In December of 2021 Faith + Finance hosted the third webinar in the four-part series Building a Loving and Just Economy. This is a transcript of the full conversation* featuring Lindsay Smalling, Peter Block, Reverend Jennifer Bailey, and Anne Snyder. Learn more about the series and register to attend the next session here.
Rosa Lee Harden: Hello, I’m Rosa Lee Harden, the executive producer of Faith + Finance. We welcome you today to the third in our series of webinars on Building a Just and Loving Economy. We’ve had previous conversations about the deep connections between faith and finance and how people of faith can help reimagine a new economy for all of God’s children with rules that work for everyone, not just the top 2%.
And today, we’re here for another conversation about why it’s so important for us to come together in a place that’s beyond what we normally do with rugged individualism and to work together for the common good. This is a great group of folks here today to talk about this.
Joining us first is an old friend of Faith + Finance, one of the people who helped us get the original economics events going several years ago, our dear friend, Peter Block. Peter and his good friend Walter Brueggemann laid the groundwork for amazing faith and entrepreneurial work in Cincinnati with their building of a conversation called Economics of Compassion in that city.
Also with us today is the Reverend Jennifer Bailey, a public theologian and a national leader in a multi-faith movement for justice. Jen is the founder of the Faith Matters Network, a womanist-led or session that equips community faith leaders and activists with resources for spiritual sustainability. And boy is that important work.
Anne Snyder, also joining us, is the Executive Editor of Comment Magazine, a magazine of public theology for the common good. Anne’s bio says that she has committed to exploring questions of class and culture and moral beauty and a beatitudinal faith. What a great statement.
Moderating this conversation is my dear friend, Lindsay Smalling. I’ve known Lindsay for a dozen years, working with her for many years at SOCAP, where she followed me, when we sold that business, as Executive Producer and Chief Curator of that international gathering at the intersection of money and meaning. Lindsay currently works with 60 Decibels, a global tech investment impact investment measuring company that helps social enterprises easily measure their impact. Such good work. Want to welcome all of them here today for a conversation I’m excited to be hearing. So now I’m going to turn it over to Lindsay. I hope you enjoy their conversation.
Hi, everyone. So glad to be with this amazing group today. We’ve all had to make do with these zoom conversations over the last two years, but I love that everyone’s already chiming in on the chat, and we really do want to make this a conversation today. So please ask questions. We’ll leave some time for Q & A at the end, but make that chat a lively place to be because that’s the fun of doing this live.
So Rosa Lee has set some good context for this idea of moving from rugged individualism to the common good. I think if any of you chose to join today, that’s likely because you feel that in your bones, in your body, in some way – that this way that we’ve emphasized our individual choice over the good of our communal efforts is problematic.
But it can feel idealistic to think that there is a common good anymore. It can feel unrealistic. It can feel like, gosh, that train’s already left the station. But what I’m excited to hear from our speakers today is for us to really dig into this. To think about the big questions of how we got to this place of focusing on individualism. And what are the benefits of moving into a place where we’re more oriented around the common good? But then to really ground that in how do we each do that and how do we see that show up in the choices we make on a daily basis? And there’s really an amazing set of folks here to talk about this. So I’d love for them all to come on video, and we’ll jump right into the conversation.
I think, what is more helpful than the official bios, is to just understand how each of these amazing people relates to this work. So I’ve asked them each to introduce themselves by way of saying what their personal and professional connection to this topic is. I’d love to start with Jen.
Jen, this topic of moving from individualism to the common good – when did you first connect to that professionally? And how has that shown up across your career?
Jen Bailey: Thank you so much, and blessings and greetings to everyone who’s joining us from around the country and world. My name is Reverend Jen Bailey, and it’s just such a gift to be with you this afternoon. Gosh, I love this question, Lindsay, because I think for me it has never been a question of career trajectory, but more one of vocation. And one of the great gifts of my life has been being deeply embedded within a loving church community.
I grew up at Bethel AME church in Quincy, Illinois, a small town in the Midwest, in a space where I was surrounded by church mothers. So in the language of the Black church tradition, the church mother is the image of the Black woman who gets things done in the church. And one of the many, many things that the church mothers of my childhood taught me – women like Sister Catherine Weldon and Sister Jaqueline Watson and others – how to live an embodied life that was in service and care for community. And so, while there was certainly a deep acknowledgment of individual gifts. So it was sister Catherine who told me at the age of six that I was going to preach someday, which at the age of six, I did not see myself certainly, but that’s one of the gifts of community. It’s people who see you when you can’t quite see yourself. I think those experiences of women who, for me, made the miracle of the loaves and fishes real because I saw what they did with two boxes of spaghetti and some dinner rolls, right. That their orientation always was to a collective – a collective wellbeing and expression of faith that was not lived in isolation or individualism, but was about, in particular, women who came up in the context of Jim and Jane Crow, many of whom who had escaped the racialized terrorism of the south from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. They carried with them a deep sense of what I call radical hope, which was this belief that despite the circumstances and the material conditions before us, that we live and have the ability to transform the world before us, just through our own actions. And they didn’t default into a spirit of pessimism ever, which is shocking given the challenges that they face systemically in their lives.
And so I share that by way of an entry point into my work now at Faith Matters Network, which is a womanist-led organization. So we see ourselves in the lineage of what Doctor Yolanda Pierce calls grandmother theology – this deep wisdom of Black women through the ages. Our work is really concerned about how we think about care in the 21st century. Because I believe that the question before us, is the question of how we’re going to be together in this multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy. And so I say all that to say that I think as I think about my own life trajectory, I always go back to those church mothers.
When I think about what it means to be affirmed as an individual, but live collectively and trust and lean on one another – not just for survival, but for our flourishing, I go back to them, and that certainly is represented in the work of Faith Matters Network.
I’m realizing I almost asked that question backward for you. I think it might’ve been more instructive to ask you when you felt that tension of individualism, given that you started in this really communal orientation, but maybe we’ll have a chance to get into that a bit more. Peter, We’d love to hear – has this always been your orientation? Did I just ask this question backward? Feel free to take it from either direction.
