The blurring of church and state usually gets a bad rap among leftists. But long before the ascendancy of the Religious Right, American churches were at the center of the movements to end slavery and champion civil rights. A group of Vermont churches and synagogues has been rallying members to turn faith-based social involvement back into a liberal tradition.
What does activism have to do with spirituality? Rabbi Joshua Chasan of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue believes social action is the result of individuals examining their conscience and becoming true to their better nature. Put another way, he calls it "the other side of the coin of prayer."
Eight churches and synagogues are putting this theory into practice as Vermont Interfaith Action, which holds its first convention at St. Joseph's Co-Cathedral in Burlington on June 5. Organizers expect at least 750 people to turn out to hear policy talk and personal testimony on affordable housing, health care and youth issues. Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle is expected to participate. Governor Jim Douglas and Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie have been invited, but have not confirmed that they'll attend, according to Brian Callanan of St. Joseph's.
Germinated in 1999, "VIA came out of an effort of clergy from around the state who wanted to come together to look at how they could address -- in a more systemic way -- some of the social issues and problems that were happening not only in Burlington, but throughout the state," says VIA executive director Jennifer Berman. Members "realized that they were all very good at working on a lot of charity issues, but weren't working together to look at some of the social justice and underlying causes of what's happening in our society," she explains.
Using a model promoted by the Organizing Leadership Training Center of Boston, VIA identified community needs through a "listening campaign" in which people from diverse backgrounds meet two at a time. One listens while the other speaks about an issue of personal significance for about 30 minutes. Then they reverse roles.
While these one-to-one conversations are continuing, participants have taken what they've learned back to their own congregations, and then returned to the VIA with their members' responses. Through this give-and-take, the group's social agenda was established. The next step was research and now, political action. In California, a similar approach by an affiliation of faith-based community organizations led to a sales-tax increase that will generate $90 million dollars for health care over the next 15 years.
Peter Galbraith, a lay person who has been with VIA from the start, says the group "aims to change the structure of the community that causes the need for the charity." Chasan stresses that the organization is party-neutral. "VIA doesn't preach absolute understanding of the truth," he says. "Reasonable people can disagree."
Though the timing of its first meetings might suggest otherwise, VIA members maintain that the coalition was not formed in response to the current administration. The day before the last presidential election, the organization issued a statement saying that the country "will remain challenged by growing poverty, rising costs for health care, housing, and education, war abroad and diminishing opportunities at home" no matter who prevailed at the polls.
That message resonated with Philip Hoff, a former Vermont governor and St. Paul's parishioner. He immediately embraced VIA and its goals, he says, and would do so if he were in office today. "Distribution of wealth and the responsibility of resources are in very poor shape in this country," Hoff says. "The church is accepting responsibility for what is going on in society."
Vermont Interfaith Action Founding Convention Sunday, June 5, 6:15 p.m., St. Joseph's Co-Cathedral, Burlington. Info, 651-8889. The event is free and open to the public.