Interview with Brett O’Brien, Hyde Park resident and member of Urban Village Church. Brett talks about the Day of Faith at the Capitol, Community Renewal Society’s annual lobby day that brings hundreds of people of faith from across Chicagoland together to advocate for policies that advance our Platform for Renewal.
How long have you been active with CRS?
A little over three years. I became the Faith in Action Team leader at Urban Village Church in Hyde Park/Woodlawn in 2015.
What would you normally be doing on a Tuesday in April if you weren’t going to Springfield for Community Renewal Society’s annual Day of Faith at the Capitol?
I would be going to jail. (Laughs.) I teach GED classes at Cook County Jail as part of a program run by the Safer Foundation. I consider myself lucky because my boss pays me as a regular day when I go to Springfield. I’ve talked to him about what we do in Springfield, and he sees that it’s right in line with the work that Safer Foundation is doing anyway. So he tells me not to take a vacation day. I’ve been taking advantage of that every year.
Why do you go to Springfield for the Day of Faith?
I go each year because I think a lot of the stuff you hear on the news and a lot of the issues going on in society can seem overwhelming at times. I often wonder, “What can I as one person do about this?” Going to Springfield with hundreds of people and actually being able to talk with legislators one-on-one makes it more tangible. I have a connection to the way that things can be improved. I think that’s what keeps me going every year.
What are your goals when you head to Springfield?
It has changed over time as I’ve become more accustomed to how it goes. When I first went to the Capitol, I was thinking that I could change everyone’s mind. I was going to talk about everything that I needed to talk about and everyone was going to agree with me by the end. Some realistic goal like that. (Laughs.)
Now I think that just meeting with a legislator is the first goal. Having a dialogue about why an issue is important to me—even if they don’t agree—is the next goal. If we can go beyond that, even better. You have to accept a certain percentage of success. If we’re hoping to talk with five people and we only get to two, the fact that we talked to those two is better than talking with no one.
For someone who’s never been to Day of Faith, what’s the feeling of the day?
There’s a shift between optimism and realism throughout the day. You start out with a high percentage of optimism and end the day with a high percentage of realism as to what can actually be changed. But the fact that Community Renewal Society turns out in force to meet with every legislator leaves you feeling like there are a lot of people on your side. That’s inspiring.
What impact does our presence—hundreds of people of faith in bright orange shirts—have on what happens at the Capitol?
For the legislators, I hope that it lets them know that we are this force, this presence that won’t leave them alone. Each session in the Senate and the House starts with a prayer. So we come from Community Renewal Society as people of faith to build on that tradition by talking about things we find important because of our faith. That’s my hope—that legislators will notice us and have empathy.
For those who wear the orange shirts, seeing that there are so many people who want to accomplish the same thing, hopefully that keeps us motivated and inspired to want to keep working toward justice rather than just feeling hopeless and desperate.
How does Community Renewal Society prepare you to lobby legislators? How does that help you during the Day of Faith at the Capitol?
I’ve gone to a couple different training sessions. In particular, there’s the Illinois Advocacy 101 Workshop, where we talk about the issues we advocate for, how to meet up with legislators and practice meetings so we’re not fumbling for words when the meeting actually happens. Community Renewal Society trainings also help you figure out how to hold legislators accountable.
At other times throughout the year, we get oriented to the actual policies that we are advocating for. We hear about legislation that Community Renewal Society is working on at the Martin Luther King Faith in Action Assembly, Leadership Councils, and through the work that our Faith in Action Team is doing at our church. In that sense, our demands become very familiar to us.
What is it about your faith that compels you to do this work?
Being a part of Community Renewal Society makes my practice of faith much more real to me. I grew up thinking that politics and faith were totally separate. My opinion now is that they have to be tied together. For example, we work on a lot of bills that are expanding opportunities for people with records. If we are loving our neighbors, as our faith teaches, why would we deny someone a job after they’ve served their time? No, we have to help them move forward.
What do you tell a fellow church member when you invite them to go to Day of Faith?
I usually say something about putting our faith into action. All the things we talk about at church, this is a way to act them out. For me, it’s about making my faith more real. Maybe that could help you also.
Day of Faith is also about making solutions to society’s problems more tangible. It’s about creating a relationship between you and your legislator. Being able to introduce yourself and having that relationship with them can lead to other positive things down the road.
What has Community Renewal Society taught you over the years about fighting for racial and economic justice?
The journey is long. Like Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” That seems to describe it well. The journey is long, but it’s important to celebrate the small successes along the way, and recognize that as progress, knowing that you’re not going to change everyone’s minds right away, but if you can make incremental changes toward getting to the goal, then that’s still worth it.
I appreciate the work that Community Renewal Society is doing and I’m glad that my church is a part of it.