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Faith-Based Social Justice: Affordable Housing and Interfaith Work

By: Deirdre Jonese Austin

July 26, 2018

Throughout the past few years, I have come to understand my commitment to religion and social justice through both my experiences at Georgetown and my faith journey. Although I originally intended to major in international politics, I ultimately chose to major in culture and politics with a focus on religion and social justice. I chose this major and concentration in order to pursue my passion for understanding what different faith traditions and religions say about social justice. I have come to understand that social justice is an intricate part of all faith traditions and religions. For people of faith, social justice is often part of their calling. Nevertheless, the commitment to social justice looks different for each person. As a black Christian woman, my commitment to social justice is a commitment to racial justice. For many of the people I interviewed, their commitment to social justice is a commitment to housing justice and affordable housing.

Affordable housing is most often defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as housing in which the resident is required to “pay more than thirty percent of their income for housing.” As gentrification continues to grow and result in the displacement of low-income people and people of color, the need for affordable housing continues to rise. This is especially significant in a city like Washington, D.C., which has high rates of homelessness and constant gentrification. Someone must care for the marginalized and work to amplify the voices of homeless and low-income residents who benefit from affordable housing policies.

I interviewed three people who are committed to social justice and interfaith work as it relates to affordable housing. The first person I interviewed was Sheena Foster, the executive director of Can I Live. She says of this organization, “Can I Live is a national residence association that promotes leadership development as well as self-sufficiency for residents of public housing.” Next, I interviewed Rev. Djalóki Jean-Luc Dessables, who is the special assistant to the president of Jubilee Housing. In his words, “Jubilee Housing officially provides affordable housing for low-income families in Adams-Morgan, Columbia Heights, and Mount Pleasant in Washington, D.C.…” The final person I interviewed was John Hisle, who is the executive director of Good Faith Communities Coalition, which works to address homelessness in the District of Columbia. Although they come from different backgrounds and faith traditions, all expressed a commitment to housing justice and to the greater call of social justice as a practice and lifestyle.

The Motivation and Inspiration for Faith-Based Social Justice Work

I interviewed Foster, Rev. Dessables, and Hisle in order to learn the source of their inspiration and commitment to social justice. I learned of the people, quotes, and scriptures that inspire them to do the work they do. For all, the work of social justice is deeply personal and connected to their life experiences. Foster details how she was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King’s film At the River I Stand at a young age. Since then, Dr. King has become a great source of inspiration for her. She is committed to furthering his call to a "beloved community." Dr. King’s beloved community is a community that emphasizes the dignity of all humanity and worked to ensure justice and equality for all. In addition to Dr. King, Foster was also inspired by her experience of displacement due to Hurricane Katrina. This is another pivotal moment that inspires her social justice work.

Rev. Dessables’s commitment to social justice is also inspired by his personal experience. He had a spiritual experience as a young man that affirmed in him a commitment to the oneness of all beings. Additionally, he is inspired by his life experience as a “bridge” and “facilitator” in the corporate world early in his career and now as an interfaith minister. His Creole and multilingual background have provided him with the skills he needs to do the work of social justice. Furthermore, the shamanic religious traditions also inspire Rev. Dessables as they address the spirits associated with oppression and provide “answers to social issues that the powerful of the world now cannot."

Hisle attended college during the Civil Rights Movement. That experience has served as a great source of inspiration for him, as well as his wife. He was inspired by people like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Daniel Berrigan, S.J. He has also developed a personal commitment to social justice through his experience with his Catholic faith in parochial schools and at Fairfield University, a Jesuit institution. His understanding of the relation between religion and social justice can be summed up in the quote, “If your theology says the Spirit of God is in everything and every person, including yourself, and we see the Spirit of God and the presence of God in every person, we do what we can to honor that presence.”

In addition to the personal experiences that inspire their social justice work, they are inspired by other religious teachings, scriptures, and people as well. Both Foster and Hisle are inspired by the biblical prophets such as Micah, Isaiah, Amos, and Jesus. One scripture that Foster quotes is Micah 6:8 which says, “Seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.” Additionally, Hisle says that “many people forget Jesus himself was homeless.” Rev. Dessables is also “inspired by the teaching of Jesus” and sees Jesus as “a radical activist for social justice.”

