A faith community steps into its power

Nov 4, 2019 by

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In early October, Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a Democratic presidential hopeful, took the stage at a Peacemaker Summit organized by the St. Joseph County chapter of Faith in Indiana.

The church was packed with nearly 600 people. We were black, brown, white, Pentecostal, Catholic, Jewish. Toward the end of the program, Rev. Gilbert Washington asked the mayor to commit to three substantive initiatives.

Gilbert Washington, left, asks South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg to take specific steps toward gun violence reduction and law enforcement reform. — Adam Raschka

Gilbert Washington, left, asks South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg to take specific steps toward gun violence reduction and law enforcement reform. — Adam Raschka

We didn’t get to this point overnight. Faith in Indiana held our first town hall in South Bend a little more than a year ago.  About 250 people attended. The mayor wasn’t going to make it, and sent a representative in his place.

The size and the mix of the crowd made an impression. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine his aide texted him. In any case, Buttigieg showed up mid-meeting. “Power respects power,” was the organizing principle at work.

At a follow-up meeting with the mayor, faith leaders spoke about Peacemaker Fellowships, a strategy that offers a path off of street life for those most at risk for engaging in gun violence. Buttigieg was interested, raised questions about funding and was noncommittal. He agreed to a follow-up meeting with staff.

We talked with him about the role of community groups like ours. He said, “A string needs tension to be played. You create about the right amount of tension.”

During the next six months our network expanded. Buttigieg announced a run for president. Five hundred people came to a town hall we held on “treatment, not incarceration.” Three council members subsequently attended a conference about Peacemaker Fellowships. Eric Logan, a black man in his 50s, was shot by a white officer on Fathers’ Day. Ten people were injured and one killed in an after-hours shooting outside a bar.

In the wake of the Logan shooting, Faith in Indiana put concrete proposals on the table, including successfully calling for an independent prosecutor —  a modest, but obvious first step.

We invited Buttigieg to attend the Peacemaker Summit in early fall. Our team of leaders from 15 congregations worked tirelessly to plan the agenda and logistics. They led negotiations with the mayor’s staff. When the day came, members of our congregations crowded into Pentecostal Cathedral Church of God in Christ.

After a powerful faith reflection, first-person testimonies and a research report that laid out problems and solutions, we invited Buttigieg to the platform. He spoke thoughtfully about race, policing and violence. Then Washington asked him three clarifying questions: Would he put money in the budget for a Peacemaker Fellowship program? Yes, or no? Would he introduce up-to-date de-escalation training and procedural justice training to help shift police culture? Yes, or no? Would he raise the bar on police misconduct by developing a clear, consistent and progressive framework for police discipline? Yes or no? The answer in each case was a clear “yes.”

Now the real work begins. If the mayor follows through, South Bend will be on a path to be a model for other communities.

The moral force of the cause, the impact of personal testimonies and the power of 600 diverse people speaking with one voice were all at play that afternoon. One person or 50, no matter how right their cause, could not have this impact.

Buttigieg received five standing ovations. The crowd gave him the push — and the backing — to do the right thing and to offer bold leadership.

Power respects power, for sure. And a string needs the right amount of tension to be played.

André Gingerich Stoner works as a neighborhood networker for the Near Northwest Neighborhood in South Bend, Ind., and as an organizing fellow for Faith in Indiana. He has served as a Mennonite pastor and on denominational staff. His Doing Justice blogs at mennoworld.org explore how communities of faith love their neighbors by organizing to address policies and funding priorities in their cities, counties and states.

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