When Ryan Bell took over as pastor of Hollywood Adventist Church in California, it was a withering congregation with only about 50 active members. And, he says, “We had a homeless ministry we couldn’t afford and a debt that was about to kill the church.” Bell reluctantly closed the feeding program for the homeless but resolved to find a more practical way to address the issue.
Soon he discovered LA Voice, a congregation-based community organizing federation affiliated with the PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) National Network that was working to have the city create permanent supportive housing for the homeless in Hollywood.
The Adventist congregation threw itself into that effort, which succeeded against intense local opposition. After that experience, Bell told Sojourners, he went to the Voice organizer and said, ‘Where do we sign up to join?’” But the organizer told him that there had to be a committee of lay leaders involved. “I just groaned,” Bell remembers. “I thought, ‘That’ll never happen.’” But Hollywood Adventist is now an integral part of the LA Voice federation working for affordable housing.
David Dutschke, director of parish social ministry for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Louisville, had similar thoughts when the DART (Direct Action Research and Training) organizer began working in his community. “We can’t get people to do social ministry. How can we get them to do this?” Today Dutschke is co-president of CLOUT (Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together). “I’ve seen that this approach gets things done,” he says. “You can really change the rules of the game so that the people at the bottom get a little better chance.”
Congregation-based community organizing is a process by which ordinary people, working through their faith community, become involved in public action to make social change on issues that they themselves have identified as important. Those issues can range from getting drug dealers off the streets to improving schools to forcing all city contractors to pay a “living wage.” No one tells the members what to do. Instead, organizers and leaders are trained to listen and to help people develop the skills and confidence to express their own values and interests in the public arena.
Ernesto Cortes Jr., of the IAF (Industrial Areas Foundation) organizing network, is generally considered the pioneer of this style of organizing for his work in the 1970s with the San Antonio, Texas, organization Communities Organized for Public Service (see “Beyond Alinsky,” page 21). Cortes defines the method this way: “We build broad-based, institutionally based organizations. Organizations of organizations. We help people develop a strategy for dealing with the pressures on their families, and we help them rebuild their institutions to address those pressures.”
These alliances of congregations (which sometimes include other institutions such as schools or unions) generally reflect the racial, ethnic, and religious makeup of their area. They are practical models of interracial and interreligious cooperation and, as another IAF organizer told me, they are “universities of public life.”
In 2001, a study by Interfaith Funders found that 3,500 congregations with 3 million members were involved in organizing, and 24,000 of those members were committed activists. Back then, there were 133 local congregation-based organizations. Today the four national organizing networks—PICO, DART, IAF, and Gamaliel—claim 167. This makes congregation-based organizing (or “institution-based,” as IAF prefers) one of the largest social movements on the American scene. But for the most part only people directly touched by it even know it exists. At the most, the average informed citizen might know that Barack Obama started out as an organizer for Gamaliel.
The process usually begins when a religious body—say a council of churches or a Catholic diocese—invites one of the networks to send in an organizer. Next comes a long, painstaking exploratory stage in which interested congregations are identified. Congregations, not individuals, become members of the federation and an organizing committee is established in each member congregation.
During this first phase, clergy and lay leaders are trained and hundreds of one-on-one meetings are held with congregation members in which issues are raised and more potential leaders are identified. This is a slow process. Says Cortes, “A lot of people don’t like the time that we take to translate this conversation into public action.” But this investment of time in building relationships and forming leaders is the foundation of all that will follow.
When groups are ready to act, an issue that has emerged from that long conversation is identified and members do research to, as Dutschke puts it, “cut the issue down to something you can win.” In Louisville, for instance, research on the problem of school violence led to a focus on the school-to-jail pipeline and a proposal for restorative justice that had worked in other school systems.
Finally, public action begins to bring the issue to the attention of decision-makers. “Organizing is all about getting people into a position to negotiate,” Cortes told Sojourners. Meetings and dialogue may do the job, but if they don’t, noisier tactics such as street demonstrations or direct confrontations with public officials may be used to get media attention and generate pressure on those with power. The culmination of a campaign comes when the decision-maker is summoned to a mass meeting where, in front of several hundred, or even a few thousand, people, and sometimes the glare of TV lights, he or she is required to give a simple “yes” or “no” answer to the organization’s proposal.
