Wherever two or three thousand are gathered

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The 1,200 people who packed Olivet Baptist Church on Chicago's South Side on a chilly Monday evening last December were assured by the event's organizers that the meeting would begin on the dot at 7:30 and last one hour and 15 minutes. They delivered on both counts. This was but one in a series of assemblies sponsored by United Power for Action and Justice, a massive citizens' organization created in 1997. The gathering-a racial rainbow from city and suburbs-included white collar, blue collar, and no collar. They cheered and clapped appropriately as the agenda items were clicked off with almost military precision. The major issue on the table was the nearly 2 million people in the Chicago metropolitan area without health insurance.

The problem had escalated during the previous 12 months, and many full-time jobholders-even some with earnings of $50,000 or more a year-are among the uninsured, a recent study revealed. United Power's immediate goal is to persuade the Cook County Board to appropriate $20 million for a creative pilot program to reach out to 50,000 uninsured low- and moderate-income people. The longer-range goal is to get the state legislature to use some of the multimillions it will receive from a legal settlement with the tobacco industry to alleviate the uninsured problem on a larger scale.

Neither goal, it appears, will be easily attained, because the county claims its $2.6-billion budget has no room for the project, and the waiting line for the tobacco money is already long and growing. Thus the stage is set for what may be an extended, confrontational campaign.

Ten state legislators sitting in the front row pledged their support for the uninsured and were gently warned that United Power intends to hold their feet to the fire.

"We need everyone's support," the Rev. Al Ragland of Chicago's Third Baptist Church told the crowd, urging as many as possible to attend meetings of the county board. "And you may be sure United Power will not go away!"

In many ways United Power for Action and Justice is like scores of other community organizations in cities around the country. Like them, it seeks to pressure the haves on behalf of the have-nots. Like them, it can trace its ancestry back to Saul Alinsky, the charismatic inventor of the modern community organization. And like them, it finds its basic constituency and support in religious congregations-in Protestant churches, in Jewish synagogues and temples, in interfaith coalitions, and especially in Catholic parishes.

Indeed, United Power is to a large extent a creation of the Chicago Catholic Church-conceived by a group of Chicago priests under the leadership of the legendary activist Msgr. John Egan, midwifed into the world by a $1-million grant from the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, and nurtured by regular dues from dozens of Catholic member congregations and other institutions.

Yet there is no guarantee that United Power will succeed in its ambitious goals or even survive into adulthood. Community organizations are fragile institutions dependent on sustained, well-coordinated interactions with big government and big business-entities notoriously resistant to outside pressure. Fatigue tends to set in among the community-organization leaders, their supporters may become disillusioned, and the consensus out of which the organization arose is easily fractured. Even the best-planned and best-funded community groups are leaps of faith.

I once had dinner with Saul Alinsky when the professional radical was in his prime some 33 years ago. I listened in awed silence as the man narrated anecdote after anecdote about his campaigns to organize the poor-in Chicago, in Rochester and Buffalo, New York, and in a dozen other cities.

Peering out from behind his Coke-bottle glasses and somehow managing to chain-smoke all the way through the meal, Alinsky preached the gospel he had developed over three decades: Unless citizens are regularly involved in governing themselves, self-government will pass from the scene; and only through organization can they rise up to confront big business, big government, the school board, the neighborhood gang, or whatever else allows injustice or diminishes the quality of life.

Alinsky's rhetoric had a strident, caustic, almost subversive ring, and I got an idea why he always aroused controversy-why, for example, the Oakland, California city council once passed a resolution barring him from entering the city.

Yet, Alinsky, a nonpracticing Jew who dedicated one of his books to "Lucifer, the first radical," forged a symbiotic relationship with religious institutions, especially in large cities. He saw the churches as potentially powerful entities for change, and church leaders saw him as someone whose passion for justice could inflame their own. They were also attracted by his insistence that every project must be carefully processed, planned, meticulously carried out, and then critiqued. His was not an orthodox faith, but it was faith.


