What Nehemiah Teaches Us About Community Organizing

Tucked away in the middle of the Old Testament, just a few books before Psalms, sits a book named after the prophet Nehemiah. If you don’t know the story, know that Nehemiah was cupbearer to the powerful King Artaxerxes. This was a prominent role in the king’s royal court and therefore allowed Nehemiah access to the King and those who held power. While serving as a cupbearer, Nehemiah was informed that the Babylonians had conquered and exiled Jerusalem. Attempts to rebuild were met with some success in various parts of the city, but the wall and other parts of the city remained in need of restoration and Nehemiah knew he needed to act. Using his job privileges, Nehemiah requested to return to Jerusalem and work to rebuild the city and its wall. Following blessing from the king, Nehemiah took his place of leadership as governor of Judah and began the work of restoration.  

In a world where followers of Jesus are aware of their calling from God to be engaged in justice issues, I believe the story of Nehemiah is ever more important for us to glean from.

One way of doing justice is through community organizing. The Oxford Dictionary defines community organizing as “the coordination of cooperative efforts and campaigning carried out by local residents to promote the interests of their community.” It is a way for citizens to participate in political community and to work together towards a common purpose or common good. The goal of organizing is to create systemic change. By identifying a common issue, looking at systems and structures contributing to the injustice, and enacting a plan for change, a group can move with efficiency and effectiveness to create tangible change in the community.

The goal of organizing is to create systemic change.

In Transforming Power, Robert Linthicum lays out 16 pillars for community organizing based on the life Nehemiah lived. These pillars serve as a helpful guide for beginning the process of engaging in community organizing. To provide a brief overview of what community organizing should look like, we will quickly look at a few of these pillars. The first pillar, and one that remains a consistent theme throughout Nehemiah’s work of community organizing, is listening more than speaking and building bridges. Additionally, Nehemiah internalized the pain of the stories and the problem he was working to address. He allowed the brokenness, the stories, the tears and the grief to impact him, and according to Nehemiah 1:4, he “sat down and wept, and mourned for days.” Nehemiah continues on in his community organizing by considering his resources. He did this with a team of people who represented the community, understood the position of those in public office, and worked for systemic change.

Community organizing, at its core, is a way to love our neighbor through political engagement. Many of us are likely involved in churches with various justice ministries. What if instead of siloing ourselves as the Church in our justice efforts, we joined our neighbors in efforts to better our communities? What if instead of running away from politics because we simply can’t take it anymore, we found ways to utilize the power of our elected officials and ask them to lend their ear and their position to things we have a heart for? By coming together, we can be a part of creating systemic change in our communities that begins to look like bits and pieces of God’s kingdom coming to fruition on earth.

The faithful and thorough model of Nehemiah can be daunting, as all justice work often is. Community organizing requires the participation of citizens willing to engage with local, state, or federal government, as well as other civil society organizations. As we seek to become people marked by justice, may we pursue justice that creates systemic change that promotes the flourishing of everyone in our communities

-Kelsie Doan recently completed an internship at International Justice Mission in Washington, D.C., and is currently pursuing a MA in Intercultural Studies and Children at Risk at Fuller Theological Seminary in Arizona