Wednesday, February 27, 2008


In a conversation about people from rural South Dakota, where I used to serve:

Woman #1: They aren't ready for a woman president there.
Woman #2: They aren't ready for a black president either.
Woman #1: I hear he's Muslim, but he's not active in his faith.
Me: (Interjecting) He's not Muslim. His father is Kenyan, but he's not Muslim.
Woman #1: Well, he's not active.
Me: (Interjecting) Actually, he goes to the same church as Oprah Winfrey. He's a Christian.

Conversation with Brilliant Stepson #1, over birthday dinner:

Me: Let's ask Stepson. He's a young person.
Husband: What?
Me: We've been talking about Barack Obama. What do you think of him?
Stepson #1: I think he's going to be the next president of the United States.


There's a lot of information, misinformation and general conversation going on out there about Barack Obama. (also, there are websites devoted to conversations about whether or not he is the Antichrist. I kid you not.) He has a fascinating story, which I think many people know: mother from Kansas and father from Kenya, he lived for a few years as a child in Indonesia. He was born and grew up mostly in Hawaii. He was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.

For me, the most interesting part of his biography is the fact that he spent several years in Chicago as a community organizer. He trained with Gamaliel, a church-based community organizing group headquartered in Chicago, and worked under its founder Greg Galluzzo, a former Jesuit priest.

An interesting article in a book published by The Nation magazine calls him "The Agitator", and names Saul Alinsky (author of Rules for Radicals) as one of his "mentors", although they never met. (Alinsky would have been dead by then.) Church-based community organizing is called "church-based" because organizers recognize that in many poor communities, the church is one of the only places left where people gather. Community organizing is devoted to empowering communities of people for social change.

I was trained by Gamaliel organizers back in the fall of 2000. Even eight years later, I'm processing and learning from the experience. This is part of why I'm fascinated by Obama's story. Community organizing is deeply democratic. Listening is one of the valued skills. Developing people as leaders is also valued. (So is something called "agitation", which can be as scarey as it sounds. But, as organizers say and I have to keep reminding myself, nothing moves without friction.) I wonder if this is part of why he says, "We are the change we are waiting for." In community organizing, that is true. No one does it alone.

So, what do you think? I have to admit, that when I first heard about Saul Alinsky, I felt a little uneasy. He said things like "we should work within the system", and called himself a radical. It's hard to figure out what his final goal for society was. What kind of a system was he aiming for? (According to the essay above, he is was a "nonsocialist.") On the other hand, a fascinating article by Walter Wink called Jesus and Saul Alinsky, got me thinking about Jesus himself as a radical. And I heard that in 1969, Alinsky was awarded the Pacem in Terra Award, for his social justice work. (I wonder what he thought of that?)


P.S. an after-thought said...

Thanks for the links. I'm going to get back to them. I know that my pastor did some kind of work with community organizing, so this will give me some basis for discussion and questions.

FranIAm said...

This is a great post Diane. You know I have struggled with this topic - I don't fully love either Dem candidate.

You have put some good food for thought here and I know that you have been working on this for awhile.

Thank you.

Diane said...

I am coming at this as someone who is intrigued, but there are things I like and don't like about each one as well...

I wonder how Obama feels about the ferver of his "followers". It's starting to backfire, I think.

zorra said...

Interesting! I did enjoy the Wink article.

I am so sick and tired of the "Obama is a radical Muslin" e-mails that, after all this time, are still circulating.

zorra said...

er, that would be "Muslim", of's late....

(what would radical muslin look like?)

LawAndGospel said...

I think we all need to continue to learn more, but I for one am hpoing that there can be a new dynamic ushered in. A person like Obama can be the catalyst. In the end though it will take more than one man ( or woman). I for one am inclined to say that unless there is something horrific discovered, he is the candidate with the lone voice for this new way. Thanks for the links re Gamaliel

Mrs. M said...

I read "Dreams From My Father" about 2 years ago now, and Sen. Obama's experience with community organization was one of the most striking points for me, too.

PS-- the book was very thoughtful, very well-written.

Anonymous said...

I think Obama offers us some hope, but unfortunately, I don't think anyone (Republican or Democrat) can bring about real change in Washington. The lobbyists, PACs, and special interest groups have too strong of a grip.

Diane said...

a sad commentary, isn't it, keivas.

Satan said...

I can tell you unequivocally that Barack Obama is not the Antichrist.

-- Satan

Diane said...

Good to know, Satan.

I think.

The Unlikely Conversationalist: said...

the best part of this election is that we may have less scandal and more substance because Obama and McCain seem to both get that America has bigger issues than scandal. I think this is a great election about to take shape.
I'm inviting you to a meme at

Katherine E. said...

Wonderful post, Diane. I read it with great interest. Thank you SO much!

LET'S TALK said...

Great post and I think everyone should know about whom they are voting for and stop the madness.

I refer you also to the site,Saul Alinsky. I think you might find a surprise here as well.

steve said...

Just to comment on the whole South Dakota is worth pointing out that my beloved home state DID recently elect a woman to the House of Representatives, Ms. Stephanie Herseth.

Actually, in a mildly amusing side note, Ms. Herseth now owns a home only about a block away from my Mom's place!

Peace to you.

Diane said...

Let's talk: I know some of this; it's interesting to note that the quote by "Lucifer" is only one of the quotes on the first page of Rules for Radicals, but of course, it's the only one that people quote.

Steve: as for Stephanie Herseth: Yay! Yay! Yay!

Diane said...

Some other more balanced views on Alinsky:
here and here

LET'S TALK said...

Oh what great links Diane, Thanks!