Rich Mayfield: The real civic leaders
Vail CO, Colorado
The young man had come to see me for a variety of issues but the conversation had swung to his confusion and dismay over his standing in our community. After several years of advocating for the disenfranchised of our small Iowa city, years spent working for fair and adequate housing for the poor, equal educational treatment for minorities and more, he had come under attack from several powerful and politically well-connected residents. He was disconcerted by the nature of the attacks, which weren’t directed so much at the causes he was fighting for but rather against him personally. There was a sadness about him as he faced this political reality for the first time. “It’s the meanness I can’t understand,” he told me, tears filling his eyes. I moved to the mountains shortly after this disturbing conversation and I lost touch with the young man. I wonder from time to time what became of him, if he continued in his low-paying, often ill-regarded, line of work as a community organizer.
For me, the low point of a rapidly deteriorating presidential campaign came when that assumedly paragon of Republican values, Rudy Giuliani, in his long-winded and self-congratulating speech at the G.O.P.’s National Convention, gave us a smarmy, deprecating, smile immediately after mentioning Barack Obama’s years as a community organizer. The crowd apparently ate it up as they cheered in orgiastic pleasure over Rudy’s disparaging of what is, for many of us, an immensely admirable and noble profession. It was difficult to understand the vehemence exhibited by seemingly everyone in the arena that night as they joined in the ridicule. One could only suppose that folks satisfied with the status quo, folks who have continued to flourish financially even as their nation’s economy slipped further and further into the abyss, folks who find the present course of our international policies well-conceived and successfully enacted, would happily participate in that chorus of derision. Even as their presidential candidate seeks to identify and understand the problems of a constituency struggling to catch a break, the laughing hordes of Republicans spoke volumes of indifference and downright contempt toward that very same constituency.
In 30-plus years as a pastor I found the work of many community organizers to be the most effective vehicles for real social change. While living in these mountains, I have marveled at the effectiveness of community organizers to establish a food bank that served the needs of hundreds if not thousands of seasonal employees struggling to make do while our tourists make whoopee. I have watched with pride as members of our congregation along with many others organized their community into providing homes throughout these mountains through Habitat for Humanity and other exceedingly worthwhile endeavors. Community organizers have created a Community Care Clinic staffed by doctors, nurses and other medical personnel to try and meet the needs of the many who are so ill-served by this nation’s pitiful Health Care system. Community organizers, some paid, others not, have managed to motivate our population in a plethora of positive ways from supporting our schools to recycling our wastes. Why, I wondered last week while watching Rudy’s speech, would such efforts be so ridiculed by so many?
I suppose unprincipled politicians will continue to promise what they know they can’t deliver while community organizers will just as surely continue to do the real work of delivering on the promises inherent in America’s foundational principles. It is the nature of politics that those in power seek to preserve their position. Who can blame them? But when that preservation comes at the expense of thousands and thousands of hard-working, often under-paid and disrespected, true agents of change, the powerful should be more than blamed, they should be ashamed.
Rich Mayfield is the author of “Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation.” E-mail him at email@example.com.