Peter Block: Thank you. It’s great to be here. You know, the intersection of money and meaning and faith – that was a new idea for me. I spent my life doing organization, but I spent my life running groups. And then Kevin and Rosa Lee invited me to Louisville with Walter, and it opened up a world for me. And I thought that I better learn about economics and I have been for some time, whereas most of my history was about groups and how they work. And then I started getting invited to city manager conferences. I thought they took care of the streets and utilities, and it turned out they care deeply about civic life, and they opened to me the idea that there was something there called the commons. And I think the intersection of these domains is what’s powerful. Even rugged individualism, it was kind of a Hollywood fiction. The real commons ended in England in the 1600s. They enclosed the fields and streams, and they said you can no longer make a living on your own. We’re going to put fences around it because sheep are more powerful than you human beings. And then that kind of led into other kinds of things where we lost faith in the common good, lost faith in the commons. We became individualistic.
John Locke was the philosopher, not to get too abstract, who said that God willed that every acre of land should be used for the maximum economic benefit. And that’s a little bit where Christianity and economics kind of found friends in each other. And that was the argument for the genocide of Native Americans. They said, well, you Native Americans are fine, but you’re not making economic use of the land. So can we have it, please? Oh, by the way, we discovered you.
So all that is shifting now. I feel that the commons is finding its own voice, just in the publications and the people on this panel. And it is a mixture of faith and finances. A mixture of the commons, to me, has a lot to do with the land. And in this country’s history reconstruction about the only decent thing we ever did for African-Americans was we gave them at the end of the Civil War 400,000 acres and said, this is yours. And for a year, it was theirs to govern and to produce and to be, and create, and then it was taken back. So to me, today’s work is a kind of reconstruction. Barbara calls it the third reconstruction and the work you are doing to integrate the fact that if we care about the commons, it’s not just the way we are together.
It is that, but it’s also who owns the land, who owns the assets. And so our work, we have something called now The Common Good Alliance is to say, well, why don’t we create today’s version of Black Wall Street? Why don’t we create a space in Cincinnati, which is a dominant Black city? And let’s have some areas that are owned where the assets, the land, the arts, the church, of course, the commerce, the real estate, and finding ways that serve us or getting the mechanisms are there.
It’s just; they’re not news in a rugged individualistic, privatized culture. And what you’re doing here is so powerful. I’ll show up every time because you’re treating this as if it’s news. And there are examples. Yes Magazine talks about it every, every month. And I’m sure Jen, you’re writing and, Anne, you’re talking about every single month, so it’s out there.
One last thing. When I got to know Walter, it turns out he lives in Cincinnati. I said, Walter, why did the Jews, why did my people, wait 400 years to deal with Pharaoh? And he said they couldn’t imagine their freedom. And I went, oh my God. And I feel now we’re in the process of reimagining the common good that’s always been there. And it gets us out of the dominant arguments, which take us nowhere. I have no interest in left, right, progressive blah, blah, blah. It’s not taking us anywhere. But when Janet and Rosa Lee talk about the common good, you’re giving us a third way. And it is faith-based. It’s architecture.
There’s a guy named Ross Chapin who designs neighborhoods and calls them pocket neighborhoods where we all face each other and have open land between us. It’s about journalism, and there’s a whole domain of journalism that matters and talks about what works in the world. And there’s a whole neighborhood world that John McKnight kind of invited me into. And it says that whatever you care for is in walking distance. And those are powerful, practical ideas, and they exist. And to me that I struggle myself because it’s so abstract. I feel the goal is to give every person control over their own wellbeing. Everybody’s not going to want to run a Black enterprise. Some people don’t want to work for big companies. Some people don’t even think school’s that useful. Well, God bless them, you know, but what we can say if we want to create a structure in all these dimensions where people really have control over their own wellbeing. And I think that’s what Christ and Abraham Muhammad had in mind.
It wasn’t that you have a belief system. You know, the faith community sometimes gets stuck on interfaith conversations as if the differences among people of faith are sent. But as an outsider, I think they’re all pretty cool, even though I have my own history. But to say, well, how do we? I think all of us are serving that end. And you can’t just talk about money because sometimes you talk about all the ways of organizing capital. But I think the integration of who you have on this panel is perfect. It has the spirit; it has the relationship; it has the age.
I love the way you’re bringing all these different worlds together and that a shift of individualism to the common good isn’t just about hearts and minds. It isn’t just about faith. It’s also economics. It’s also civic life. That there’s all of these different layers where we’re maybe feeling this tension or the way that individualism has become a little too dominant. I hope we will have a chance to weave across all of those in this conversation.
Anne, I guess my question shouldn’t have been, when did the common good enter your framework, but when did you start sensing that there was a shift that needed to happen here? And how has that woven through your career, your vocation, your evolution?
Anne Snyder: Thank you. I will. I’m very honored to be here. I said to Peter before we started that he’s really shaped some core parts of my vocational paradigm. And basically, anytime anyone is in Jen Bailey’s presence, we all just sound better because her poetic way of talking is so generous. So I’m just very happy to be here.
I like how you’ve adjusted the question. I’ll answer the first, and I’ll try to weave them together briefly. In terms of the explicit focus on the common good in my own professional work, in some ways, it was just kind of given to me quite explicitly two years ago. I run a little magazine that was mentioned and literally in the tagline, public theology for the common good. We weren’t changing the tagline. I didn’t want to change it, but I had to wrestle much more with that as the end and tell us and really make sure I understood what that meant. And I still think I’m on a journey there. I’m at some level in so far as, I mean, I get into this, but in so far as both the commons and the good and who’s defining that, I think have become a little bit more contentious over a number of years. But in some ways, I wouldn’t have used that phrase throughout my life. I grew up overseas until I was ten years old. And then, when I moved to the states, I crisscrossed a lot between different cultural worlds across educational lines and ethnic and sacred and secular lines.
And I think those myriad of cross-cultural experiences just gave me this instinctive, almost assumptive, appreciation for the infinite dignity of every human being and the particular contours of that dignity and agency to Peter’s point. That would depend upon the context within which a person had grown up and is still living and laboring. So I think just always trying to understand that dance between our own agency, as individuals, as having this unbelievable dignity that I think is God-like that has put some primacy on individual rights and freedom, interior freedom. And, but that is conditioned by the communities of which we’re apart and the quality of those communities and the character of those communities, including a nation, including a neighborhood, a workplace, a family, all of these spheres.
