In the Vineyard :: August 1, 2014 :: Volume 14, Issue 14

Sociologists Address VOTF Meeting – part 2

By Dr. Marc Steinberg, professor of sociology at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts

First a confession. I know that I’m supposed to do this elsewhere in the building, but I hope you’ll indulge me this moment, since it’s the first time I’ve confessed in a church. I didn’t start out with the intention of studying the VOTF or this group in particular. Actually I recruited Patty for a study on church occupations during the archdiocese’s reorganization and the parish closings connected with it. I was intrigued by the ways in which the occupiers of those churches laid claims to their parishes, both through civil and canon law, and wanted to examine how they stood up to the archdiocese through those legal claims. I turned to Patty because she is a well-known expert in the sociology of law, of which I knew very little.

Patty agreed, but suggested that we not jump straight into the middle of that controversy. She persuaded me that we should first get a sense of the range of activism in the archdiocese to understand the particular position and claims of the occupiers. Patty took up the task of investigating other organizations, and she suggested a visit here.

My first experience here was wandering into a packed church for a scheduled event. I kept trying to ascertain the sheer number of people during her re-enactment, and lost count many times. After the event I went home and thought to myself, Wow, let’s put the study of the occupiers on hold. That church was packed!  The uprising is here!  And it has panache and humor to boot!

Well, as you know, we returned the following week to a much smaller group. However, after a couple of visits Patty suggested that we refocus our study on you, and I agreed. I had read a great deal on social movements and change groups, but what I observed at those meetings didn’t match up so well with much of the existing literature.

For starters, you didn’t seem to fit the profile of the activists discussed by most sociologists. In studying a wide variety of change activists in this country and in Europe, they’ve made the case that a majority in any change group are likely to have had considerable activist experience and to be well-networked with other activists. In addition, most of the activists studied were folks who were outsiders to the institutions they were trying to change. Only a few sociologists at the time were investigating what are now referred to in a growing literature as challengers within. It quickly became apparent to me that challengers within, which I would use to characterize most of you, find themselves in an especially tricky position: You engage in change efforts simultaneously as you identify with your institution. This appeared to be a very heady balancing act, and I wanted to understand how you were able to walk this line.

I’m sure that some of you had trepidations about letting us into your community. Many of you probably thought at the least that Patty and I might not contribute much to your efforts but that we were largely harmless academics. A few of you might have thought that we perhaps would have some wisdom to communicate. Whether those last two assumptions turned out to be correct I will leave to you. (At least, I hope we convinced you that academic sociologists are largely harmless). However, I pursued this study because I knew that you were going to teach me a great deal. Truth is, I didn’t exactly know what that would encompass, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. So, some years on let me tell you some of the sociology that I’ve learned from you.

Many sociologists who study social movements and change groups start with a set of assumptions concentrating on how challengers to the established order pursue specific outcomes. Often these outcomes involve changes in the law (such as the eradication of Jim Crow laws and the passage of the Voting Rights Act), changes in policy (the implementation of new pollution control regulations), or changes in institutional practices (such as pay equity for women).

The primary focus of this research is how challengers fix their sights on a particular goal and develop a repertoire of strategies and tactics to attain it. For example, a great deal of work on the Civil Rights movement examines how civil rights organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or Congress for Racial Equality established agendas for desegregation of public facilities and developed a set of protest strategies to achieve these objectives. Sociologists have analyzed how these organizations developed leadership structures; non-violent, disruptive protest tactics; and strategic alliances to dismantle institutional discrimination. This is but one example of how such research becomes a kind of connect-the-dots exercise: There’s a beginning point at which challengers formulate goals and an end point at which they do or don’t achieve them. The purpose of the research is to analyze how the line is drawn between the two points to connect them.
Of course, this is a bit of a simplification. Plenty of sociologists who use this approach realize that the line is never straight, that it is interrupted with detours and sometimes broken entirely. They note that challengers can have multiple goals and that sometimes the goals themselves can change in response to a variety of circumstances. Nonetheless, their analyses are based in the assumption that we can understand a social movement and challengers’ actions and motivations by starting with their expressed endpoint.

This is a model l was taught in grad school and, with some modification, used for a long time in my research.

Over the years Patty and I have spent in this space and in your homes, you’ve taught me that this model is incomplete and somewhat misleading. What you have illuminated for me is to think about how the journey is as important as or more important than the arrival. Let me explain.

Recently Patty and I have been working on a paper that discusses this group’s long persistence, an endurance that is very unusual for a local change group. I was reviewing the literature on endurance and it just didn’t seem to me to make sense of all that I’ve seen and heard over the past six years. This literature focuses on how groups more or less hibernate in between periods of public collective challenge. Sociologists characterize these in-between periods as a kind of waiting game: Groups engage in self-maintenance until they resume their concerted efforts toward their specified goals.

While this approach seemed to make sense of the movements they examined, it didn’t ring true to what I have experienced with you. Even if you haven’t been making specific demands of the hierarchy or pursued a particular policy throughout this time period, you haven’t been playing the waiting game at all.

As I was trying to puzzle out this conundrum, I came across some writing by an important American philosopher from the early 20th century, John Dewey. Dewey was part of an influential group called the pragmatists. Dewey and others in his circle argued that our philosophy of life is necessarily provisional and is constantly informed by our practical experiences. In the book I was reading, Dewey observed, “If it is better to travel than to arrive, it is because traveling is a constant arriving, while arrival that precludes further traveling is most easily attained by going to sleep.”

