Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pushing Acorns Around

As the pastor of a little church, my duties are rather more varied than those of the regional CEOs of AmeriChrist, Incorporated. I'm not just responsible for spiritual guidance and sermons. I'm also the guy who goes up on the roof and cleans gutters. Or who weeds the parking lot. Or who digs trenches in the pouring rain to stop the youth group room from flooding.

Today, I was the guy who sweeps up acorns. We've got a huge oak tree by the side entrance to the church, and every Fall it rains down a squirrel's fantasy, a cornucopia of nuts. The walkway to the office gets completely covered with acorns, and in the interests of keeping older church folks from taking a tumble, I found myself behind a broom today, driving acorns scattering before me.

For an obvious reason, this got me thinking about the new favorite whipping-boy of American conservatism: ACORN. It's the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a loosely organized agglomeration of folks who attempt to get low income communities to engage politically. It is also, if FoxNews and most of the right-wing blogosphere are to be believed, a dangerous radical organization with a powerful influence over the American political process. Even my denomination's ultraconservatives are getting in their licks.

This is hooey. There are other words that might be more accurate, but hooey is the only one that's permissible to a pastor.

I used to have a solid awareness of the American nonprofit world through my work at the Aspen Institute, with a broad sense of who the major organizations were and what sorts of influence they brought to bear both locally and nationally. I once shared a beer with one of the founders of ACORN, which makes saying this a little awkward. not a player. By that, I don't mean it wasn't a player advocating for policy on the national scene. It's focus is too intentionally local for that. But even among the subset of organizations that follow the community organizing model touted by Saul Alinsky, ACORN has never seemed like the most effective entity. Perhaps that's because of my own local experience.

In the Washington Metropolitan Area, the local Washington Interfaith Network seems far more influential, as do other affiliates of the Industrial Areas Foundation. I see the fruits of their organizing regularly in local media...but ACORN has never really reached that level of prominence. Part of that, in my opinion, comes from ACORN's more secular focus. It hasn't engaged as deeply as other Alinskian organizations with faith communities in blighted areas, which means it lacks as deep a connection to organic networks within struggling communities. What is more significant, I think, is the membership composition of ACORN. It's membership is often on the margins of our society, and it can be somewhat marginal itself.

It's not, up until recently, an organization well known to most Americans. And that means it's an easy target for folks who need something to fear. Honestly, watching American conservatism focus it's umbrage on ACORN feels pretty much like watching a bully in action. Bullies look for the marginalized kid, the isolated one out there on the periphery of the playground, and then they attack. Kicking that little kid around does make 'em feel good, but it's hardly a major accomplishment, no matter how much they crow and brag about it.