So I was always interested in that dance. And they’re often intentions, but I still think at their best there’s something in individualism and communitarianism, well, maybe I should say individualism, but there’s something about those two that need to go hand in hand. But in all of this, I think I’ve just always been really interested in cohesion. What hangs together in integrity? With a very specific interest in trying to name those often invisible dynamics or character qualities that are at work in any collective of people, be that the kind of church that Jen grew up in, or a particular neighborhood, two blocks away from my own or a broader city or region and organization and institution, et cetera.
What does that work in those hidden values? You could maybe call it the spiritual music of our environments that nudges us to behave in certain ways that do or don’t develop our character. And that we also shape and turn with every choice we make. So something here, to set this nexus of subculture and a fascination there, having experienced a bunch of them and sometimes feeling alienated and sometimes feeling deep belonging, and then just interested in these layers for formation and those communal fabric that hold us.
I think, particularly in times of loss or trauma or displacement, that has just always been front of mind. And so journalistically, I’ve written a bunch about this narrative way. And I now run a journal or run a magazine that is seeking to be responsible about airing complex truths in public and gently painting as full a picture of reality as we can through our contributors through a diverse array of contributors.
So that some of the cultural distrust of the moment, which feels like it’s everywhere, might be softened to at least for a moment submit even to something that feels more deeply resonant with the reality they know. It’s fun to feel like, yes, we’re in the business a little bit journalistic, a little bit trying to name cultural reality so that people can make decisions and navigate wisely. But we don’t want to destroy or divide. We want to tell truth, but we want to always keep a graceful eye to the human face. And I think keeping those things together, especially in the media around right now, just feels frankly hard and not always the path is not always clear, but important.
I think the thread I want to pick up on here, moving forward, is there’s this individual within the commons. Right. And you’ve all spoken to it within your part of what the commons does is that it affirms individual dignity and that it gives the ability for each person to define their own, or live into their own, wellbeing.
So can we just understand the problematic parts of individualism a little bit more, where does it go from the great parts of an individual – that you have agency that you have initiative that you’re empowered to have self-expression – these pieces that are the bright and shiny pieces of individualism, where does that go dark? And where are we on the wrong road with individualism? Anyone want to jump in on that?
Peter Block: When we organize efforts, we forget who we are and forget how we are. And we bought patriarchy. Every time you organize, whether it’s the church or a city or a company, we have this mythology that once you get large, you need hierarchy if you want to be effective. It narrows us down. And so, most of our models of organizational effectiveness are deeply individualistic.
We have things called performance reviews. Once a year, you sit down and ask your boss, how am I doing? And as soon as you have that conversation, individual partnership has gone, and it’s been replaced by parenting. And so most of our structures are versions of parenting, all of which are colonial in nature, all of them, which says, I know what’s best for you. It’s no different in England and India or my boss and me.
To me, the commons is trying to say, let’s be at this together. And when we organize the effort, let’s organize it around our interdependence – what we need from each other. And we don’t need great leadership. I don’t need role models. I don’t need visionaries. I don’t need people to tell me what’s in my best interests.
And so that’s where I spent my life – trying to democratize institutions and neighborhoods and city governments and churches because we just have this kind of leader, heroic model.
I’m curious to hear Jen and Anne pick up on that. Because I think we can feel pretty wedded to hierarchies. How do we shift from those hierarchies to something where we are doing this together. Some part of me when I hear that (thinks) but then how do we all pick a direction? How does that work?
Jen Bailey: Yeah. I have been thinking a lot lately about this question in the context of what it means to cultivate and deepen intergenerational relationships. Part of that is very practically rooted in the fact that I go to a church where the ministerial staff is the average age of 60. And I bring that into this particular conversation because one of the questions I’m constantly navigating and thinking about is what does it mean to be in the right relationship with elders and with younger folks? Because I think that there is an assumption, to Peter’s beautiful point around hierarchy, rather than an orientation towards a commons or collective in which everybody has the ability to both teach and be taught, everyone has the ability to function as co-learners and co-journeyers together in the creation of what we might define as the common good in the future.
And it’s a real gift to me that I have a local church community that I’m a part of. Because we also know statistically that people are more isolated right now in the United States than ever before. And that isolation often falls across generational lines. So there aren’t as many spaces in communities where you have the Abuela, or the grandmother up the street, who’s helping raise the kids down the block and become this community caretaker and knowledge keeper. In the same way, I’m now situated right in the middle of my thirties. And I’m not as young and fresh as I once was to some folks. Similarly, in a way in which I have been co-learning with folks who are younger than me. This really beautiful way in which Gen Zers are bringing a different energy than we did as millennials and a different finesse and a different structural analysis. If we are going to confront some of the deep pressing issues of our time – whether we’re talking about uncoverings around the core roots of white supremacy and racial justice in our country; if we’re talking about climate change; if we’re talking about economic inequality and social stratification around questions of wealth – we’re going to need the genius of all generations to inhabit that.
Part of what I hear Peter pointing is, we have to begin by breaking down some of the silos. That doesn’t mean we don’t revere our elders, revere people who have particular types of experience. But true reverence I have found is by allowing people to bring the totality of their experiences and the things they got wrong along the way, right, to be able to share out of that. And the same thing is true of younger folks, as well as a model for how we do common life together.
Peter Block: Jen, you said that so beautifully. I mean, who’s the teacher, who’s the learner. Unfortunately, the teachers, the big learner in the classroom, and we can invert that. And who raises, who I’ve involved with six children? I don’t know what was going on there. I can’t find a cause-and-effect relationship that makes any sense, even though I was supposed to be the parent. And so I think inverting the notion of cause, age, whatever, I think it takes us somewhere.
Jen Bailey: It helps Peter. I have a 15-month-old at home. And it’s my first child. And I am learning very quickly that Max, although he does not have words, is my greatest teacher.
Peter Block: It’s true. I can testify to that, at least for the first 58 years. After that, it may all change.
I love that. And I have to just give a shout-out to Kevin and Rosa Lee because if any of you have ever been to SOCAP, the way that huge conference developed was (around the idea that), there is more wisdom in the audience than there is on the stage. And that was constantly the message to all of our speakers, to everyone. Sure, you get to be up there and say some things, but it’s the collective wisdom in that room listening to you talk. And so that’s why I hope you’re all jumping in on the chat here, because all of your collective wisdom about what the problems with individualism are, how we move to the common good, people have refined those thoughts about the wisdom of the crowd and how you can set that up structurally to make sure that co-learning is taking place.