As they are all involved in interfaith work, they cite other non-biblical sources of inspiration. Rev. Dessables is an interfaith minister with experience in different religious traditions. He draws inspiration from several people and faith traditions as he is “inspired by all the teachings of all the sages of the history of humanity, wherever they come from, whatever religion, whatever language, culture, etc.” Some of the people he cites as sources of inspiration are the Dalai Lama, Muhammad Ali, Mohandas Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. He also emphasizes the shamanic religious traditions as a source of inspiration. Moreover, Foster cites a quote from the Qur’an, “God enjoins justice with kindness,” and a Baha’i scripture, “When love is realized, the whole human race will be lifted up,” as two sources of inspiration found in other faith traditions and religions. Through his interfaith work, Hisle has come to understand that “the call to the poor is present throughout Christianity and Judaism and Islam” and is also present in Latin American liberation theology. Hence, there are a plethora of people, quotes, scriptures, and religious teachings that can motivate our social justice work.

People on the Ground: Doing the Work of Social Justice

Beyond the sources of inspiration are the individuals and organizations that do the social justice work associated with affordable housing. The organizations connected to the people I interviewed are Can I Live, Jubilee Housing, and Good Faith Communities Coalition. Can I Live works to develop training for people in public housing. Through this work, Foster is able to draw on her experience as a labor movement organizer. The organization works to assist people in finding “a safe and affordable place to live” and works to provide residents with the skills they need to advocate for themselves.

Jubilee Housing is another organization that works to provide affordable housing and training. The goal of Jubilee Housing is to go beyond affordable housing, which they define as “60 percent of the average median income.” They strive to assist in providing justice housing based on the principles of it being “affordable for people with the lowest incomes,” being “welcoming and resource-rich,” and having access to "all the services and opportunities that they need to thrive and contribute to society.” They also work to create an environment where restorative relationships can develop between the oppressor and the oppressed, such as the relationship between tenants and their landlords.

Good Faith Communities Coalition is a housing justice nonprofit started by several members of Holy Trinity Catholic Church that focuses on advocacy work. After bringing in speakers and representatives from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, in the words of Hisle, “We decided that we would form an interfaith coalition that would advocate for better funding and better programs for the homeless.” Good Faith Communities Coalition completes a lot of advocacy work, whether writing letters, attending rallies, or organizing meetings with various organizations and associations. Hence, these organizations work towards assisting low-income residents and homeless people with finding housing, providing people with the skills and resources they need to advocate for themselves, and advocating on behalf of the low-income residents and homeless with elected officials and others.

Moreover, no social justice movement has ever been completed through the work of one individual. The fight for justice requires cooperation and collaboration. Within the context of religion and social justice, this most often arises in interfaith collaborations. There is an interfaith aspect to the work of each of the organizations. Can I Live works with other organizations and religious institutions, such as churches and mosques, to define what housing justice looks like. Additionally, interfaith work provides Jubilee Housing with the the skills needed to communicate to a diverse group of people. Good Faith Communities Coalition consists of people and institutions from various faith backgrounds; it is an interfaith coalition. Hisle says of the need for an interfaith coalition, “The bigger the coalition, the more voices you have when speaking to elected officials, the better.” As interfaith coalitions are diverse, they further the need for change by broadening the scope of the problem.

Coalitions are significant in all social justice work, and the work towards housing justice is not unique. Change is oftentimes the result of people deciding that living life within the status quo is not good enough and they must act to bring about institutional and systemic change. Although everyone can complete this work, it is up to the next generation to take on the burdens of the generations before theirs and continue fighting for justice for all and for the beloved community spoken of by King. 

The Call to Action

This calling on the next generation was the topic of the final question of my interviews in which I asked what young people should know about religion and its impact on society. First, religion should be used as a source of liberation rather than oppression. This is significant as many believe religion has historically been used as a tool to oppress people. Ms. Foster addresses the religious tension in liberation and oppression. Moreover, it is important to use religion as a tool of liberation as the line between religion and politics has been blurred by society. It is religion that shapes the politics of many. For example, my Christian faith has shaped my own interpretation of how the call to social justice can be employed in politics. Additionally, young people should be willing practice their faith “boldly” and unashamed. It is through this bold faith that people oftentimes come together to conduct interfaith work. Although secularism appears to be growing, there are still many people of faith working within social justice movements. Religion and social justice can go together, and it is up to people of faith and interfaith coalitions to demonstrate the productive work that can be completed at the intersection of religion and social justice. Finally, it is important for young people to “organize and speak out” as that is where the power lies. There is power in the ability to speak truth to power. The responsibility of the next generation is best summed up when Rev. Dessables says, “I think they are the ones we’ve been waiting for and we are the ones who’ve prepared the way for them.” The change we desire in society is dependent upon our ability to continue the work that was started by those who came before us as we work towards a justice and equitable society for all.