A crash course in organizing: Overcoming fear
My second full week as a community organizer, I had a conference call with Rich, the immigration policy director of our national network, People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO). New to the legal jargon around immigration and the professional role of an organizer in general, I waded my way clumsily into unknown territory with lots of questions.
The focus of the call was the process of contesting deportations. Occasionally parishioners at our member churches had contacted Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCAN), my new ministry site, for help preventing a loved one's deportation to another country. On some occasions, the uproar generated by IndyCAN and the broader community was enough to convince local powers not to go through with separating these beloved parish members from their families. I wanted to know more about what this process entailed. I wanted to be ready to respond.
Despite my good intentions in initiating this conversation, the broader reality of my immediate place in the universe weighed heavily upon me. I was a novice in word and deed. Having just started my mission novice year with the Sisters of Providence, everything was new: my housemates, my ministry, my running routes, my commute, my daily routine. I could hardly remember where we kept the silverware, yet I was asking my poor brain to digest new data systems and organizer protocol.
As I scribbled notes on a legal pad, messages of self-doubt tugged insistently at my brain like tired, hungry children at a parent's pant leg: "Do the questions I'm asking give away my lack of experience? . . . Will my imperfect Spanish be enough? . . . Do I have what it takes to do work that touches people's lives so intimately?"
Feeling overwhelmed by such responsibility, I glanced at the time and realized I needed to leave for my next meeting. My undivided attention and probing questions gave way to lots of "uh huh's" and "right, okay's" as I gathered what I needed and made my way to the car, Rich on the cell phone in one hand, keys in the other. Once buckled in, I heard Rich say, "Sister Tracey, I just want to say one more thing."
There was something curious and knowing in his voice. He had my full attention.
"Sure! What's that?" was my response.
Rich continued cautiously, "I know I don't really know you, but I just want to say. . . . If at this point you feel like you don't know what you're doing, that's totally normal. In fact, if you still feel like you don't totally know what you're doing six months from now, that would be normal, too."
These words shined a spotlight on the anxiety I had unconsciously carried during our conversation. I paused and smiled, my keys frozen in the ignition. It felt so good to have someone identify and acknowledge the fears I had been pushing underneath an apparently composed exterior. This moment was the spark of a new learning: it's okay to be afraid.
This is a good thing, because I'm finding that the life of a community organizer is overflowing with opportunities to be afraid. This is a ministry full of risks: meeting new people, sharing tender pieces of my own story, asking others to go beyond their comfort zones, and making invitations that could — and often do — result in rejection.
The temptation for me in this reality is to think that certainly the organizing "greats" like Cesar Chavez were never afraid. Recent reading has put this myth to rest for me. On the contrary, Cesar Chavez often had to circle the block a couple times before mustering the courage to approach a worker. Fear is real, and it is natural. The miracle happens when we are able to get out of the car after those laps around the block. And sometimes, as I experienced with Rich, someone has to open the door for us to even realize we are still in the car.
In reflecting on this week's Gospel from Luke 9 — Jesus' journey to Jerusalem and rejection in a Samaritan village — I was drawn into wonder about Jesus' experience of fear. Certainly at this point in his journey, Jesus must have known what a ruckus he was creating. He must have known he and his message would not be welcomed everywhere. Did he fear rejection? Is that why he sent messengers ahead? What did he feel when word came that they would not welcome him? Was he embarrassed, perhaps angry?
What we do know from the passage is that Jesus approached the village "resolutely determined" to risk the path to Jerusalem. And after his rejection, he chose to continue on rather than turn to destruction. Jesus' will to challenge the oppressive empire overcame whatever fears of inadequacy, vulnerability, conflict or failure may have tugged at him in that moment.
In this choice to overcome and move beyond fear, the Holy One creates a new courage in me — in us. Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, reminds us, "Fear is not the opposite of courage. Fear is the catalyst of courage."
As you may have guessed, this spark of awareness in my conversation with Rich did not mean the end of my fear. As I grow in this call — a call to develop leaders in the movement for racial and economic justice in Indiana — I see ever more clearly that opportunities for fear and risk abound. The real work is in seeing them as just that: opportunities to grow in courage and trust that doors will continue to open . . . even if it takes me a few laps around the block.
[Tracey Horan is a mission novice with the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. Her first deep conversation with a Sister of Providence occurred in a melon patch during her time as an intern at the Sisters' White Violet Center for Eco-Justice. She hopes to channel the spirit of her heroine Dorothy Day in her new ministry as a community organizer with Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCAN).]