Anne Snyder: I don’t think this is against what Jen or Peter was saying, I don’t think there is any dismissing of leadership here, but I just want to stand up a little bit for the experience of leaders. I am someone who has not followed the leadership cottage industry literature over the last number of decades, except dipping in here or there, but I wonder if, especially over the last couple of years, there’s a shift going on – or that needs to happen – in the metaphors we think of when we think of leadership. (A shift towards) sowing empowerment for all and agency for all-around a shared project, around a shared goal, a shared good, or a shared love.
(In some of my) recent experiences, I’ve been deliciously surprised at concepts like being a gardener, being a host, a conductor of a choir, like the jazz of leadership. People are still looking for someone to set a tone. And that doesn’t necessarily need to mean hierarchy, but it does mean, I think in terms of skill sets that I think we’re all going to be looking for, I hope going forward, many organizations and local causes will be looking for someone who has got a very selfless spirit and has the kind of EQ that’s able to see different giftings, is able to think of the systemic injustices that are all in the backdrop, and in some cases extremely personal in a room, and is able to reverse some of that by the choices you make. I’m speaking purely within a convening context, for instance. But I’m interested in shifting metaphors of what really generative leadership looks like. So I just wanted to hone in on that a little.
Peter Block: Let me just say, leaders can be entered to me as a powerful idea. I’m giving my life to that. Yeah. It’s just that leadership is needed, and you guys are providing it to the world, but it’s not patriarchal. It’s not knowing what’s best for SOCAP and other things you do, even at congregations. Helping people find each other may be the function of leadership rather than being the role model heroic.
Lindsay Smalling: Some of us are leaders, some of us feel more comfortable in a following position. What is the role of people who maybe don’t see themselves setting that table in the way that we can move towards a common good? How can they have agency in that?
Peter Block: I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t a leader. And I would say to people, I’m a shy person, I would say, get over it. Our job as voices is to create a safe space for them to do that. There’s a lot of structures to do that. It doesn’t mean when we get together, we say, hey baby, what’s happening. But when people tell me I’m too shy, I say, well, that’s just a story.
One of my favorite quotes ever is, “in Russia, even the past is unpredictable.” And I think that’s true for me. Whatever story I had – about being an outsider Gypsy Jew, a wandering Jew, that I don’t belong anywhere – it was just a story. And at some point, I think part of what you do in publishing is to confront people with the fact that there is something you’ve gotta be in charge of now. It may not be this kind of setting, but it’s complicated. And I like this discussion because it shows that this is our humanity speaking.
I think the most dangerous part of individualism is its certainty. That scares me more than anything. If that’s how you see the world – go for it. Who knows? But if you’re certain that you’re right, that scares the hell out of me. That’s the source of violence and the source of injustice – people lost in their certainty. And this country is really good at it. We think we are the best, and we know best. The nice thing about the virtual world is we spend a lot of time with people far away, and you realize America really thinks it’s hot stuff. And I know that the two of you in your work and your writing help us get over that notion.
Jen Bailey: Peter, this question of certainty, man it’s like you’ve been in my journals lately. You know, one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot in the context of faith is thinking about faith, not as the absence of doubt, but faith is the absence of certainty, particularly in a world that seems so deeply uncertain and where the outcome can’t be predicted. Typically when things are so volatile, but I want to pick up on a thread that I heard and your reflections that I think are so true.
I think about the words of Ella Baker, that strong people don’t need strong leaders. Ella Baker was one of the initiators of SNCC; she was the elder in the room who told folks from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, go organize yourselves. I don’t need to be at the front of the room. The leadership is here. Right? Learning about the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the Southern freedom movement, one thing that I think is a learning that I carry with me is that, and this picks up in your point, Anne, in that everybody has the deep capacity to be a leader. The question is, we don’t have a whole lot of tools around discernment in what and how we lead and win, right. And helping people figure out what is the unique gifting and calling that you are called to step into leadership, recognizing that that role of leader will change necessarily over time.
I certainly have experienced that in the past 15 months. I can’t do all the things I used to do because I got somebody who’s like literally tugging on me for food and nourishment who doesn’t care what mama has to do or what Zoom call she needs to be on. He needs attention now. Right? And so all that is to say that I’ve noticed in becoming a mother, even the ways in which my leadership style has had to shift and the things where my attention is being drawn to and where I feel like the spirit is calling me to.
And so I wonder what it looks like for us as we’re creating this common good to leave space for folks to discern what the particular role they’re being called to in leadership is, as it contributes to the collective. Right? And so that’s just been on the front of my heart and mind as I feel myself shifting in this moment.
Lindsay Smalling: Anne, what are you writing down over there?
Anne Snyder: I’m just writing down the words that are popping out at me, leaving space for being able to hold space. Picking up a little bit on what Peter was saying. You asked this, really troubling in some ways, but very important question – what do we need to understand about how we got to where we are? Why would it be more problematic to continue down the rugged individualism path? And I struggled with this a little in some ways, because, and this may be a poor telling of history, but I do credit some engine of quote, unquote individualism, like in the sixties, with being a very positive force. It was needed for a less homogenate culture for women’s rights, for civil rights. I think people searching for truth on their own terms, up to a point, has been really healthy.
But somewhere along the way, there was just a massive overcorrection. And I don’t know where we’d pinpoint that in the 1980s or 1990s where technology and prosperity collided with America’s natural, moral materialism to make us think that happiness is found in self-discovery and self-flagellation and self-glorification. All while increasingly, I think certain segments of the population were getting a lot of this. And other segments were losing it entirely and not being seen anymore, not being heard. Those dead ends in both worlds are haunting the country now. I’m troubled by the question because I think it’s a really good one. It feels problematic to continue down an individualistic path at some level.
I’m actually drawing a little bit from a conversation Peter had some years ago with Walter Brueggemann – this great line – we can’t secure ourselves. We do need someone to hear us, and that someone could be, God, it could be a spouse. But ideally, it’s layers of individuals and communities that see and hear us. And if there’s a crisis of anything right now, it’s probably just a lost skill and patience and a blank slate to allow others to see them deeply and to allow ourselves to hear and be deeply heard. And so if that’s just baked in, I think I’m just asking how do we go? How about how we go about screaming, in some ways, to get people to hear us. And I, you know, this is a crackpot theory, but I wonder, will it be a mass shooting? Will it be a suicide? Will it be an addiction to Instagram? Will it be rudeness at the grocery store or road rage? You know, will it be simmering pots of snarling on Facebook comments? Will it be men or women who race after leadership positions – not because they particularly care about serving others, but because they’re just desperate to be seen and heard?
