In the Arena

What a Community Organizer Does

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Slowly, slowly, I am recovering from the extremely effective bilge festival staged by the Republicans last night. And while there is much to discuss, there was one item, in particular, that has to be considered infuriating: the attack on Barack Obama’s service as a community organizer by the odious Rudy Giuliani–he’s come to look like a villain in a Frank Capra movie, hasn’t he?–and Sarah Palin.

This morning, I received a press release from a group called Catholic Democrats about the work–the mission, the witness–that Obama performed after he got out of college. Here’s the first paragraph:

Catholic Democrats is expressing surprise and shock that Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech tonight mocked her opponent’s work in the 1980s for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.  She belittled Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s experience as a community organizer in Catholic parishes on the South Side of Chicago, work he undertook instead of pursuing a lucrative career on Wall Street.  In her acceptance speech, Ms. Palin said, “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.”  Community organizing is at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching to end poverty and promote social justice.  

So here is what Giuliani and Palin didn’t know: Obama was working for a group of churches that were concerned about their parishioners, many of whom had been laid off when the steel mills closed on the south side of Chicago. They hired Obama to help those stunned people recover and get the services they needed–job training, help with housing and so forth–from the local government. It was, dare I say it, the Lord’s work–the sort of mission Jesus preached (as opposed to the war in Iraq, which Palin described as a “task from God.”)

This is what Palin and Giuliani were mocking. They were making fun of a young man’s decision “to serve a cause greater than himself,” in the words of John McCain. They were, therefore, mocking one of their candidate’s favorite messages. Obama served the poor for three years, then went to law school. To describe this service–the first thing he did out of college, the sort of service every college-educated American should perform, in some form or other–as anything other than noble is cheap and tawdry and cynical in the extreme.

Perhaps La Pasionaria of the Northern Slope didn’t know this when she read the words they gave her. But Giuliani–a profoundly lapsed Catholic, who must have met more than a few religious folk toiling in the inner cities–should have known. (“I don’t even know what that is,” he sneered.”) What a shameful performance.

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