Center’s Puget Sound Network Considers Framework for Ongoing Work

September 21, 2017

The Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs’ Puget Sound Network met for the second time on September 13th. It was an opportunity for Network members to critically reflect on some of the language and tools used by specialists to talk about faith-based community development.  This discussion was intended to lay the foundation for the more focused conversations around enhancing faith-based responses to homelessness that will take place over the coming year.

In addition to Network members and the Center team, meeting attendees included the Center’s Graduate Student Affiliates, as well as four key community partners representing pace-setting faith-based organizations: Rabbi Will Berkovitz, Chief Executive Officer of Jewish Family Service; Ms. Mary Anne deVry, Director of the Westside Interfaith Network; Mr. Tezcan Inanlar, Northwest Regional Director of Pacifica Institute; and Ms. Janet Pope, Executive Director of Compass Housing Alliance. 

Center Director, Dr. Manuel Mejido, opened the meeting by citing the theologian H. Richard Niebuhr’s claim at the outset of The Kingdom of God in America (1937) that, “The instrumental value of faith for society is dependent upon faith’s conviction that it has more than instrumental value” (p. 12). Mejido explained that this “provocative circle” nicely captures the twofold nature of the task this working group has before it: to explore how faith-based organizations can more effectively address homelessness; and to reflect on the theological and spiritual meaning of this community engagement.

Frameworks for Faith-Based Action

During the first part of the meeting, the Center’s Community Engagement Manager, Rev. Maggie Breen, moderated a discussion around three frameworks that have been used to characterize faith-based social action. 

How faith-based groups organize themselves: The group agreed that a framework categorizing faith-based organizations (FBOs) into four types was useful.  These types are: 1) Congregations and Coordinating Bodies; 2) Congregational Projects or Organizations; 3) Non-profit Organizations; and 4) Ecumenical or Interfaith Organizations. However, many observed that their work often touches on multiple categories.  Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick noted that Temple Beth Am (a congregation) runs Homeless to Renter (a program) that partners with Jewish Family Service (a non-profit). “Real life is lived in a much more integrated and connected way,” she summed up.

How FBO’s intervene: This model categorized the way FBOs carry out their work as follows:  1) Advocacy; 2) Service Provision; and 3) Broader Community Building. Many commented that their organizations do all three of these things, to some degree. Ms. Janet Pope, citing her work with Compass Housing Alliance, suggested that these labels are too narrow. Effective service, Ms. Pope and others claimed, requires engagement in broader community building and advocacy. The group resonated with Rev. David Rodes’ point that often FBOs start their work with direct service and move to other areas.  The question became: How do we do this intentionally and effectively so as to mitigate unhelpful “mission creep”?  Rev. Kelle Brown added the questions: “How do we [FBOs] scrutinize service provision?  Where is the prophetic voice that considers how we do service provision and how we should do it?”

How FBOs differ from their secular counterparts: The group considered a continuum of religiosity that places FBOs on a spectrum from “faith-permeated” to “secular.” Network members and guests noted that while it is useful to know where we sit on the continuum, partnership across the spectrum is a vital capacity for FBOs to be able to contribute meaningfully. Mr. Jeff Lilley commented that this framework “helps us understand where we are at,” which in turn impacts our work.  Rabbi Will Berkovitz gave voice to a curiosity regarding how we helpfully engage those who come at this work from a secular perspective, or even with a discomfort around faith-based work and language.  Leadership was identified as an important capacity for FBOs by Mr. Rizwan Rizwi: “Direction comes from the top and the leadership really affects [the degree of religiosity within an organization].” 

Conversation with Center Scholar Jason Hays

In the second half of the meeting, Dr. Mejido introduced Dr. Jason Hays, a Center scholar and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Naropa University.  Dr. Hays presented his current research, which deals with how FBOs in Boulder, CO, are grappling with a paradigmatic shift in the provision of services for individuals experiencing homelessness. This systemic pivot from needs-based to assessment-based sheltering is “radically changing the landscape of services to persons experiencing homelessness in the community,” he said. Dr. Hays serves on the board of Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow, a nonprofit service provider that partners with local religious communities to leverage their community resources and interfaith relationships to meet basic shelter and care needs. In his research, he is particularly interested in how they are navigating barriers like restrictive land use codes.

After a brief presentation, Hays fielded questions from three Network members.

Mr. Rizwan Rizwi asked for more detail about the new policy implementation’s impact on emergency services in Dr. Hays’ context in Colorado, noting that local Washington state counties are approaching the shift to Rapid Rehousing in different ways, and that the pressure on FBOs to fill the gap for emergent needs is increasing. Dr. Hays affirmed that the experience in Colorado has been similar and remarked that such conversation across geographic difference is useful as it helps him know he was not alone in his experience. Dr. Hays shared: “In our context, when we have below-zero winter nights, people die. The city says, ‘Well, we don’t have resources and so we are going to push that onto the NGOs or the congregations.’ And in our experience philanthropic funds are drying up dramatically. [They are interested in] funding the more ‘exciting’ programs and meanwhile no one is funding overnight shelter. That’s creating this ethical dilemma for congregations. The issue also is that as [congregations] turn to emergency shelter, questions of affordable housing and the eviction epidemic are not addressed.  So, how is it that we attend to both in the context of these multiple stakeholders?”

Rev. David Rodes asked a second question about how we can take a prophetic stand and still encourage conversation: “How can we engage without taking up the weapons of incivility, hatred, and violence in order to stay committed to a distinctively compassionate and courageous manner, promoting an environment for lasting change?” Dr. Hays affirmed this question and added, “How is it that multiple stakeholders can engage in regular relationship-building in ways that don’t demonize?” He suggested that an act of resistance might actually be to shift the discourse away from demonization and towards contemplative listening. Contemplative listening asks us to strive for mutual transformation by being open to the other, while holding onto the ethical commitments or theological commitments that ground us.

Finally, Rev. Kelle Brown asked about Dr. Hays’ work on client assessment tools as sites of pathology.  Dr. Hays responded, “I think the post-colonial critique of power and privilege –particularly in public policy spaces – is really lacking. I don’t find City Council engaging in questions of power and privilege, particularly in Boulder, a white community, where white privilege is not on the table around public policy decisions - especially around resource allocation. I don’t have an easy answer, but I have a strong commitment to [asking those questions] in my work, hoping the congregation leader is prompted to start thinking about how that deconstructive work and self-analysis has to happen.” Rev. Brown commented, “The work is so heavy; we often have to keep our heads down and keep people housed as best we can and deal with direct service as it plays out.  The reason we haven’t put ourselves out of business is because we haven’t taken on this conversation in an authentic way. Those we impact directly [through service] know this conversation.”

Network members will continue the discussions begun in this meeting online through Canvas, where they will be in conversation with Graduate Student Affiliates, Hays, and other Center scholars.

The next Network meeting will take place on November 8th, 2017. Center Scholar Dr. Laura Stivers, Dean of the School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Dominican University of California and author of Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches, will be videoconferencing with Network members and guests, and sharing about her work on the intersections of racism and homelessness in the Bay Area.