Faith in New Jersey aims to empower the community. Its leaders have faith in organizing and urge faith leaders to get more involved as part of their prophetic calling.
A multifaith and multiethnic network of faith leaders and communities, Faith in New Jersey works to “advance a social and economic justice agenda at the local, state and federal level.” For more than a decade, they have been organizing statewide.
Owning their narrative, both Charlene Walker, executive director of Faith in New Jersey and Kevin Greenwood, FINJ’s organizer in the city of Paterson, see their work as a calling as well.
“The Divine orchestrated my life in such a way that I could be nothing but an organizer,” Walker explained during our interview. “The first people I started losing in my life were due to gun violence. Throughout the rest of my life, I just became hyper-aware of the systems and structures that were impacting me and my loved ones,” she said.
“This world has got to change and the only way it’s going to happen is if I’m a part of that,” Walker explained. “I was lucky that an organizer found me and that I, myself, ended up becoming an organizer,” she concluded.
“There’s nothing like bringing about change that you can actually feel. To know that your world and your life and your people that you care about are better off because of the collective efforts we have collectively made together,” Walker said while beaming.
Greenwood started organizing after being invited by “a pastor friend of mine.” Greenwood said his father encouraged his six children to stay together and protect the family. “My fight was always the fight for families or fight for those who are marginalized, those who weren’t heard,” he said.
He now fights in Paterson around issues of affordable housing and gun violence. Greenwood said that he can see similarities from the 1960s in the city where he grew up and remains a resident.
“Gun violence runs rampant in Paterson,” Greenwood said. Recalling the most recent shootings which included an 11-year-old victim, he said that he cannot “sit around” but needs to ensure that the community has the resources and services it needs to reduce gun violence. Greenwood feels compelled “to really stand and to really fight for what’s needed and what we should have and not what people are just giving us.”
“We know there are proven strategies. We know that we can reduce gun violence by 60%,” he said, continuing to make his case, which included the redistribution of funds for community-based violence intervention. He says the additional financial support would aid in building an ecosystem that supports this work.
“We can actually live in the world that I believe that God intended us to live in, one of opportunity, hope, justice and love,” Walker says. “I’m trying to build a world in which we’re all free, free to live, free to grow old, sit on our porch and gossip, free to see our grandbabies grow or to travel the world.
“Right now, what we’re seeing all so often is either people are losing their lives due to gun violence or becoming incarcerated because time and time again those in power decide to strip our communities of the things that they need and turn their backs on their most basic responsibility, which is to care for the community,” she said.
Walker says it’s going to take all of us to do it. “That’s really what our work is: bringing together faith communities, people that have been deeply impacted by the concerns that we are working on,” she said.
Like Will Simpson, director of Violence Reduction Initiatives at Equal Justice USA and coordinator for the New Jersey Violence Intervention and Prevention Coalition, Walker believes “that those that are closest to the pain are the ones who are most equipped to design the results and to decide what needs to happen.”
She is convinced that “we’re really living in somebody else’s imagination.” Barred from larger decision-making processes and speaking of an organizing meeting, Walker says, “There is nothing more magical than to see everyday people come together and realize this lie we’ve been told, that we don’t have power, realize their own innate power that they already have, and that they can walk in that power, and they can bring others with them to build this collective power until we actually feel that change.”
Walker continues: “How can we, as people of faith, turn our backs on people and not build a world that we know that our multiple faith traditions tell us we should be working for? What does it mean to love our neighbor if we are not fighting for our neighbor to live a full life?”
Greenwood agrees and asks, “How am I being true to my calling if the very people I’m serving every day of the week are hurting and dying and I’m not trying to help them be free or trying to help them live a better life?” He believes that God has called him “to do the work.”
For both Walker and Greenwood, it all goes back to one’s calling, ensuring that everyone “walks into the room (and) in their power.” They believe that the community and its faith leaders can do it, given their proximity to the problem and the solution.
Editor’s note: This article is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.