Saul Alinsky Goes to Church

The origins of community organizing are generally traced to the pioneering work of Saul Alinsky, who built the first community organizing effort in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood in the 1930s. Alinsky created the early community-based efforts by organizing existing groups into collective action around particular issues.

Today many communities are much less cohesive, so it is necessary to build relationships first and then take on issues that grow out of those stronger bonds. In poorer communities, churches are often experiencing the same loss of cohesiveness as they struggle to survive in an increasingly barren environment. Thus, organizing becomes a means for such congregations to reconnect with their own members and with the broader community around them.

Congregation-based community organizing is the fastest growing form of organizing in the country, according to Doug Lawson of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). "No one else approximates faith-based organizing," he says. The only non-faith-based organization that has built comparable power is ACORN (Association of Communities Organized for Reform Now).

In 1999, CCHD funded 89 different faith-based community organizations. In all of the local networks, the majority of the member institutions are churches. In some cases, synagogues and mosques have also joined along with other nonreligious organizations, such as unions, hospitals, and other social service providers. In Chicago, the Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations recently brought together 2,000 people to celebrate the creation of a partnership with 10 banks that have agreed to provide up to $1 billion in loans for 13,000 families between now and 2005. The churches will recruit, nurture, and train these families in home ownership.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2000
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