“I like to think of community organizing as a sacred task,” Dr. Valerie Miles-Tribble says in her interview for her latest installment of GTUx’s Spiritual Care and Ethical Leadership lecture series. In this interview, Dr. Miles-Tribble reminds us that a community of a few can become a mighty force for change and shares how community organizing can be enacted as a fulfillment of a deeply spiritual calling rooted in sacred texts and practice. You can watch her full lecture, on GTUx here.
Can you tell us about some of the research you’ve done at the GTU and how that plays into the courses you teach and your work both on and off campus?
My research is grounded in social justice. As a scholar, locating myself in the identity of a womanist theologian scholar informs my focus on intersectionality, interreligious collaboration, and interdisciplinarity for authentic praxis. In a pedagogical context, I integrate theology and leadership ethics of praxis to deepen students’ awareness of the intersections of shared thoughts and experiences. As a womanist scholar, my self-identity is with African-American women who have experienced the triple threats of gender, race, and class. This centering requires that we always consider the oppressive forces that any of us might encounter in varied forms and some ways to overcome them. As a pastor-activist, I preach and teach to help people find their own agency to think critically while in a learning environment so they feel equipped to go out and do the work our souls must have (to coin a phrase from the late Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon, womanist ethicist and clergy scholar).
Many of my courses focus on restorative justice and creative resistance and practical theology for leadership in the 21st century. What is constructive theology and practical theology in public spheres? Can we continue to hide behind closed doors? Those are just some of the course topics offered in the past to invite discourse on ethical implications. I like stirring up good trouble.
How do you draw upon these themes, especially those of social justice, to inspire your teaching?
I teach with justice sensibilities of womanist social ethics and praxis. I raise an appreciation for inter-religious sensibilities, encouraging students to discover the richness of ethos toward shared justice aims in spite of the distinctions between our faith experiences. This helps students better understand the importance of interdisciplinarity, because as scholars and practitioners, we cannot stay in a myopic silo; rather, we need to consider the historicity, and ask, what are the cultural and sociological implications, and of course, the ethical implications?
Being mindful of the interconnectedness of disciplines, I teach a course—Morality in Social and Religious Spheres to explore current events and issues in our reality—looking at them through the lens of what does society say, and how does religion inform our responses? Morality is more than “what’s moral” or what’s right or wrong; it involves how structural systems in our society are designed to uphold our compliance with values or perceptions that get used or misused according to agendas, and according to lenses that might promote freedoms for some while becoming more oppressive for others. Thus, scholar practitioners, while at the GTU, are invited to engage deeply with each other and critically self-reflect on their own stances. Probing and reflecting on who we are as faith communities, whether academicians, whether in the ecclesial or ecological spheres, or whether we are public activists, the question remains: How can we bring our diverse voices together as a united front so that injustice and oppression do not become the norm?
Can you speak to your own personal relationship with social justice and activism?
I was raised in Philadelphia during a time of the civil unrest of the civil rights movement. I came of age right after the assassination of Martin Luther King. As a young adult in college, in a historically black college in the South, I was very in tune with what was going on around the country, such as locking out students of color as they were trying to integrate schools and fighting for voters’ rights. Outside the protection of a HBCU campus, I had racist remarks directed at me as I walked into town to obtain items shipped by my parents.
I would say that my formation has always been in the public square and having family that discussed all of this around the table, that it was part of my formation to say, who am I? What am I going to do? How can I make the world different? My vocation path was never to be solely comfortable, but to be a radical, prophetic voice and presence. It became important to really get involved in what we call community organizing and community activism, to be an instrument to help the voiceless by standing with them rather than talking at them. And when we come together and speak, what a powerful, mighty voice we can become in places where groups, families, people who didn’t feel they had a voice come to understand that, in fact, they did.
Activism was part of why I enrolled in seminary. I chose and requested and pushed against what was the norm at the time to have a pastoral internship solely in a church. I wanted my internship to be in public faith-based community organizing organization here in the region because I saw such power in strategies called “Actions” where neighborhoods and communities of people joined with faith-based interreligious leaders. We would come together to share our lived experiences. We would gather to fellowship. We would hold public figures accountable. We would have them listen to what was going on in the community, in the neighborhoods that needed matters to be addressed. And for me, it was, such an aha moment to see that this can really be a place to create a groundswell of public witnesses with justice voices.
It is still something that I think more communities of faith, if they’re authentically wanting to be about transformative justice, can actively participate in to leverage ourselves. Yes, one might be in a small congregation, but 50 or 60 other congregations can become several hundred or thousands getting on busses to go to the Capitol, getting on busses to speak to the mayor or the city council, or to be available to walk through our neighborhoods to see what’s really going on. That’s civic justice.
Can you speak more to how you see community organizing as sacred?
Community organizing as a sacred task is very, very important and urgent to me. I like to think of community organizing as a sacred task because it requires thinking and reflecting on our faith and on the connection between discipleship and social reform. We have examples in our interreligious traditions, in our sacred texts, of being compassionate with the people. Community organizing calls us to become part of our communities, to listen deeply to hear what they have to say, and to encourage them to join their voices to the effort of organizing so that we as people of faith, as academicians, as pastors, are not speaking for them. We are in solidarity to raise voice for equality and justice together.
Valerie Miles-Tribble is a professor of Ministerial Leadership and Practical Theology at the Berkeley School of Theology and a core doctoral faculty at the Graduate Theological Union.