The money for all this comes mostly from membership dues. Since congregations (or other institutions) are the members, they pay the dues. The aim is for the groups to have the independence that comes with self-sufficiency. But outside grants are sometimes required for seed money, or for particular projects.
The Catholic Campaign for Human Development was founded by the U.S. Catholic bishops in 1969 to fight poverty by empowering the poor to help themselves. It has been a crucial source of funding for many congregation-based organizations.
Randy Keesler is a grants specialist at CCHD and a former community organizer. He gave three reasons why the Campaign has especially supported congregation-based organizations. “First, they are effective in creating institutional change. For instance, in Camden, New Jersey, one of the poorest cities in America, Camden Churches Organized for People (CCOP) has been at the center of rebuilding the city’s infrastructure and governance. They helped bring in the state to assume control of governance in Camden. And they raised $7.5 million for housing rehabilitation. Second, these organizations also train, in a systematic and ongoing way, large numbers of low- and moderate-income leaders to participate successfully in public life. And finally, because of their institutional base, they sustain themselves. A lot of the other groups we fund are gone after four to six years, but most of the congregation-based groups are still around 20 years later.”
As an agency, CCHD has always faced grumbling from political conservatives, but lately the complaints have reached a crescendo, with several bishops cancelling the November CCHD special collection that is the Campaign’s main source of grant funds.
According to Keesler, the opposition to CCHD has come because a few groups it funded (none of them congregation-based organizations) were found to have taken a position contrary to Catholic teaching. He says, “After looking at it, we defunded five groups. But those few cases have been used to start an orchestrated campaign. It comes from political conservatives who are against all organizing because they don’t want poor people to participate in the political process, like they did in 2008. There are also some Catholics who simply do not believe in social justice. They believe in charity and direct service.”
Keesler expects the Campaign’s commitment to congregation-based community organizing to continue.
Criticism has not only come from the political Right. To some Christian activists, the organizers’ emphasis on building power and appealing to members’ self-interest doesn’t square with a gospel that teaches self-sacrifice and turning the other cheek.
Dennis Jacobsen came to organizing from a background in Christian nonviolent anti-nuclear resistance. He has wrestled with the question of power and self-interest in his life and work, and in his book Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing (Fortress, 2001). He told me, “Yes, Jesus taught us to lay down our life and that would really seem to argue against self-interest. But I think Philippians also talks about mutual self-interest. Christ empties himself and that power is spread throughout the community. Ultimately, I think confusion around self-interest is the burden of white liberals who feel guilty about their lifestyle. I don’t run into any poor people who want to stay poor.”
Some feel that congregation-based organizations avoid dealing with tough issues, especially those touching on race or gender, because they might alienate white working-class members. Community organizations do avoid casting issues in racial terms. In the 1990s, for instance, a Gamaliel affiliate called Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH) backed a set of hiring guidelines for city government. But the proposal did not set aside jobs for racial minorities. Instead it set guidelines for hiring unemployed residents of the inner city regardless of race.
In fact, interracial cooperation is perhaps the landmark achievement of congregation-based organizing. People are united by working side-by-side on projects of mutual interest. Perry Perkins, a longtime IAF organizer, has worked for 12 years in Monroe and other small cities and towns in north Louisiana.
“The ability to build relationships across racial lines is really what makes what we do attractive,” Perkins says. “I’m from Mississippi, and when I first went to Monroe I felt like I’d stepped back into the Mississippi Delta 30 years earlier. I met with one black pastor and told him that we wanted to build an organization across racial lines, and he said, ‘You’re the craziest white man I’ve ever met.’ But he did agree to introduce me to 10 other black pastors. They were interested, but they wanted to see some whites at the next meeting. At the next meeting we had 25 pastors, white and black, and they found that they all had the same concerns.”
Organizing networks have been accused of cynically using congregations to build power. But the pastors I talked to say that their participation in community organizing has enriched both their ministry and the faith life of their people. Ryan Bell at Hollywood Adventist said, “Organizing has changed me in a fundamental way. I feel like I am pastoring the neighborhood. And it’s not just me. Our members are seeing that religious life is not limited to the prayers they say in church or on their knees at home. It includes the life they live in the city every day.”
