First published Oct. 26, 2015 in the Ames Tribune.
A significant element of my faith life is striving for integrity: to practice what I (literally) preach. One of the things I regularly preach is allowing faith to lead us to engagement, to embody our faith in practical ways. So, at the end of October I will be participating in a forum for Ames City Council candidates. It is being hosted by the Ames Progressive Alliance, but I will be there through a different organization: AMOS, A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy.
AMOS is one of the many reasons I am so excited to pastor at Ames United Church of Christ. About 10 years ago I was involved in an AMOS sister organization in my hometown of Portland, Ore. Both organizations are part of a nationwide network called the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). The IAF was founded in the 1920s in the packing house district of Chicago, which was at the time a place of great impoverishment and poor living conditions. Unions and churches gathered together to demand (and win) improvements to workers’ conditions. Nowadays, IAF affiliates bring together faith-based institutions (of all kinds), labor unions, social service agencies, and even medical practices to unite around shared issues. What those issues are varies by affiliate because they are determined by the member institutions. In other words, there is no national agenda, only the identification of local pressures.
For example, here in Ames, member institutions like my church have lifted up affordable housing as a serious concern. I have some experience in the issue of affordable housing, having run a Habitat for Humanity affiliate in central Illinois. Until I took that position, my understanding of poverty housing was academic. I’d had a period in my late 20s when I could not afford to rent, but I was able to live with my father. He had the means to help support me until I found better work. However, that scenario is typically not the case for the working poor served by Habitat. Those families do not have such relational resources and their employment does not provide any capacity for building up savings or a strong credit background, necessities for gaining a mortgage. The rentals they can afford are often unsafe and poorly maintained.
For some community members that I worked with, that description was enough to get involved with Habitat. For others, it was just a sob story and poverty was a personal problem, the result of a weakness of character or lack of work ethic. I remember that, for some, not even the testimony of two working parents, who lost everything they owned to a devastating car accident and medical debt, was compelling enough. As a result, I learned to talk about the ways everyone benefits from an investment in affordable housing: When families can keep their housing costs under 30 percent of their income, they are significantly less likely to need local and regional social services. And, if that affordable housing is owned rather than rented, families are actively supporting the community through their own property tax dollars, and much more likely to become stable, contributing members of the community. In other words, affordable housing creates less of a draw on the public’s taxes, less of a need to participate in shadow economies, and grows the municipality’s tax base while stabilizing housing demands. Pointing all that out to potential donors and volunteers usually did the trick.
I am still getting a feel for how a lack of affordable housing plays out in Ames. I know that when people with lower incomes, who work in Ames, have to live in neighboring communities and commute in to work, a greater portion of their limited income has to be spent on transportation. Transportation costs, namely gas and maintenance, are not as predictable as housing. And a ripple effect is inevitable: The funds spent on transportation cannot be used for medical care, after-school opportunities for children, or savings in case of a crisis. Those may sound like personal problems but on an aggregate level, as we learned in the recession, they quickly become public issues.
The institutions represented by AMOS recognize this. We will continue to bring the need for affordable housing to stakeholders in the city. What distinguishes us from the more familiar protest model for change is how we approach power. All IAF affiliates, having named a pressure, go one step further by researching how to take action on that pressure. It is not enough to say to the City Council that we need to protect and provide for low income residents. We have to show them when, where, and how.
AMOS does not engage in rallies with picket signs but in direct actions in decision-making spaces. Yes, sometimes we bring signs, but we always bring concrete data and feasible requests. And those requests/actions area not backed up by just the data, but the number of people represented by the member institutions. Instead of, “We 250 members of Ames UCC would like to see….,” AMOS can say, “Our 28 institutions and the thousands of diverse people they represent would like to see…” Having such a broad base to stand on is itself a form of power, and quite effective.
I know there is a lot of well-earned distrust of churches. So many, at least those that make the news, do not seem concerned with integrity between word and action, let alone helping “the least of these,” as the Bible says. But if you have longed for a community that tries really hard to “walk the walk,” I hope that you will come to the forum. It’s on Thursday, Oct. 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the Ames Public Library (with a reception at 5:30 p.m.). I would love to meet you and continue the discussion.