On the plane here for the 2013 Evangelism and Church Growth Conference, the Rev. Trey Hammond was working on the outline for his workshop. Noticing that his seatmate was also scribbling on a legal pad, Hammond casually inquired about the man’s work.

“It turned out he was flying to New York where his son was facing eviction proceedings,” Hammond told his workshop on Congregation-based community organizing. “I had to choose whether to go back to work or engage him. I chose to engage. I wanted to get at this man’s story.”

That kind of engagement on an individual basis ― what Hammond calls “relational meetings” ― is the key to congregation-based community organizing, he said. “Individual relational meetings within a congregation are the most important tool we have to establish relationships which lead to the ability to act as a group.”

Hammond, a longtime community organizer, is pastor of La Mesa Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque and serves as a community development specialist for the Presbyterian Hunger Program. He was introduced to the field while a student at McCormick Theological Seminary.

“Saul Alinsky always said that relational power (bottom up) is much more effective for organizing than hierarchical power (top down),” Hammond said, “if the goal is to move the community from the way it is to the way God intends it to be.”

Relational meetings, as Hammond described them, are:

  • intentional
  • conversations, not interviews
  • about stories, not opinions
  • listening-based
  • relationship-building
  • born of curiosity
  • probing, not prying
  • an art, not a science.

“Martin Buber, in his book I and Thou, speaks about the mutual meeting of two souls at a level of complete honesty, openness and depth,” Hammond said. “We make assumptions about people before we ever get to know them ― that’s just human nature. A relational meeting provides a framework, habit and practice that makes it possible to get inside someone’s story, to go deeper where the common sacred ground is.”

Hammond conducted a demonstration relational meeting with one workshop participant and then invited the rest of the participants to engage in them.

All agreed that the results were quite remarkable ― conversations of unusual depth and feeling.

“Relational meetings are not about facts, but about stories,” Hammond concluded. “They come from the heart and soul, not the mind. They are the act of entering into the mystery of someone else’s being and seeing where theirs connects with yours.”