Dennis Jacobsen’s experience with organizing goes back three decades. He credits it with saving his ministry. “I’ve seen a lot of clergy kind of dissolve and become dispirited. But I’m invigorated by this work.” He continues, “As a pastor, I’ve also learned to apply the ‘Iron Rule’ of organizing: Never do anything for anybody that they could do for themselves.”
Another complaint is that the intensely local focus of community organizing prevents it from contributing to broad social change. But recently two of the organizing networks have attempted to bring the power of their people to the national stage. PICO came to Washington, D.C., for the health-care fight and is now working nationally on preventing home foreclosures. Gamaliel has sponsored national initiatives on immigration and health-care reform.
The results of these national actions can cut both ways. Jacobsen says that some Gamaliel pastors are “really running into a buzz saw of opposition on the immigration issue.” But Sarah Nolan, a PICO organizer with the Southern New Mexico Sponsoring Committee, talked about one of her local leaders, Alex, an 18-year-old community college nursing student. “I took her to D.C. for a leadership meeting about health reform. We were in different sessions and when we met up afterward she said, ‘I had no idea PICO was so big! We can do this. We can get clinics in our communities. All of this can happen.’ Her imagination just grew by tenfold.”
Nolan grew up in a low-income, single-parent household in the part of New Mexico where she now organizes. She says of Alex’s experience, “I never heard anything like that when I was coming up—the idea that you can be part of a bigger world and use that to help your community. Organizing brings creativity and vision even to a rural place like this. I just say, ‘YES!’”
“This is holy work,” Nolan continues, “To me organizing is a vocation, a calling that I couldn’t turn away from. We’re called to be the hands and feet of Jesus through the Holy Spirit.”
That is what hundreds of thousands of Christians and others have found in congregation-based community organizing, a practical way to live the values of the kingdom of God, or “the world as it should be,” amid the messy realities of “the world as it is.” As Nolan said, “Organizing is a really great marriage of the pragmatic and the prophetic.”
Or as David Dutschke put it, “If there is social sin, there has to be social grace, and this is it. Organized people taking on organized money.”
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.
Beyond Alinsky: This is not your father's (or your mother's) community organizing.
By Danny Duncan Collum
Congregation-based community organizing has its roots in the work of Saul Alinsky, who, 38 years after his death, remains a controversial figure. But, as one community organizing leader told me, “I don’t think Alinsky would recognize community organizing today.”
Beginning in the 1930s, Alinsky had great success building neighborhood organizations founded on the democratic principle that the people of a community should have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. He founded the IAF to train organizers and spread the organizing gospel. One of the organizers trained in Chicago was Ernesto Cortes Jr.
Cortes worked in the 1970s with the San Antonio organization Communities Organized for Public Service. From that experience emerged a few key insights that revolutionized community organizing. The first was that there was often no community to organize anymore. Long before Bowling Alone, community organizers knew that the ties that once bound us to lodge, civic club, union, or political party were all but dissolved. So the job of the organizer wasn’t just to equalize power within what Cortes calls “the civic culture.” The job was to rebuild civic culture itself.
Also, as cities devolved into collections of suburbs, the geographic community that was the focus of Alinsky’s neighborhood organizing became less relevant. Today organizers strive to create federations of member organizations that span an entire metropolitan area or region, and thus bridge the inner city-suburb divide.
Cortes and other organizers also saw that it was futile to knock on doors, as they had once done, trying to recruit atomized individuals. Hence the move to building “organizations of organizations,” unearthing the remnants of civic culture where they still existed. It turned out that the most important institutions in which people still met face to face to consider questions of value and meaning were churches, synagogues, and mosques.
When organizing moved into churches, it also started to lose some of the rough edges that were hallmarks of the Alinsky style. For instance, Alinsky’s method called for “personalizing” the issue, making one individual the face of the enemy. Today organizers are more likely to talk in terms of building relationships, even with public officials or business leaders who might be the current adversary.
What remains from the Alinsky playbook is the basic goal of building organizations that have the power to bring low- and moderate-income people to the table where big public decisions are made.