Biblical figures.
We live in a world where our values continually exist in conflict with the society that has been created around us. It is a system that profits off of our pain. It protects some people at the expense of the majority.
We are all cracked. We are all broken. We are all inadequate in the fight against injustice. It is true that the problems are too big and that we are too broken. That is why the work of building community is so deeply important. It is why having honest and courageous conversations with each other is more important than ever. It is why we have a moral responsibility to stand together. It is why we have a moral responsibility to organize. It is why we have a moral responsibility to be effective in the work of justice.
It is only together that we can even begin to put a dent into a system that only sees our communities as something to be exploited.
The greatest realization that I’ve made is that it is my not my inadequacy that is the problem. It is the way that I allow that inadequacy to keep me from becoming who I need to be. We have work to do. I may not be the person that everyone is going to follow, but that person doesn’t exist. Which is why I need all of us to step up into our power. I may be inadequate, but together, we are more.
I recently read a book by an incredible faith-based community organizer. He said “The world as it should be may have moral force, but it usually lacks the power to effect change in the world as it is. Seeing the world as it should be rarely transforms the way the real world looks. Those who operate only on the plane of consciousness and truth may be faithful in their vision but they will have a limited impact on an impure world. While it is true that ‘without vision, the people perish,’ those devoted to the world as it should be need greater moral strength to endure the ongoing rejection of their vision.”
I say this because I think we fail to step up into our values because we feel a deep sense of inadequacy. That we present to the world a vision of what it should look like, but don’t actively pursue it because we don’t believe that our moral vision is enough to guide us. Because we don’t believe that we can move other people to take action. Because we aren’t willing to have conversations with each other that are hard or uncomfortable or honest. We beg the Lord to send someone else. Someone who is more adequate in this work. Someone who can speak better. Someone who people will be more likely to be believe.
If we truly want to build authentic community, it has to start with organizing. We can present a prophetic and moral image of the world every day, but unless we’re taking risks, unless we’re challenging each other to be better, unless we’re being effective and strategic and powerful in our work, that image is ultimately useless beyond ensuring our own sense of moral superiority.
This is my promise to you: I will be better. I will work to challenge my inadequacy to step more into the person that I need to be. Because the world is really scary right now. We have camps on our borders that are traumatizing and abusing children and adults alike. We have neighbors who are demonized and assaulted regularly because they do not have access to a roof. Our friends of color are constantly told that they are not American enough. This is a world that cannot stand. This is a world that is broken.
And it is not enough to present a vision that is better.
I will remind you of something that Martin Luther King shared: “Love without power is sentimental and anemic.”
If we allow our inadequacies to water down our love and to make it ineffective, we are failing in our responsibility as children of God.
I don’t have all the answers. I am lacking in many ways. But I do know that unless we start to organize, we are lost. I am a community organizer. I’m still figuring out what that means, but I want to invite you to figure out with me. Because I am not enough on my own.