The Spirituality of Phone Banking by Martha Schwehn

I have heard it said that church basements are the places where things really get done, where budgets and outreach strategies are birthed after long and tedious meetings, where soup kitchens and quilting groups and all sorts of activities plod along without fanfare. It makes sense that such a room would host phone banking.

Phone banking—this is the solid-gold strategy, I learned, that would help us defeat the marriage amendment, which is on the ballot this fall in Minnesota. If passed, the amendment would define marriage as between one man and one woman in the state constitution and would present a serious roadblock to ever legalizing same-sex marriage.  My first thought was—phone banking? Really? What an uninspired term, utterly unenticing, like “lutefisk,” that strange white translucent fish that Scandinavians around here eat for Christmas. What is it? I wondered, as a newbie to political activism. It didn’t sound good. “Banking” doesn’t have such a positive ring these days.

How surprised I was, then, when I arrived in the basement of Grace University Lutheran Church in Minneapolis to do my first shift of phone banking and was promptly handed a big, light blue paper heart.

“Who is on your heart tonight?” a young organizer asked the room of about twenty people, young and old, Lutheran and Catholic, gay and straight. We took time in silence to write a name or two on the heart and then paired off to share a story about these beloved people that had touched us deeply enough to come and spend the next three hours calling strangers. Love for gay friends and family members was poured out around the room, making them present as a communion of saints: the son of an old Catholic couple, my college friend in Connecticut, a gay couple that have been together for 30 years, someone who died hoping that marriage equality could one day become possible.

“Who is on your heart tonight?” This simple question made the political personal. The act of sharing that followed made the personal audible, and connected us to each other in powerful ways as we became invested in one another’s love and concern.

When we hit the phones, we did much the same thing: we shared and invited stories. We asked personal questions like, “What does marriage mean to you?” and “Do you have gay friends and family that you care about?” offering our own witness in the process. Although some people we called were not interested, rude, closed-off, others were very willing—and even relieved—to share openly about their experiences with marriage and gay people and their faith dilemmas. I had no idea that phone banking could be so intimate and genuinely moving.

It was moving—after many rounds of phone banking, I was able to move quite a few voters closer to a “no” vote.  And more than this, I was moved myself. For me, phone banking involved giving testimony, a Christian practice that, in my own denominational tradition (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America), is largely neglected—to the detriment of my own becoming and growth as a person of faith and to the detriment of my faith communities. Sharing my experience of God as love, the power of marriage and companionship in my life, and my sadness over the possibility of foreclosing this conversation about same-sex marriage in our state was indeed a powerful way of telling the story of God’s activity in my life.

There is indeed a power in sharing who and what is written on our hearts. In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes to the Christian community in Corinth and praises the power of their communal witness: “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3: 2-3).

As people of faith, I believe it is our calling to show with boldness, truth, and love the stuff that is written on our hearts.

How sad it is that it is easier for many of us today to write laws in tablets of stone without ever sharing our faith, our animating passion, joy, and love of God and others. Some people I talked to through phone banking reacted very negatively when I asked how they’re planning to vote on the marriage amendment: “That’s my decision, thank you, and I’m not about to tell anyone!”

The privatization of faith in our time and the anonymity of the ballot box don’t encourage open sharing. Within such a milieu, voting can easily become an individual choice, a moral survey, rather than a public act that acknowledges that how we vote has serious ramifications for our neighbors. It is easier to write in ink on a ballot and to chisel laws into the stone tablet of our constitution than it is to share the truth of the wild and restless Spirit of God within us.

Who knew that the Spirit of God could move among the simple round tables and metallic folding chairs of an ordinary church basement, forming a ragtag bunch for folks into a community of faith that reached out to voters near and far with blind dialing? Going into the experience, I had no idea.

Although I experienced fatigue and frustration many a night, I felt upheld by the people next to me, whom I would overhear in conversations. Their faithfulness gave me hope that I could be faithful, too, on the next dial and the next. One man who dialed next to me last week gave a public testimony about his experience of organizing within the Catholic community last night at a big ecumenical worship service. He said that his work in faith-based organizing around this issue filled him with faith to say, for the first time in a long time: “God is alive.” Let it be so.

Image source: Janmare (Attribution via Wikimedia Commons).

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6 thoughts on “The Spirituality of Phone Banking by Martha Schwehn

  1. Thanks, Martha. A great piece. I’m really glad we get to vote YES! in Washington!

  2. Dear Martha, I plan to pass copies of your statement to

    your Uncle David and other family members. I like

    it very much, Bless you for caring about those who love

    another. Love to you and Sam

  3. I think you’ve done an excellent job of pointing to the heart of witness — and I think to the heart of why the amendment ultimately failed to pass in MN. There were too many people listening closely to the testimony of their friends and family members.

  4. Thanks for this wise and thoughtful piece, Martha. You have filled words like “witness” and “testimony” with a rich abundance of meaning. I’m not a big fan of telephones, but there’s no denying the power of careful listening.

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