So I think it’s just recognizing that we have this basic human need to be heard. And then the constructive question is, how do we nurture the kinds of communities, our own families, schools, workplaces policies, economic checks – the whole enchilada – and our own habits, such that things like accountability become less scary and more fulfilling, such that no one is ever inconvenient to us in any passing moment and we can see each encounter as a gift rather than a burden. What do we need to do to feel like we’re part of a grander shared story that we each have a role in writing while also listening as we craft that together? So again, these are huge. This whole conversation is like a Pacific ocean in its scale and scope.
Peter, you write about chosen accountability, and I think, linking that conversation to this one, Jen, I think of the grandmothers or those church women. It seems like you still feel somehow accountable to them. So where you choose to find that accountability, but it’s really about how you feel seen and how you recognize that someone else’s common good is tied up with yours. I don’t know if I’m using the right words there, but Peter, what else is there about chosen accountability that might relate to this conversation?
Peter Block: I think the way we gather is the way through. Whoever is gathering people in a room, in a place, on a Zoom – we can choose to gather them in ways that they fall in love with each other. We have the methodology. You get 400 people in a room and segment them in groups of three and ask them what’s the crossroads you’re at this stage of your life? Simple little questions. And give 12 minutes. At the end of 12 minutes, say, “what happened? How’d it go?” And they say, I realize I’m not so alone. I realize I’m not crazy that you guys and your writing and your preaching and your organizing faith and finance will have the capacity, every time we gather, for people to realize they’re not alone by helping them fall in love with each other. And it takes 12 minutes. And we’re not arguing about anything. It’s not an opinion discussion – it’s where are you in your life? And I think that’s the beauty in what you’re talking about. I think that’s possible. And that’s when people become accountable to each other.
We can’t force people to be accountable to the minister or the editor or the consultant or speaker. We’ve tried to do that. And, it turned out, that’s where violence comes from. Because we think we have to hold people accountable.
And you said, Jen, about faith, it is the absence of certainty. Oh my God, I can die now. I mean that notion, everything we do, that can invade that. Instead, we can ask people, what are your doubts? What, what do you want to say no to? There’s great power in that question. We ask people, what are you good at? What are your gifts? I’m not interested in your deficiencies any longer, the effort to find people’s deficiency and, like you say, develop and work on ourselves. It’s not going to work on testimony. I’ve been working on myself for a while, and maybe I’m a lousy worker. I don’t know, but I really think all of us do control the narrative and the conversation by the questions we ask and the way we bring people together.
I don’t know what else to do. And you can do it at scale. You can do with 5,000 people in the room. I’ve been in talks with 5,000 people. They were coming to hear a speaker or coming to wait until lunch; I don’t know what they were coming for. And I said, would you break up into groups of three? And they say, I didn’t come for that. I said, “I know you didn’t, and I didn’t come to meet your expectations.” That’s the convening thing.
I think, Anne, you said there’s a role for leadership. And the questions you ask, you ask people, what are you good at? What’s the commitment you’re willing to make? What’s going on with your life? I treat them as agents; even though they came to listen, they came to take it in. Okay. And I think that’s what journalism is about, to confront me with my freedom. And I’ll bet both of your publications confront people with their freedom. They aren’t organized around what’s wrong with those people. And that’s what we get from social media is what’s wrong with those people. I know I always over-answer questions that weren’t asked.
I like all the threads you’re opening up here, though. But I guess I want to make sure that we do root this in; what does this look like when it does happen? What does it look like when we’re moving into the common good? And I think you all have really concrete versions of this in the work that you’ve chosen to do in facilitating groups of people to move into the common good. So what’s the opportunity of that? What do you see blossoming out of orienting people towards this? Co-learning chosen accountability, these various structures that enable us to move towards the common good.
Jen Bailey: One of the great gifts of my ministry and life over the past five years has been a project that I got to co-found with two friends called The People’s Supper. And over the course of the last several years, we’ve been gathering people around the dinner tables. I mean 3000 suppers in the past five years in different contexts – some as small as four, some as big as 300. And I just want to lift up an example from that work, specifically. We worked with the city of Erie, Pennsylvania, and the mayor’s office there. And in 2017, Erie was voted the worst place in America for African-Americans to live, which of course upset Erie Insurance, the largest only Fortune 500 company in the town.
And so, through a partnership with the mayor’s office and Erie Insurance, we started this process of bringing together community leaders. Across a wide variety of backgrounds, racially and ethnically, and stations in life to begin asking the question, why do you call this place Erie home? And it was really six months of deep trust and relationship building, both in specific cohorts that were designated by racial identity and across lines of difference.
This gets to your question, Lindsey. There is power when trust has been built. When you’re building up the deep social capital that can only come when you keep showing up to dinner with somebody and keep asking open and honest questions and getting to meet them in the space of their story. And so what we found after we did this beautiful closing dinner, and we got a video from the governor, and there were all these ideas about doing a scholarship fund, a workplace development project around equity, diversity, and inclusion – the first equity diversity and inclusion council at the mayor’s office ever.
And we found when we got into those subgroups where we were trying to articulate the common good, that’s when the deep work that we had banked and building relationships all those months came to the floor because that’s where the squabbling and the mistrust began to show up. And if people had not had the space to get to know one another and build those relationships of trust that are so fundamental to building the social change we want to see, it wouldn’t have been possible.
And so I say all that to say, it’s a very practical example. There’s a scholarship fund for students of color in Erie that never existed before. That is a direct result of an investment in the common good and relationships and sharing and storytelling with one another. There is a new small business incubator for folks of color, right?
It’s incredible, the work that can happen, but I think I want to bust the myth that it’s easy. I mean, actually, the work of doing and building community is some of the most difficult work that we can do. Particularly when we don’t have very good cultural frameworks around rupture and repair in our cultural context in the U.S., We don’t really necessarily have very many models of what it looks like to come back together after harm has been done. Or come back together when there’s been a disagreement or a squabble. And I think that’s because there is a tendency towards this individual prioritization of right. I feel like I am right; therefore, I’m gonna sink more deeply into my positionality and not have space to either entertain the possibility that I could be wrong or to prioritize relationships over my rightness.
