Baptismal Covenant Inspires Gaeta as Organizer

Sue Gaeta
Sue Gaeta with members of MICAH, the Milwaukee affiliate of Gamaliel.
Until the 2008 election campaign, community organizers went about their work with little fanfare. Then we learned of Barack Obama’s years as a community organizer on Chicago’s south side, and heard the subsequent debate over whether such experience counted as relevant experience for a presidential candidate.
Community organizers have been around for years. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in fact, has had a Congregation Based Organizing Team in one form or another for about 10 years. The team promotes and provides training for congregation-based community organizing. Among its members is Trinity graduate Sue Gaeta, most recently pastor of Divine Word Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Gaeta also presides over the Gamaliel National Clergy Caucus (GNCC) and was the chair of the Religious Leader Caucus of MICAH, the Milwaukee affiliate of the Gamaliel Foundation. Gamaliel is becoming a national power organization which also provides support and training for community leaders working on issues of social justice. Among Gamaliel’s most noted organizers is President Obama.

“There is a different feel for me about organizing,” says Gaeta. “Some people involved in social justice work in isolation. For me, the most important thing is the quality of relationships that are fostered. I think if we learned how to relate to one another, the justice issues would be solved.”

She resists naming specific projects or issues on which she has been working, because she says community organizing is about changing systems - holding people accountable - no matter what the issue is. After some persuasion she says, “the biggest thing we're working on in Milwaukee is local prevailing-wage hiring to address a 50 percent unemployment rate among African American men. It also requires naming and changing the larger systemic issues of racism and economic injustice that have led to suburban sprawl and moving resources out of the cities.” Nationally, her work focuses on organizing clergy and other religious leaders to shift the health care debate to ensure adequate, accessible and affordable health care for all people living in this country.

As part of the ELCA team, Gaeta helps train potential organizers and, more recently, has begun working on strategies that engage seminaries, the first-call program, international organizing and inter-religious organizing. In April, she will participate in the Congregation-Based Strategic Summit IV, a national gathering that will bring together Vital Congregations/Just Communities participants and others involved in organizing. Vital Congregations/Just Communities are synodical training events that introduce organizing concepts in tandem with Lutheran theology. They are tools for getting congregations engaged in their communities beyond charity, while developing leadership within the congregation to create vitality.

“Community organizing helps people find the power in their voice and their vote…Part of the training is to help people think about their story,” says Gaeta, whose own interest in community organizing stems from her interest in relationship building, social justice issues, and transforming lives.

“I was just reviewing Divine Word’s newsletter and reading about one of our members who has gone through training to be a congregation-based community organizer. She described herself as a ‘timid and meek grandmother’ who is now a ‘fearless leader’,” Gaeta says. This member quit her job and moved with her husband across town to be closer to her church and the community in which she has been working.

Community organizing unites people who care about justice and want to work in their communities, Gaeta says. The members of Divine Word work together with the members of another Milwaukee congregation, Pentecost Lutheran Church, in an effort to provide a stronger presence within the community. “We believe that in doing ministry together, instead of in isolation, it will lead to a stronger ministry…If the churches are rooted in the community and are strong then the community is going to be strong,” she says.

Gaeta first became interested in community organizing during her internship year in New Jersey, where her supervisor was involved in congregation-based community organizing. That year she attended a week-long training seminar. When she returned to Trinity her senior year, she continued to explore and reflect on these experiences. She says her classroom work allowed her to see how theology and community organizing connect.

In the ensuing years she made some profound realizations. Part of the training to become a community organizer involves processing your own life experiences. For Gaeta, it also meant connecting her faith to the process. “You can become a community organizer and not have it connect with faith. But if you look at our baptismal covenant – to live among God’s faithful people, to hear God’s Word and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace – the two come together,” she says.

“When I can truly understand that all of me is completely loved and accepted by God as I am, that’s great for me, but how do I share that with the world? So many people feel like they don’t have anything to offer and their voice doesn't matter. If we teach theology along side all these other tactics and strategies, maybe the two can come together."