[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

Distrust of public institutions in Chicago destroys the social bonds that make for a good city. The suspicion, difficult to suspend, is that elected officials and others who staff these institutions—many of whom have been convicted of crime—serve themselves and their friends over public interests. Blago and Burge just happen to be the latest in a long line of names standing for the so-called Chicago Way—the abuse of power and people. As the local left and others work for a more socially-just Chicago, addressing this near-total loss of confidence in public institutions is critical. Some of the city’s cynicism, of course, can be attributed to standard, American, down-to-the-DNA anti-institutionalism. Unfortunately, this culture-based default setting cannot be reset. (Incidentally, this is the factor that could one day put Palin in the White House.) Most of our distrust of public institutions, though, is performance-based. This is where we must push for change.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a denomination nationally coordinated from Chicago (near the Cumberland Blue Line stop), has articulated the importance of trustworthiness in recent policy statements and educational publications. ELCA’s concept of social trust can help the local left and others develop alternate institutions or revitalize what we have. In the spirit of comparing notes, what follows is a sample of what the ELCA thinks about the social practices of trustworthiness and an example of such thought in action in Chicago. As the ELCA goes about reforming itself as a public institution and advocating for the reform of government, business, and NGOs along the lines of furthering trustworthiness, what they could teach, they and Chicago desperately need to learn.

The ELCA is a community of over 10,000 congregations across the United States, Puerto Rico, and Virgin Islands with 4.5 million members. It also includes vast networks of hospitals, educational institutions, and social service agencies, among countless other community partnerships. Identifying itself as a public church, the ELCA seeks to work locally and globally for the common good by engaging governments (local, state, federal, and foreign), businesses, and other public institutions. These interventions typically take the form of directed discussion, education, solidarity, advocacy, resistance, community organizing, coalition building, and corporate social responsibility. Being a public church follows, the ELCA claims, from faith in God and attempts to love one’s neighbors.

The commitment to building social trust (or decreasing distrust) in church and society is also based on the ELCA’s view of God. Like other church bodies, the ELCA consists of people who see God as a God whose love for the world is faith producing. In other words, God is known as a God who evokes trust. Thus, when Christians try to imitate God—which is what they should be doing!—they express their love for others (both personally and corporately) by practicing trustworthiness and advocating for such practices to likewise characterize other public institutions for the sake of the neighbor. So what has the ELCA learned about trust along the way?

Social trust is established, developed, and sustained—both interpersonally and institutionally—when we consistently put others before ourselves, especially those in need, and work for the good of all. Simply stated, the principles are: others first; and, everyone matters. Public institutions gain our trust when they operate accordingly. Further, trust grows when space is opened and secured for the expression of differences and discontent. “Social trust is grounded in the practice of mutual respect for the dignity of all people and their consciences. Strong communities ensure social trust when they provide social support for disagreement and dissent, and nurture the values of mutual respect and regard for the opinions of others.” Distrust of public institutions decreases when forums are regularly provided for staff and stakeholders to communicate interests and concerns.

Josselyn Bennett, a member of Bethel Lutheran Church in West Garfield Park, creates such spaces in her anti-racism group work at the ELCA national office near O’Hare. Several groups—which include blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians—meet monthly to talk through harms and hopes related to racism. The audacious goal is total institutional reform. Groups typically use the multi-part YouTube video Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible to facilitate discussion. Participants are not always optimistic about Chicago and beyond (or even themselves), considering how deep racism runs. But the trust being built between people in these meetings as they respectfully share their pain and perspective cannot be compared to any other process I know. Bennett is patiently erecting an invisible infrastructure for a better public institution, and correspondingly, a better society. As her work progresses, the ELCA’s national office gains the experience and credibility it needs to model and advocate for the further implementation of the social practices of trustworthiness in all of Chicago’s public institutions. The goal would be to change the nature of these institutions, however improbable this might seem, from places of suspicion to places of trust.

As the local left and others continue to experiment with positive social change, we would do well to compare notes with all practitioners of trustworthiness, Christian and otherwise. As ELCA policy observes, “The trustworthiness that fosters and can bear the weight of the other’s trust emerges as a central value to cherish and promote. Broken promises and betrayed trust through lies, exploitation, and manipulative behavior are exposed, not just as an individual failing, but as an attack on the foundations of our lives as social beings.” Next steps include documenting other local church practices to increase institutional trustworthiness and identifying opportunities for collaboration in building social trust across public institutions (church, government, business, NGO, etc.). Trust is the infrastructure (literally, the below-structure) supporting our life together in this city. Further leavening it into our institutions, old and new, is one of the most important things we can do to improve Chicago today. ◊

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