Bigger is better
I thought of Saul Alinsky as I sat recently in the cluttered office of Edward Chambers near downtown Chicago. At 70, he is one of the last still-active, direct links to Alinsky. Chambers, a onetime seminarian, is director of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a network of community organizations carrying on in various and mutated forms the legacy of Alinsky. Chambers' style is less abrasive than Alinsky's, but like his mentor, he has unbounded self-confidence and a passion for justice reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets.

According to Chicago writer William Droel, the IAF under Chambers has done for Alinsky "what Saint Paul did for Jesus." It has taken Alinsky's "provocative ideas and eccentric personality and modified them, improved on them, and institutionalized a most reflective style of activism."

Chambers moved the IAF headquarters from New York to Chicago several years ago to oversee United Power. The organization personifies a major shift in community-organizing strategy-a growing conviction that to be successful in the world of the 21st century, these organizations must be bigger, stronger, and more inclusive.

First of all, United Power is enormous-with 340 congregations and organizations from the entire Chicago metropolitan area, which claims a population of 7.5 million, and initial pledges of almost $3 million. "Nothing before has been attempted on this size and scale," says Chambers.

Second, it includes-in addition to churches, synagogues, Muslim mosques, and Buddhist temples-a vast, growing enrollment of secular entities: labor unions, hospital and health networks, civic coalitions, and professional groups. As a result, says Chambers, United Power should be regarded as "a broad-based citizens' organization" rather than a strictly congregation-based one. "We're trying to draw on both the faith tradition in the churches and the democratic tradition in unions and associations," he says.

Third, the sponsoring committee of several hundred people doing the spade work for the organization spent almost three years just building relationships between diverse populations and in one-on-one recruiting before an official name was selected and a birthday event was finally held (attended by 10,000 people, with Chicago's Cardinal Francis George among the clergy on stage). Even then no specific goals were declared beyond improving opportunity. All of which left the press in a state of confusion. "Activists powered by faith, not plan," marveled a Chicago Tribune headline.

Only months later, after dialogue and consultation within all sectors of its map, did the organization announce two major initiatives: obtaining health coverage for the uninsured and making home ownership more available. Meanwhile, United Power groups in various areas began to flex their own muscle, winning a few victories-for example, helping to establish a transitional residence for formerly homeless women in Chicago and obtaining a $1 million federal grant for services for the homeless in the northern suburbs.

Some fear the titanic size of this new creature will make it unwieldy, if not impossible to steer, but Chambers insists organizations of great size stand a better chance of success in the New World Order and in the free market system of the third millennium.

Forty years ago, he notes, local neighborhoods as small as 10 square blocks headed by "influential city councilmen and powerful monsignors" could get things done. Now, he says, practically nothing is decided at the local level. Decisions affecting education, transportation, or other services are made at the county, state, or federal level with no consultation or input from the affected neighborhoods; decisions affecting the local economy and employment are most often made by corporation heads far removed from the scene, possibly in foreign countries.

The standard-size community organization must give way, in Chambers' view, to something grander and more potent. City and suburban dwellers at last understand and acknowledge their interdependency, he says. Organizations working just for the poor or minorities will not succeed, in his view, because there's no such thing as a single issue or a small social problem: Great power must be confronted with great power.

And make no mistake about it, Chambers emphasizes, United Power will not step away from confrontation. The reluctance of county officials to take seriously its request for a pilot health-insurance program means "we haven't applied enough pressure." That does not mean violence could be a viable tactic, he adds. "We don't want that-no violence, no arrests; that sort of thing will shut you down very fast."

Thomas Lenz, an active Catholic parishioner, was so energized by reports of this new effort five years ago that he hurled himself into the preparations and eventually became one of United Power's four cochairs. "With such a broad base we realize some issues aren't going to appeal to everyone," he says. "But others-health insurance, for instance-have a wide resonance and a crossover appeal."

Following on the Chicago initiative, IAF launched in 1998 a similar, though smaller, project in Boston and suburbs called the Greater Boston Interfaith Community. Also in the New York City metro region, IAF is pulling together seven existing community groups into a metropolitan mega-creature.

