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Faith and Spirituality in the US Social Forum Process

By Ana Velitchkova, for the USSF Writers Network

A group of Detroit religious leaders is in the process of building a committee on faith and spirituality as they prepare for the US Social Forum in June, 2010. Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann, a Methodist pastor of an Episcopalian congregation and one of the co-chairs of the committee, is confident that this committee will fill the faith and spirituality gap from the First USSF in Atlanta and bring in the religious community at the Detroit forum. The Atlanta forum highlighted Native-American spirituality. Organizers hope that the Detroit forum will further extend the presence of faith and spirituality and include the Black churches and the Muslim community, among other faith traditions.

Rev. Charles Williams, II, the young pastor of King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church, a historic place of social justice and grassroots work, co-chairs the committee. He has played a key role in building a partnership around the local community and bringing to the table numerous younger and more socially conscious Baptist pastors in Detroit. Other members of the committee, mostly pastors but also lay persons, include the Catholic Pastoral Alliance, Episcopalians, Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (a collaboration between unions, worker centers, and the faith community), Lutherans, Moses Gamaliel community clergy caucus (a group of interfaith pastors), Presbyterians, Quakers, as well as some of the imams, including members of the Nation of Islam. A staff person with the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice is devoting a portion of her time to working with the group on faith and spirituality.

In the following passages, Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann reflects on the relationship between Christianity and the social forum process, pointing out challenges as well as points of convergence.


Dominant Christianity has historically functioned as a handmaid of imperialism, justifying it, even through the missionary movement. I’m speaking confessionally for the church here. The way the church has functioned does not reflect the biblical tradition. Biblically, the tradition really moved in resistance to empire, for ex. Egypt, the Babylonian exile, Rome. Both the Jewish and the Christian traditions were born and forged in opposition. The temptation of supporting empire is a challenge.

Within the committee itself, at the table, folks come from a tradition of resistance. It may be that some at the National Committee think of religion as a conservative force. I haven’t seen that actively. I have witnessed warm embrace of faith and spirituality presence.

Points of convergence

Certainly, the tradition of resisting empire is a convergence. Biblically, there is a huge tradition of alternative economy, such as the Sabbath and Jubilee. Debts are forgiven; debt slaves are set free; land is broken up and returned to people. Jesus’ own economic dimension is built on this. There are biblical resources for thinking about new economies, things that we are exploring here in Detroit and that we will bring as a framework to the forum.

The World Alliance of Reformed Churches, which at the time of South African apartheid declared the Dutch Reformed Church’s support for apartheid a heresy and a distortion of the Gospel, in recent years has been looking at neoliberalism and the idolatry of the market. They have made not quite as strong a statement but a confessional statement that treats the theological sanction of neoliberalism operation globally also as a heresy, directly counter to the Gospel. Thus, at the global level, there is a theological reflection that focuses on capitalism that is very close to the heart of the faith. Those are a number of convergences

Personally, I think that the work at the present time, particularly in Detroit, must be a reinvention of the economy from the ground up and really does have to do with building and rebuilding community. There are important spiritual dimensions that faith communities bring to that.

Political economy is a cultural question with multiple dimensions. The culture of individualism has ramifications on everything. The language of the market, the commodification of everything breaks down community. That’s the place where the churches, faith groups bring in their resources. They can relate to their community, engage with it, and reinvent economy. They can break down that economic culture and, especially at a time of devastation, address the fear and the separation from one another. More and more, there needs to be spiritual economy.

For example, there is a substantial growing urban agriculture movement. Community gardens have the potential to not only relate to food security for the city and work for the people, but also they have to do with healing neighborhoods, have to do with building peace and non-violence zones, and have to do with rebuilding relationships between young people and old people. The elders have gardening wisdom and knowledge that they bring; inter-generational conversation is happening. All of that is very integrated and restores the relationship to the earth itself that has been broken by the culture, the alienation from the land. This is just an example of spiritual healing.

Relationship between faith-based groups and the USSF a two-way street

We are seeing this gathering as an opportunity to build new relationships and partnerships, not only with folks around the country but also among ourselves. Churches need to be in these relationships. One partnership we are currently working on is with folks in Greensboro, NC. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Greensboro massacre when members of the Klan, with collaboration from the cops who “went to lunch,” killed five organizers who were doing a neighborhood march. Greensboro had the first truth and reconciliation project in the country. The planning of the events in commemoration of the massacre involved bringing together immigrants, labor organizations in tobacco fields, people doing gang work, ecumenical people, etc. We had a delegation going down of Detroit pastors, connecting the Social Forum to the anniversary. In January, a group of pastors and others from Greensboro are turning up for a retreat in Detroit. It’s possible that it may even be a caravan coming from Greensboro to the Social Forum. We are in a kind of a local-to-local partner process.

During the social forum, we plan to create a configuration of things, whether it’s in one of the forum tents or in one of the churches, where the faith community will bring its resources. There will be a variety of faith events going on, some of which will be related to music and culture. We are planning a big Gospel concert in March, which will also be an opportunity to talk further to people and invite the local community to the social forum. Broadly, I think that faith communities bring spiritual depth and spiritual resources, such as hope and nonviolence, that a long term struggle and community building need. Churches were partly involved in some of the most important movements in our own country.

The flip side of that is what the forum can bring to the churches. We want to get a lot of the church folks there to catch some of the fire and vision of the forum for local work here and around the country. We want to reframe, rethink, how national and global issues are part of what we are doing block by block, provide both energy and context to what the churches are already doing at the local level.

Other possible collaborations with churches or religious groups within the context of the social forum process

We are starting to think about moving to the national level. There are national groups which I would think would take lots of interest in the social forum. One such group is the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Also, there are many peace and justice groups. The Roman Catholics have a long social justice tradition as well. We really need to work with the Muslim community and with the Jewish community. I do believe that some of the denominations will take part although it would probably happen more through individual priests locally. I have hope for my denomination; I’m serving an Episcopal congregation. I’m hoping that denominations through their denominational structure will get the word out and bring resources to the forum.