Recently, American United’s Faith Organizer Bill Mefford became the latest AU staff member to become a published author. His book, The Fig Tree Revolution, is aimed at mobilizing churches to be active in social justice issues.
We spoke with Mefford about his new book, how it’s applicable to his work with AU and the important church-state separation issues faith leaders have been advocating for this past year.
Tell me about your new book and the audience it’s aimed at.
The book is geared to help local churches to engage in the work of advocating and organizing for justice. It is based on the first four chapters in the Book of Esther and is based on dozens of trainings I have led on community organizing across the country over these past 12 years and from real stories of real people engaged in creating real change. Ideally, it is meant to be read by small groups in churches, Sunday school classes, college groups or groups working on justice-oriented ministries in their communities.
I have long believed that the locus for creating real and lasting change always begins from the ground up. Change is not something that starts in the halls of Congress or even in courtrooms. Change is something real people with vision and passion do every day in their local communities, bubbling up at times to impart change on a statewide level and lastly, on a national level. I hope my book can be a small way in which local congregations and communities can find the tools to be more effective in their work to achieve justice for all people in all areas of life.
Your book was written to mobilize churches’ involvement in social justice issues. Did the subject matter guide you when you started the Faith Leaders United (FLU) network, an interfaith network of faith leaders, at Americans United?
Yes, absolutely. Although I have spent the last 12 years working in national offices in D.C., my heart is in local churches and local communities where the vital work of community organizing happens every day. I know, from having spent years living and working in low-income neighborhoods to alleviate poverty, unemployment, inadequate healthcare and other issues involving a lack of access for resource-poor communities, that there are leaders in these communities doing amazingly creative and effective work to gain greater access to the resources people need.
My job at a national level has never been to persuade people on the ground to work on the issues I am passionate about; my job is to identify those who share similar passions and are already doing amazing work and to come alongside them to resource them as best as I can and to link them with other people who share our passion. This is what, I hope, is the essence of Faith Leaders United.
Whether it is Rev. David Felten in Arizona standing on the floor of the Arizona state legislature offering a humanist invocation to stand in solidarity with those whose voices were silenced because they were not Christian, or Rev. Jennifer Copeland in Oklahoma who authored an op-ed reminding her elected leaders that houses of worship should not be the place for partisan politics, or Rabbi Merrill Shapiro in Florida leading the fight to ensure that tax dollars are not used to fund religious communities – these leaders and so many more are doing amazing work.
I just want to support them as best as I can, identify the many others that are out there, and link them with one another so that we can have a more coordinated and powerful impact on the passions that we share to see religious freedom for all people and to ensure that religion not be used to harm others.
These are challenging times, but AU has been able to mobilize faith leaders, especially through FLU, to support important religious freedom issues. What would you say are the top issues faith leaders worked on this year?
There have been so many, and as I shared previously, there are so many things that faith leaders across the country are working on, which makes this work so cool.
A few stand out, though. There has been a lot of passion to push back on Trump’s Muslim Ban because it strikes at the heart of the ethic that so many religions share – to welcome visitors and sojourners. Welcoming people is characteristic of what people of all faiths believe and to have our government so blatantly violate this basic calling was stunning and led to a fierce response from FLU and many other faith groups as a number of our members wrote op-eds, went to airports to welcome folks and made calls demanding an end to this despicable executive order.
Preserving the Johnson Amendment, which ensures that nonprofits and houses of worship not be used for political partisanship, has also been a shared passion among many folks because it is about maintaining the sacredness of our worship spaces. We helped engineer a petition among faith leaders that over 4,300 leaders signed, which has clearly shown Congress that the faith community does not want the Johnson Amendment repealed or weakened.
Lastly, AU joined an amicus brief on behalf of Amy Stephens, a transgender woman in Michigan who was fired from her job for her gender identity while her former boss tried to use his Christian faith as a cover for his blatant discrimination. Within a matter of a few days we had 100 faith leaders signed on and we sent a strong and clear message: faith leaders do not want to see faith being used as a cover to cause harm to others.
What methods from your book would you say are applicable to non-Christian faith leaders or even non-religious people who want to make their voices heard through activism?
Good question. Though it is intended for churches, the values associated with community organizing are universal and integral for any and all local groups or communities that want to create real and lasting change.
As I said previously, this starts with the realization that the locus of social, cultural and political change is in local communities: Groups of people with shared passion working together to achieve a common goal. The days for folks sitting and waiting on “experts” in D.C. or anywhere else to “fix” problems are long gone, if they ever existed at all. Change starts in local contexts and I am so glad to see so many of our chapters really embracing this kind of work and actively engaged in creating concrete change.
In the book, one thing I stress that is universal to people of all faiths, or who profess no faith at all, is that at the heart of all justice work is relationships. Relationships are what our work is about – entirely. And we must seek especially to form and nurture those relationships with those who share our passions and our goals.
As a person of faith I believe that love is the most powerful force in the world and forming relationships is a practical manifestation of that transformational force. I have seen real and lasting change happen in so many contexts dealing with so many different issues and it always, without question, happened because of relationships. It is indeed a beautiful thing to see.
If you are a faith leader who wants to get involved in protecting true religious freedom through Faith Leaders United, get involved here.