And so I share all that as a very practical example, through the People’s Supper work in Erie, of how doing that deep work of articulating a collective vision for why you call this place home and why you want to continue to call it home – over many months of banking dinners, and trust-building then led to when times got tough, and rupture happened, the ability to stay in it together.
Lindsay Smalling: It builds resilience, but it takes a lot of time. Anyone want to jump in there? I think Anne, in a talk you gave, the line that jumped out and it was that you have to have the patience to really understand the roots of someone else’s pain and the arc of their hopes. And I think that just hit something to me. Both of those are such vulnerable places for anyone to go with another person, the roots of their pain and the arc of their hope. But I think that it would take time to get someone to be willing to share that. Peter, you seem to think it should move on a faster timeline. Does it work on a faster timeline? Have you seen tricks to build that resilience and that shared trust?
Peter Block: Yes. You know I, if we think of it, how I need to be, to understand the depth of the pain and the arc of their hope, then we gotta get a lot of people doing it and it. But if we say that’s the collective function every time we’re in a room together, we can make that happen, especially in an activism world. Most activist gatherings are all about causes and how other people should be transformed. There’s no power there. I can pray all I want. If God’s interested, God will act.
But I just think we can, no matter what our agenda, whether it’s a scholarship fund, whether it’s an incubator, the purpose of that scholarship fund in Erie wasn’t the incubator, and it wasn’t the scholarship. It was the effect of who came together to try something who overcame their history and story. Because there’s a dark side to neighborhoods and communities. Everybody’s got memories, and somebody got hurt somewhere along. But I think every time we gather, we have the possibility to get people connected. And all I have to do is ask you one stupid question: what’s the crossroads you are at at this stage of life? Or a second question: What are you doing really? I was on a safety committee at the U.C. near here, and we called the meeting then somebody got shot Saturday night. So a lot of people showed up. Police showed up, and news showed up. I happened to be hosting a meeting. And I thought, now, what do I do? And I said, I tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to break into small groups. And they all look at me. And I said, Yeah. So would you break into groups of four with people you know the least? And officers and news people, you’re welcome to join a group.
And I asked them some questions. When did you first start caring about this place? It’s a different question than what are the police going to do to keep me safe? And the answer is they can’t. What’s the social service gonna do? They do what they can. And so citizens together, you can be in the right to can say, when did we first start caring about this place? Really? And I love the idea of doing it over dinner. We’ve done that in many communities, but for each course, they had a question to answer. So they weren’t talking about sports, and they weren’t complaining about people, not in the room. And the first question was, when did you first start caring about Clarksdale? And the next question was, what’s the crossroad? When people are longing for that conversation, you create a space. And so I think it’s also gift-based.
One of the things we did, one of the few things that worked, was we started a hip-hop arts and cultural center. And we took in 14 to 24-year kids, right after the uprising in 2001. And that’s the group of Black kids everybody’s afraid of. Before that, they’re cute. And we said, what do you love to do? They said, we love hip-hop. Really? And so we started a hip-hop center. And if you walk in the door, we want to know what you’re good at. I can dance. I can lay down beats. I can paint. I can draw. I can make eye contact. We’re not interested in your prior story. I don’t care how many years of schooling. I don’t care whether you’ve been in or out of jail. I’m not interested in where you’re sleeping tonight. And so, about 3000 kids have been through that over 18 years. And most of them, once they realize they’re not alone, it’s not a celebration of hip hop. It’s just, they find out they’re not alone. And there are people that understand the woundedness that they are and focus on the gifts that they are when they find that out, they leave the street. And I think all of us have examples of where people discover they weren’t alone. And I think it’s a collective project. Otherwise, we’re just one person at a time. It’s just, love the one you’re with, but I think we can do it collectively. And there’s a longing despite the story that we’re living under.
Anyone else want to jump on that? Or I’m going to start to weave in some of the great questions that have been happening from the audience. I always get a little fractured reading the comments. There’s great dialogue happening in here. And people are really enjoying all the contributions and just certain turns of phrase that you each have. I think Peter, those questions that you’re offering alongside Jen’s setting a table and that trust-building is really resonating.
Peter Block: I would add to that, Anne, your poetry. I mean, you’re a poet, and we need that because in that poetry is prophecy, and we need prophets. And that’s what I see in you, Anne, just in these few minutes. You’re willing to go anywhere. You’re courageous. You’ll take a side independent of what the world is whispering at the moment, and then you respond to it with just absolute poetic beauty and thank you for that. And that poetry is prophecy—what a gift.
Anne also asks really good questions. She gave me a lot of these good questions to ask. Anne, any of those questions you’d want to ask your fellow panelists right now? I’m going to jump into the audience’s questions too.
Anne Snyder: I think probably the audience questions are much better than mine. I’ll just put an extra amen next to Jen’s example. And I don’t take time to give to my own cause they really echo hers. But I just a word that hasn’t been used, but as embodied in the examples, both Peter and Jen have shared in this like what are ways each of us are trying to put this into practice. And I’m sure for each of us, that’s a little meta. We try to do this through some form of scale and leavers in our work affecting hopefully some ripple effects of people in the conversations they’re having, but also in our own lives. The word I’d name is hospitality – just because I think there’s something about the table. There’s something about place. There’s something about listening for and holding space to find out the sacred attachments that people we all have, whether it is to a place. We all have these senses of longings or appetites or cares that need space to breathe. It feels like it’s intellectually rich, hopefully, that’s the goal, but it’s very relationally woven together. Someone said that to me recently, and I was like, that is the best thing you could say – aside from what Peter just said. That was very lovely.
