On Sunday, Berkshire Interfaith Organizing holds its annual convention in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Since 2015, BIO has brought together 18 faith-based communities from around the county to focus on four core social justice themes:
“Immigrant support, racial justice, the opioid epidemic, and public transportation," said Reverend Joel Huntington, of Pittsfield’s South Congregational Church. He’s the departing president of BIO. In 2014, his church’s food bank – itself a local institution that he says serves 10,000 pounds of food a week – was facing a decrease in federal funding from the United States Department of Agriculture.
“And Massachusetts has its own version of that," said Huntington. "It’s called the MEFAP – the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program.”
Huntington says he was hearing news that MEFAP would have a million dollars cut from its budget.
“And so in response, BIO – which was just in its formative stages – had some connections with the Mass Public Health Association, and therefore with some of the legislators down in Boston,” said the reverend.
The church assembled a photo exhibition about the food bank’s guests and volunteers, which it brought to the statehouse to show legislators.
“And with other connections that BIO had with other community based organizers, that year, the statehouse increased MEFAP by $2 million instead of cutting it by $1 million,” Huntington told WAMC.
After that success, Huntington was convinced of BIO’s effectiveness. He started attending meetings, and eventually became president. Now, he’s preparing to step down.
“We have all these different tasks, and the president is kind of – has to try to tie them all together in a vision of what can happen when we work together across lines of difference, and getting people to donate to such projects and participate in them and just see what can evolve," said Huntington. "Because it’s a whole new growing edge in congregational life. We’re just not used to this, so being an advocate, encourager, supporter, that’s what the new president will be doing.”
“For me, it is really about deepening our capacity and our power through the relationships that we make,” said Martha Congdon.
Congdon – a lay leader at the Lee Congregational Church – is BIO’s incoming president. The church was among the first congregations to get involved in the group.
“As I came along to the meetings and we got through the formation, I was really sort of caught by the bug of building relationships across lines of difference and meeting new people and working in areas that were not only meaningful to people in Lee, but people in Williamstown and people in Sheffield," said Congdon. "So it feels like a very powerful environment to be working in.”
Using the group’s focus on public transportation as an example, she says systemic change comes from relationships on every level of an issue.
“People who don’t have access to transportation, people who are in the transportation industry, representatives who have another interest in that, employers who have an interest in that,” Congdon told WAMC.
The convention – where BIO will set out its 2019 agenda – starts at 4 p.m. Sunday at Knesset Israel in Pittsfield. Scheduled speakers include Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, Pittsfield Schools Superintendent Jake McCandless, and more.