The people of Minnesota are now confronting the fact that our states political makeup has changed and our civic engine is sputtering. Minnesota may still lead the nation in many quality-of-life indicators, but in many ways the quality of life here is a dividend of past investment, departed leadership, and a former willingness to shoulder relatively high taxes. Once a national model of state governance, Minnesota is stepping back from its commitment to education, child care, health care, racial justice, affordable housing and care for the environment.
Yet I am optimistic that Minnesota will recover a healthy civic climate and once again pursue justice-oriented policies. Being good citizens and living in a good state are at the core of our identity. For many reasons, the faith community will have a role to play in reawakening that identity.
First, Minnesota traditions, character and values run deep. Minnesota remains a highly "churched" state with about 62 percent of its population claiming religious affiliation. Religious congregations and scores of ecumenical agencies are vital touchstones for a people that always responds generously and effectively when people are hurting. When the consequences of shabby public stewardship are felt, Minnesotans will demand reform.
Second, leaders in faith communities are talking openly about what isnt working and building new strategies. We now know it is not sufficient for church bodies to pass resolutions nor for bishops to issue pastoral letters on pressing social issues. Key leaders are now committed to building a leadership base within congregations and then linking them to leaders from other sectors to knit together a strong political base that can push a policy agenda within the next five years. This cross-sector base is called the Minnesota Active Citizenship Initiative (www.activecitizen.org).
"We are learning how to work at a systemic level as church leaders," says Neysa Ellgren, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Plymouth, Minn., and one of the leaders of Active Citizenship. "We have many public leaders in my congregation already educators, public safety officials, judges. Now we are developing the language, resources, leadership and vision to help them connect what they do in the world with action for God and the common good in other words, how to live out our churchs mission of manifesting Christs love to the world. " Ellgren, along with a dozen others, is leading the "Renewing the Public Church" effort fostered by the Minnesota Council of Churches and is organizing faith communities to participate in the Active Citizenship table.
Third, people are clearly agitated. Each year the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition (JRLC) in Minnesota convenes a legislative briefing and lobby day. For the last five years attendance hovered around 450. This year 1,000 pastors and lay leaders showed up representing 62 out of 67 state senate districts. In addition, the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim leaders of JRLC helped lead over 35 regional "budget blitz" meetings, published letters and editorials in the states leading newspapers, and held a prayer service that received statewide television coverage.
Fourth, faith communities in Minnesota are rediscovering the meaning of "demonstration." This means less emphasis on placards and chanting and more emphasis on the Gandhian idea of "being the change." Faith communities see themselves as proving-grounds for new policy initiatives. We are demonstrating within our institutions and in partnership with other sectors that fair employment practices, energy conservation, violence and abuse prevention, community supported agriculture, supportive housing development and child care operations all make sense and build stronger communities. These demonstrations give us the credibility, standing and power to shape future public policies.
It is still too early to know who the next Harold Stassen or Hubert Humphrey or Paul Wellstone might be, but such leaders are always those who crystallize new imaginations and ride the waves of change. Active citizens are intentionally laying the groundwork to bring about Minnesotas next wave of progressive politics. Religious activists, especially those in congregations, are asking the right questions and implementing the deep organizing that will help push the next swing of the political pendulum. Faith communities are stirring peoples civic imagination and offering a faithful vision of justice, prosperity and peaceful habitation.
We must come up with new designs and that takes courage but we know God will not leave us alone to fail. So if we organize for justice, demonstrate the changes that we feel God calls us to make, and witness our work and our agenda to the world, then our efforts will mean less poverty, more harmony, prosperous communities and something closer to shalom for all of our residents.
[More information on JRLC can be found at www.jrlc.org.]