In every issue, we put a little bookmark in that’s very similar, it sounds like, to the People’s Supper. We have four or five questions that are meant to be both self excavating around the themes. So this last theme was about, how do we get beyond ideology or our reigning ideological prisons as a society. And there’s a lot of ways you can cut into that, but we put a bookmark together with a recipe. And we put a Spotify playlist that we feel thematically relates. And we just try to gather people in their neighborhood, six to ten people all over North America, really. But in this case, it was, where does ideology touch your life most consistently? Where does it not? That’s one broader way that I think in my own life. My husband and I, we just believe deeply in having an open home. We do that to varying degrees of integrity, given travel schedules and our own vocational demands. But I think especially we happen to live ten blocks from the Capitol in D.C. When January 6th occurred this past year, I was very disturbed by the broken linkage system between all these national, international top-down kind of figures that come to a city like this to work and live. And then the long-standing local folks and institutions and, that’s across race. Obviously, that’s certainly across class. And so, what did it mean to just open our little courtyard here? And I say, I connect that to January 6th because I was trying to organize actually like a grassroots response of like, where are the people of peace and goodwill that could stand in a circle, linking hands together in these two weeks before what we hope is a peaceful transfer of power. Because something about the local/national thing, even in the experience of living here during the attack, I realized my own need to sow more consistently into building those trust lines between those who have these national perches and the locals.
So we had s’mores every single night, open to whoever: homeless, world bank people, you know, without curating it. We kept to 12 because of COVID social distancing, and we were both so surprised and delighted by the accidental whosoever shows up within a bounded group. And when you’re all feeling a little bit besieged, and even if you come from different spots on the political landscape. There’s something about a felt crisis, small groups of people and showing, I think, sincere intent to come together to try. It’s everything Peter has devoted his life to and what Jen does on a daily basis, but I just, there’s something about circles, food, home, place that are part of this and a part of the long game.
Lindsay Smalling: I love that you include a recipe and a playlist because I think you’ve raised this embodied, and I don’t think I really even understood what that meant, but when you give me those examples, it’s like the ways that music connects people, the ways that food connects people and how can we take this out of our head – and not just into our hearts – but into our bodies and think about and try to remember a place wherein body you felt connected to people who you otherwise might not have, whether that’s around a dinner table or campfire or on a subway car or whatever that is.
So one of the great questions that came up in the chat at the very beginning was not how do we make this shift, but where do we see communities naturally living in this more common good? Like, what are those examples that exist in the wild that maybe haven’t shifted into this rugged individualism? At least that’s how I’m interpreting the question. Are there things we can learn from those communities that are already really practicing this?
Jen Bailey: So I’ll just lift up, having several people who are very beloved to me who are in recovery. Observing things like Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous and the ways in which those communities have done such rich work building and holding one another to account and in building relationships in a period deep, deep way across lines of class and race. I think there’s just so much for us to learn from projects like 12 Steps that has been pushed to the periphery of our communities in part, because of our own sense of shame and hiding around things like addiction. But I’ve seen some of the richest and most powerful relationships and ways of showing up and being in community and being accountable to something that’s higher than oneself. Even more so than my church community, right? People who just have been in it with each other and who are committed to helping one another stay sober is just really deeply powerful for me. And so I just, I named that as an example, watching how transformative it’s been for folks in my own life.
Peter Block: Jen, I think that’s true. One of the ground rules in Al-Anon is don’t give advice to each other. You just pay attention. You stay in your lane. You don’t know what’s best for other people. And that’s why they fall in love and stay connected forever. And there’s a great power in that.
And I think the community garden movement is a great example of cooperation. I mean, it is all every city’s got. We have 35 community gardens. I mean, the structures are there. Civic gardens. People ask about Indigenous cultures. Of course, they were more connected. What we can learn from them worries me a little bit. Because it gets kind of colonizing to say, well, let’s go to look at these people that are we call, we give them a name and call them Indigenous. But I think every city has examples.
Anne mentioned hospitality. That’s the welcoming of the stranger. So you could ask yourself, where is the stranger welcome? And I think a lot of us around the church have enormous potential to welcome the stranger as a citizen, not as a person in need. And there’s civic programs all around us. We just don’t treat them as if they matter. We treat them as a marginal event instead of saying, this is the way we want to. When our city council meets, we ought to put them in circles, like they do at AA, and have them talk about what they want to talk about and say, Hi, my name is Peter. I’ve been running lousy meetings for the last six months. Thank you, Peter. It could be about anything.
I do think the circle is a metaphor. And gardening and place and people that care about the land. There are eleven land trusts in Cincinnati. We say, we’re going to own this land collectively. There’s five different projects where, as wealth creation for low-income people, if you stay in this project and you help this building work – at the end of five years, you’re going to have $5,000 in cash. Why isn’t every housing like that? I don’t understand. I think we have the models. We’re just learning with any matter. Instead of being the exception, that’s the norm. And I think the journalism the two of you do is a huge step in that direction. And one other thing is, even enterprise. Forty-three million people belong to cooperative enterprises in this country, that’s a big deal. That means who owns this place. We do. It’s a big deal. Every ACE hardware, REI, we have the models. It’s just that now we’re giving them attention, perhaps.
Yeah. Bring that out into the light, recognize what’s there that we don’t see. So thank you, anonymous attendee, for this long question in the Q & A. I’m going to reinterpret it, and hopefully, I get it right.
For folks who are on this call trying to understand the common good or be a part of it or facilitate it, let’s say there’s a case where you don’t even recognize that that’s the thing you’re missing. Maybe you’re in rugged individualism, and you’re not aware of the ways that that’s problematic for you. What are the ways that we get over this ignorance of not understanding someone else’s reality, not understanding the ways that their success actually is tied to your own success? Where people just aren’t understanding that benefit of the common good because they don’t really understand what someone else thriving has to do with them thriving. Thoughts around that?
Peter Block: Part of the language of the question struck me. This idea of how do we get them? As soon as you start saying it that way, it’s over. The sentiment behind that is – how do I find out who these people are? How do I get close to them? We’re talking about different means. And how do I get close to them without having zero opinion about who they are and what they think? I didn’t come here to make judgments.
I feel that what you’re doing with Faith + Finance is you send out the invitation, and then you give your life to those that show up. And the ones that show up will bring the ones that didn’t. Otherwise, I get kind of evangelical. I want to get people on board. All right. But that never feels right, even though it works sometimes. And so I think that’s the shift in narrative and thinking that you’re opening up. That goes back to what Jen said about certainty. And marketing. A friend of mine says all marketing is pornography. And I don’t know if that’s true. I just love that phrase. Basically, what they are saying is – you always promise them more than you can deliver. And you may have to do that to get them in the building. Again, about to be depicted in the magazine, but this is not a marketing campaign. It’s something about invitation. And it’s frustrating because we need each other to sustain our faith. And I don’t know. I’m not really a person of much optimism. I look back over my own years through the sixties and seventies, and eighties. Have we made progress? I don’t have a big yes to that question, nor am I pessimistic. Well, things are going to get better. I don’t want to predict the future. And so, instead of optimism, I have faith. I think that’s what we all represent. That’s why faith is half the title of this. Faith is to provide leadership, not knowing what the hell’s going on. It confronts my wish for predictability. That never lets you down.