I stumbled over this sentence at first because of its wording, but it made me stop and think about you and the importance of your traveling. Dewey was explaining that the journey—the sometime heady and sometime wary experience of moving along, the continual taking stock of where we are in the relation to where we have been and might be heading—is as, if not more, important than some endpoint. Now, I think Dewey perhaps underestimates the value of a good nap, but as I thought about your journey the point became much more concrete. Through your actions over the last 12 years I was able to understand the incompleteness of the sociological model I’ve mentioned in a couple of ways.

Let me use a response to one of our earlier presentations to explain. Several years ago we presented some of our research in which we were examining how challenging groups formed a sense of collective identity, what we termed “we-ness”. Part of the case we made was that your shared identity as a VOTF affiliate meant considering your understanding of what it meant to be ‘faithful Catholics.’ After our presentation, one of you commented:

I want to address the issue of “we-ness.” This is a group that has been working for change. And I would ask you, why?  I think the “we-ness” comes from the why. Because I find that in this group of people, regardless of all the differences that they have, they learned something. We saw this among lots of people who stood up and said, “This should not be.”  And we continue, six years later; we come every Monday. And one thing that I know is in the heart of every person who comes here is “this should not be”. I’m not sure any of us knows how to fix it. But we come and we deliver the message. . . When we continue in existence, we continue to make the statement that “this should not be.”

Twelve years ago many of you came to the first listening sessions with those words in mind, not necessarily having a set agenda and certainly not presuming that you would be here today. You saw yourselves, as Wilma has stated a number of times, as part of the “clean-up crew.” But as this group solidified into an affiliate of the VOTF you realized that this phrase— “this should not be” —necessitated responding to its complementary question. To know how to “fix” the situation, you had to ask in turn, “What should be?” 

Those were traveling words. In part this meant finding a collective voice, given the different concerns among members. In part, this meant a process of reflection on what it means to be a “faithful Catholic” moving forward. As Eloise noted at a meeting to recognize the anniversary of The Boston Globe revelations, the crisis was an invitation to greater participation. The group was “empowered to the future with all hands on deck. “Everyone has a voice,” she noted. “We all have a little piece of the truth.”

Wilma observed that Luke tells us we are all co-heirs and co-partners in Jesus.

But pursuing the “truth”—figuring out what should be—as you now know, is not a limited exercise but a journey. As you’ve taught me, it doesn’t have a neat, quick or even definitive answer: finding out what should be is an ongoing process, responsive to the changing world around us. Over the course of my time with you I’ve become aware how you’ve evolved in your approach and consideration of the three goals of the VOTF. Of course you haven’t abandoned them, but what should be with regard to these three goals, the responses necessary, have in some ways changed over time. And this responsiveness also has prompted introspective reflection of who you are at different points in time, and that has changed as well.

I have learned that this process—this journey—is as central (if not more central) to understanding the dynamics of change groups as their stated endpoints may be. You have shown me that these endpoints are not fixed with a line between origin and end. Rather, goals are shifting horizons, because the horizon moves as we approach it.

The second lesson I’ve learned from you concerns faith. You might think that in a country in which faith is so central to many of its citizens that religion would be one of the largest areas of study in sociology, but it isn’t. To be sure, there have been a number of studies over the last couple of decades that have analyzed the centrality of religious activists—in the Central American and other peace movements, immigrants’ rights, workers’ rights, the urban poor and etc.—and some have highlighted the contributions of Catholics. However, curiously most of these studies don’t expend much effort to explain how faith motivated and sustained the activists at their very heart.
I remember a long time ago listening to a member of my dissertation committee—a renowned expert on the civil rights movement—reflect on the nightly church meetings at which people gathered in support of the movement in their area and sang spirituals. These spirituals, he mused, were critical in sustaining the movement, and sociologists hadn’t paid near enough attention to them.

I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that aside, but you’ve unlocked the mystery. To be a constant traveler—to engage in a journey where the horizon shifts on you—most activists need faith of some sort. To have faith is to be able to participate in the unknown, because part of faith is to engage mystery. What you have revealed to me is how faith provides sustenance.
Sociologists make concerted efforts to explain how and why social movements need resources—material support, links to influential allies, networks that reach out to other groups and organizations—but they don’t discuss faith in these terms. You’ve demonstrated this not only by being faithful Catholics but by your periodic discussions of faith practices and spirituality.

These meetings have illuminated how faith is a working process that anchors engagement with the world in understandings and beliefs that help activists transcend disappointments, frustrations and fears. In Matthew 10:14 Jesus instructs his disciples, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.” Faith turns such concerns into part of the mystery that is the journey, and allows you to shake the dust off your feet and keep traveling. And faith also provides the strength for the inevitable diversion of colleagues as they disappear over the horizon on a different journey.

Oh, in closing let me note that there was a book published on the church occupations. It’s called No Closure: Catholic Practice and Boston’s Parish Shutdowns, by John Seitz. Seitz did his doctoral thesis on the topic at Harvard’s Divinity School and subsequently published it as a book through Harvard University Press. It’s an engaging account of the occupations, and through the eyes of a theology scholar it offers insights into what motivated and sustained the occupiers. However, it ain’t no piece of sociology; certainly not what I intended to write. But I have no regrets. I gave up a little to be greatly enriched, and I am much the wiser for it. Thank you for allowing me to tag along with you during your journey!


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