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Monday, June 8, 2020

Exploring Power and Religion in Community Development

Non-profit community development work is no place for proselytizing. 

In a 1967 episode of Star Trek, entitled 'The City on the Edge of Forever,' Captain Kirk and Mr Spock find themselves in the United States in the 1930s, having chased Dr. McCoy through a time portal. The doctor had suffered an accidental overdose and was temporarily maddened by it. Kirk and Spock laid low while they awaited the delayed arrival of McCoy, and were helped by a kind woman named Edith Keeler, who ran a charity that provided a soup kitchen. The first time they ate there, Spock and Kirk heard a rather unorthodox sermon from her.
It was, in those days, very common for hungry people to be made to listen to a sermon while they were eating, or even before they were allowed to eat. The messages were certainly not about the advance of science and space exploration though. What the destitute heard was the evangelical gospel that tells us that everyone is a sinner, and all will go to hell unless we accept Jesus as our lord and savior. In our times that most certainly still happens, but happily it is far less common than before.

While food banks and similar traditional charities typically work to respond to immediate needs, community development takes more of a long-term approach, attempting to work with residents and others to find solutions for problems that the community in question deals with. Whether the non-profit work is focused on short-term or long-term responses, there always remains a risk that any faith connection could become coercive.

Let's imagine that at some point I retire to Brazil and do community development work. Hopefully I would have been a Unitarian Universalist minister for some time before that. It is pretty certain that I would provide pastoral care as appropriate and the need arises while fulfilling my other duties. However, I would never make anything contingent on assent to any part of my beliefs or affiliations. I further would not use my position as a pulpit to proselytize. Is that really enough, though?

There would be, in this scenario, a power differential between myself and those with whom I'm working to make things better. I would be the better-off foreigner, perceived — whether true or not — to have access to resources. If people were to know something of my religious convictions, they might attempt to use that to get closer to me. It can happen unconsciously as well, with people assuming my beliefs must have value because of whatever good I might be trying to do. Still, there's a risk of a circle of adherents being created that separates them from everyone else, in a sociological and psychological sense. 

At the same time, community members should never be infantilized. Attempting to hide or be coy about my ideology or religious affiliations is the kind of thing one might do with children (and it's a little rude then too). This means that a policy and process for handing such situation needs to be worked out within the non-profit ahead of time, with proper accountability.

The thing is, I don't have the answers. I'm a complete novice when it comes to this topic, and pretty much everything in the field of non-profit management and community development. Over the next few years, as I prepare for Unitarian Universalist ministry, this will be one of the many topics that I'll be exploring with far wiser, more experienced people than myself. 

Who knows? Perhaps I can get away with pondering the interstellar future of humanity.