“To know what Christian activism looks like, make a friend.”

by MT Dávila

“So you say you love the poor? Name them.” –Gustavo Gutiérrez

Recently during a panel on the November 2016 presidential election, someone asked what form Christian activism and organizing should take in order to counter the proposed policies of the new administration. While tears were still freshly streaming down the cheeks of many progressive Christians on the morning of November 9, I received invitation after invitation to countless ‘secret’ Facebook groups of various scholarly kinds. The goal of these groups was to galvanize progressive sentiment against the Trump administration toward the kind of activism I feel ought to be the bread and butter of academics – especially the theological academy – under any administration. My response to the question was to reject all these efforts.

While sentiments of outrage and righteous anger can fuel organizing and action, this fuel only takes one so far. These run mighty short in the face of the long hours, cold days, and seemingly incessant failure of activism. My resistance to this form of organizing relates to how distant these efforts felt from how I define activism: public risk-taking in solidarity for the sake of another. Liberation Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez’s quote above focuses on that last, but important piece, “another”. “So you say you love the poor? Name them.”

My definition of activism comes directly from the definition of “poverty” in the Medellín document on Poverty of the Church (1968). In that document, poverty as solidarity is defined thusly:

Poverty as a commitment, through which one assumes voluntarily and lovingly the conditions of the needy of this world in order to bear witness to the evil which it represents and to spiritual liberty in the face of material goods, follows the example of Christ who took to himself all the consequences of men’s sinful condition and who “being rich became poor” in order to redeem us.

In the document we also learn that the option for the poor demands that we become incarnate in the suffering of another in some way (“All members of the church are called to live in evangelical poverty, but not all in the same way, as there are diverse vocations to this poverty, that tolerate diverse styles of life and various modes of acting.”). Understanding the option for the poor as the incarnational principle of Divine love reminds us that the incarnation as an act of Holy solidarity names each one of us – specifically, “No longer do I call you servants, …but friends.” (John 15: 15). Friendship, that relationship by which we tie our destinies together in some way, is at the heart of Christian organizing and activism.

The cover photo for Dan Groody’s The Option for the Poor in Christian Theology (2007) has always struck me as that friendship that witnesses to becoming incarnate in the suffering of another.

Surveying key markers of communities of faith taking risks in organizing for public action, I found that personal narrative coupled with relationship-building are at the core of true organizing. Faith communities might engage in a series of services mainly centered around the practice of hospitality: soup kitchens, clothes closets, and food pantries, an interfaith meal every so often, hosting a family as part of a network of churches committed to assisting homeless families. These practices place particular narratives before us. Through sustained engagement we learn about and become friends with refugee families, homeless veterans, single mothers, people with addiction, neighbors whose air, ground, and water quality are heavily compromised.

Church folk become actively and publicly involved in organizing and advocacy when something in the stories of their friends calls them to do so. This, coupled, with pastoral leadership oriented toward public witness readies a community to live into risk-taking for others that would not have been considered before. As a case in point, I heard from a mainly white, mainly upper middle-class church that had not considered public witness and activism until they lost track of one of the refugee families they had housed as part of a hospitality network. The women in the church who had befriended the mother and children soon became concerned about the possibility that this family was being trafficked, detained, or separated. They were moved to organize not so much on behalf of refugees in general, but because of a specific family whom they had befriended, and through whom the plight of refugee families everywhere became a very real summons on their Christian life.

Transforming narratives and friendships into public action and organizing for advocacy takes cultivation. Communities that are able to turn their practices of hospitality into organizing have cultivated the art of story-telling and relationship-building. They have leaders, both clergy and laity, who carefully walk with them the hard road of what it means to be friends with the poor who are perennially battered by political, economic, social, cultural, and religious forces of oppression and exclusion. In getting to know the names of refugees, the un-housed, persons with addiction, transgendered persons, battered women, black and brown persons, and others we imitate the Christ that knows us deeply, and calls each one of us by name as the Holy takes on the deepest poverty of our humanity in the most radical act of transformative advocacy.

MT Dávila, associate professor of Christian ethics at Andover Newton Theological School, is a Roman Catholic laywoman. She has published in the areas of public theology, the option for the poor, Latina/o ethics, Mujerista theology, immigration, racism, and the ethics of the use of force. Along with her husband and four children, MT is a parishioner at St. Joseph’s Parish in Malden, MA.