Lindsay Smalling: I think Anne, in a talk you gave, you compare the lamenting of an elite group about how do we get them on board and then attending an event with them the next day. And that wasn’t the feeling at all. It was this feeling of everyone thriving and well-being. It’s a great contrast – these two ways of living and being. How do we all find ourselves at the Nyack graduation rather than at the New York Yacht Club?
Anne Snyder: What Lindsey is referring to, in short, is an experience I had within 24 hours in spring of 2015. I was thinking a lot about the future shape of American Christianity. I had been outside the east coast corridor’s elite circles for quite a few years. I was living in Houston among immigrant communities, a variety of different ones. Long story short. I found myself in New York City. I was invited to attend this reception where a group of fairly elite people of Christian faith who worked in largely secular institutions, pretty affluent levels, pretty powerful from a temporal perspective, were really lamenting the state of the faith in the country. And there was a sense of just besiegement and beleaguerment in the room. And it happened to be, this is just a quality of it – not meaning too much by it – but it happened to be a hundred percent white, and it was almost all male. We were in this very posh space, and there’s all this hand wringing. And it was a few weeks before the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. And so anyways, I experienced that in an evening. And then the very next day, like not 24 hours later, I was in the back row of a church in Harlem watching a whole series of quote-unquote non-traditional students, namely grandmothers who had never been to college, and people who’d been in prison, and single Chinese moms, Latinos in wheelchairs, I mean, just this like beautiful panoply of human beings, many of whom had like really suffered, just march into their vocations, getting diplomas that would confer their readiness to care and work at homeless shelters and crisis pregnancy centers, centers, and be pastors and so on and so on.
And there was just this sense of joy and fervent faith and humility and, yes, social mobility. And there was just, there was a very different both fragrance and articulation of what it meant to be a person of Christian faith in the U.S., and this was 2015 before like our politics exploded. I just wanted to clarify the context. Your question is, how do we find ourselves in more Nyack rooms that grant those kinds of graduation rooms?
Lindsay Smalling: And stop the hand-wringing, which I instinctively did somehow with that question is like, we’re all the ones on this call, but what about all of them? You know, I see that I just did that, but how do I stop doing that?
Anne Snyder: This is a little bit of a tricky thing for me to say because I do think there’s connection for its own sake is not amoral. Healthy relationships and positive relationships and a greater connectivity and thickening culture has a moral enterprise. If you view a healthy relationship as the end, there are certain virtues you need to have to sustain that relationship. And sometimes, I worry that this whole connective tissue weaving conversation ignores values. So I say that as a caveat to what I’m about to say, which is I think it would probably behoove us all and make life a lot more fun if we, instead of beginning always with values questions and should questions, we just ask questions about the nature of reality. And I don’t mean that in an overly philosophical way, but we ask deeply human questions with one another. But Peter has been trying to say, I think throughout this call is that there’s a power in creating a space that allows this time of encounter and mutual discovery.
Years ago, I wrote a little book about character and the communities that shape our moral character. And I went around for a couple of years and asked lots of people at high levels of social status and at hidden levels, how was your character shaped? And they would always tell a story. And it usually fell into a three-part pattern. They would always mention a loving authority figure that had been very impressionable for them: a mother, a grandmother, a coach, a teacher. They would always mention an experience of struggle or suffering that left some scars and shaped their spine. And they always talked about some moment of awakening to a context greater than themselves that they just wanted to serve.
And this is somewhat the genius of recovery spirituality that Jen was talking about. So when you think about that three-part pattern in all of our lives, we all have stories about how we’ve been shaped. And so then the question is just, I think, beginning with that, which is the question about narrative autobiography that points to some broader patterns in our society.
I think what I would often encourage is how do we build the communities and organizations and some broader even like air cover, which is a narrative and words. And you know, some of the business that we are in here on this panel, to encourage that three-part pattern to recur over and over and in safe, sustainable settings.
I’m answering your question a little slant, but there really is, to Peter’s point, there really just is something in the asking of the question and withholding judgment.
Lindsay Smalling: All of these people have amazing writings and talks, and they will continue to have them, so follow them beyond this conversation, but thank you all for just engaging with it. And you’re all so genuine and thoughtful about these questions. So I’m going to pass back over to Rosa Lee to close this out, but a sincere thank you for me. And I think there was some active learning on my part during this session. So thank you.
Rosa Lee Harden: Thank you to all of you. I’ve been really enthralled with the conversation and even more engaged, I think, with the chat where we’ve seen all sorts of resources – the writings from each of our panelists, from Lindsay, from Jen from Peter, from Anne throwing things into that chat conversation.
We didn’t get to all the questions. We will be writing more about this at faithfinance.net. So you can follow us there. But my big takeaway here was how this all starts with us just paying attention to each other. And this has just been coming up about how people are doing that in neighborhoods. And we’re just happy to be a part of this conversation. And so grateful to each one of these panelists who came and joined us today. And we look forward to continuing this conversation.
Next month, we’re going to have another webinar where we’re going to dig deeper into stories of people who are doing practical work of bringing communities and people of faith and finance together to do this work.
And just my closing word. For those of us who are Christians in this season of advent, where the sky is dark, but we know something is coming. And how we all participate in what is coming is what I think is the most important thing for us to pay attention to. How are we participating in the coming of what’s next? And I invite you to do that in whatever way is presenting itself in your life. And then they’ll let us hear about it because we at Faith + Finance want to keep telling these stories. So I look forward to seeing you again and thank you for joining us.
*This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Join the Faith + Finance Community for the Next Conversation in the Building a Loving and Just Economy Series
The fourth and final webinar in the Building a Loving and Just Economy series will take place on January 11, at 1 pm Eastern (10 am Pacific). Stuart Yasgur of Ashoka will lead a conversation about how we can move towards a just and loving economy with changemakers Coté Soerens, Seattle, Washington, and Stephen Lewis, Forum for Theological Exploration. Register here.