To Save, Not Just Serve: Keynoter Baker Challenges CHHSM Members to Increased Activism in Annual Gathering’s Closing Plenary

The Rev. Dr. Dietra Wise Baker charged attendees to be better advocates.

In a keynote address punctuated with a call to self-examination and implementation of change, the Rev. Dr. Dietra Wise Baker — director of contextual education at UCC-related Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Mo. — urged attendees to CHHSM’s 83rd Annual Gathering to return to their ministries prepared to find new ways to transform lives.

Baker, who was raised by a single mother, learned early in life of the disparities brought on by economic and racial inequities. Her upbringing shaped her call to ministry and community activism.

Sometimes hungry, sometimes doing without, Baker said she “watched my mom struggle financially. We were definitely poor.” Beholden to the welfare system of the time, Baker said that she “hated going to the store with food stamps, hated needing help. I was that kid.” When her mother struggled with crack cocaine addiction, the family’s desperation spiraled into crisis. Baker said that when they would visit the social services complex in town to find housing or welfare, “I just couldn’t figure out why they could not really help my mom.”

“We got served, but we didn’t get transformed,” she said. “Our trajectory wasn’t changed except for the changes that we made … ourselves.”

These early experiences pushed Baker to graduate from college, become an officer in the Air Force, graduate from seminary, and earn a doctorate. She still looks at her mom, she said, and “the support that she didn’t receive — that she could have received from the systems we serve in now.”

Baker made the distinction between the world as it is, and the world as it should be — a phrase coined by community organizer Dennis Jacobson of the Gamaliel Network, which trains community and faith leaders in organizing. “The world as it is, Jacobson would say, is not what God wants,” Baker said. “The world as it is … is racist, and in this particular context, is built on white supremacy and anti-Blackness. It co-opts faith.”

But “the world as it should be — we can feel it on our spirits, we can feel it in our bones. It’s being restored, it’s being transformed. It’s being free,” she added.

Baker used the analogy of a baby in a stream. “The first thing we have to do is look upstream,” she said. “If there was a baby in a river somewhere drowning, everybody would go and get that baby, absolutely. But at some point, we have to look upstream and ask the question, ‘Who is putting the babies in the river in the first place?’”

She continued the analogy by referencing CHHSM member organizations, and all faith-based direct service organizations. “Most of our work … the networks here, are good people, who pull babies out of rivers. We give direct service — emergency, critical, necessary aid. [But] we have to start looking upstream and say, ‘What are the structures and what are the systems’” causing the people to need service?

“Just pulling babies out of the river is not going to move us from the world as it is to the world as it should be, “ Baker said. “We’re maintaining the world as it is if that’s all we do.”

Then she offered up her first challenge to the Annual Gathering attendees: “Are we going to continue simply to serve? Or are we going to save, which means are we going to be about the transformation, the work, that will change structures and systems — dismantle and break them down?”

In discerning how to save and not just serve, Baker encouraged CHHSM members to look at the role health and human service organizations play in the nonprofit industrial complex — the system of relationships between state and federal governments, the owning classes, foundations, and nonprofit social services and social justice organizations.

“We have to dismantle our association [with the nonprofit industrial complex] and the practices of it,” she said. “It means that some of us have to change who gives us money. For some of us, it means that we cannot keep doing state-sponsored and supported forms of inequality and disenfranchisement through our organizations.”

In order to move to the world as it should be, “we have to build power in every arena,” Baker said, “corporate, communications, administrative, judicial, legislative, electoral.”

Her final challenge came in the form of a question — what is one change in the public square that would make your organization unnecessary? Baker cited such examples as equitable education, universal health care, and complete community-based mental health resources.

“What is the advocacy piece that you can work on? What is the legislation that you can work on? [Who] are the partners that you can build a relationship with?” she asked. “Can you move towards permanently changing some aspect of the work or the issue or the problem that your organization is in the business of serving?

“I want you to take a piece, just a piece, of that thing that would make your organization unnecessary. I’m asking you to implant in [the] mission and vision of your organization a seed of hope … that at some point in the future, your organization will be unnecessary.”

Baker called it a testament of hope. “Plant that seed of hope,” she concluded. “Think about what it means to save and not simply … to serve. Do [that] with the hope that your organization will at some point be unnecessary. … Today we plant a seed for the world as it should be.”

The closing keynote address had a profound impact on Annual Gathering participants. “Dietra shared her story of being raised poor in the inner city, and did a phenomenal job at challenging the status quo,” said the Rev. Dr. Sheila Guillaume, pastor of Union Congregational UCC in West Palm Beach, Fla., and a CHHSM board member, “which concluded by calling upon us to move from ‘serving’ to ‘saving’ our communities and asking ourselves how we might work ourselves out of a job. Great presentation!”

Many saw parallels in their own work. Dr. Bruce Roller, executive director of United Church Outreach Ministry in Wyoming, Mich., said, “As UCOM, the organization that directs me, struggles with direct services vs. advocacy, Dr. Baker’s topic was on point for my co-workers and me.”

A lengthy Q&A session followed Baker’s presentation, as attendees from CHHSM agencies across the country shared their ideas, concerns, and questions in the chat function of the virtual platform.

Many raised the question of whether an organization can serve and save at the same time, or if organizations needed to make a choice. As one person phrased it, “We’re so bogged down with serving — how do you save, too?”

The Rev. Julie Jennings, vice president of ministry at Cedar Community in West Bend, Wis., said that it “seems to me if agencies were to seriously engage in both, we would need to be as invested in our obsolescence as we are with our own survival.”

Baker noted that collaborative relationships between social service organizations and community organizers is one possible solution to the serving-saving dichotomy. “It’s hard,” she said, because those different groups are “pretty siloed right now.” The organizations must work to be collaborative, she said.

Sandy Sorensen, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries, echoed the need for collaboration, citing the stories of those most impacted as necessary for advocacy. “It is the stories held by our CHHSM communities that make policy advocacy powerful and effective,” she said. “As advocates, we take those stories to decisionmakers to put a face on the statistics. You can argue statistics. You can’t argue with a story. We need each other!”

The Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry, CHHSM’s associate for advocacy and leadership development, drew parallels between Baker’s presentation and the Annual Gathering’s opening keynoter, author Kaitlin Curtice. “Two prophets for our times, and I don’t use that term lightly,” Berry said. “I found both of their talks to be profound, thought-provoking, deeply personal, and rooted in our faith that calls us to justice and an abundant life of thriving. To have the wisdom and lived experiences of an Indigenous woman and a Black woman centered was powerful and essential for discerning what ‘together in hope’ really means for us.”

Or, quite simply, as the Rev. George Graham, vice president of CHHSM, expressed, “Dr. Baker planted a seed of change and hope for a different world in each of us.”

Read about Kaitlin Curtice’s opening keynote.

Read about the Annual Gathering’s inspiring worship services.

Read about the entire Annual Gathering.

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