The same process, says Chambers, is under way in the Los Angeles area with six smaller organizations merging into one big one.

In Texas, which has been a hotbed of IAF activity for 25 years, 12 of its organizations have formed a less formal cooperative network to address statewide problems such as funding for schools, job training, and immigration services. "All our organizations are expanding and pulling in the suburbs, becoming more metropolitan," says Sister Christine Stephens, C.D.P., supervisor of the Texas network. "Two thirds of our people are poor, but we need allies to create change, and everybody's beginning to realize that."

The bigger-is-better approach also resonates with the Gamaliel Foundation, which, like the IAF, is a network of community organizations providing organizing strategies, regular training, and assistance on projects.

"You can't spend your time anymore working just in the inner city," says Gregory Galluzzo, Gamaliel director and a former Jesuit. "The source of the problem is elsewhere. For every house or mall that's put up in the suburbs, a house or mall is abandoned in the city. The urban sprawl and destabilization goes on, and government policies are supporting it. If we concentrate only on the cities, it's like we're cleaning the engine room of the Titanic and the ship keeps sinking anyway."

According to recent Gamaliel promotional literature, "Now many decisions are made at a regional, national, and global level. The power of the neighborhood groups has diminished. The foundation encourages and assists in the creation of large metropolitan organizations that bridge divisions of race, class, and political boundaries."

One such Gamaliel effort is underway, mainly in Chicago's far south suburbs and extending as far as the city of Joliet, Illinois. Called the Metro Alliance of Congregations (MAC), the two-year-old venture includes 132 church groups and is currently trying to obtain $1 billion in federal mortgage money for low-income residents in the area during the next 20 years.

Under the leadership of Mary Gonzalez, MAC director, the organization is thinking even further ahead. With $60 billion slated for transportation spending in the metro area over the next 25 years, MAC wants to ensure early on that a healthy sum goes for public transit, not just for highways.

The effort to involve an entire region in addressing problems is always an uphill battle, especially where the inner city is in dire distress and the suburbs relatively stable. In Buffalo, New York, the city population has declined by almost 50 percent in the past 20 years, leaving the city with 22,000 empty buildings and 13,000 vacant lots. Even McDonald's moved out of downtown Buffalo two years ago.

"In the minds of most people we're not dying, we're dead," says Sister Susan Bowles, S.S.M.N., president of Voice-Buffalo, a four-year-old Gamaliel organization, which has 21 member congregations in the city. Recognizing the regional aspect of its problem, Voice is on its way to adding five suburban congregations, and that expansion effort will continue, she says.

Voice has won some victories so far, including one with interesting symbolic implications. A long, beautiful river walk along the Niagara River extending from the central city for miles out into the suburbs had been allowed to deteriorate badly in a stretch running through a poor city neighborhood. Pressure by Voice on the city and county has opened the way for repair of the walk during 2000, thus forging at least one very visible and concrete link between city and suburb.


Churches to the rescue
The natural affinity between religious congregations and community organizations first recognized by Alinsky should not come as a surprise. Yet this traditionally close relationship is the source of constant discussion and some disruption within the movement. Some find in the churches such a welcome foundation for action that they are reluctant to involve other societal institutions in their campaigns, while others charge organizers with shortsightedness in their dependency on just one brand of constituents.

Community organizations and many faith-based groups clearly have much in common: a hope in the future, a commitment to the long haul, a longing for justice, and a willingness to reach out to the poor and oppressed. According to sociologist Richard Wood of the University of Albuquerque in a paper presented for the On-Line Conference on Community Organizing, churches provide one major ingredient for effecting change: "social capital."

By that he means that in a healthy congregation there exist relationships of trust among members, the experience of working together in various ministries, and a common identification that comes from shared belief and shared worship. All of this makes for an openness to challenge, Wood says, a tendency to respond when a pastor says "God wants you" for an important task.

The effect of shared worship was illustrated for the same conference by sociologist Michael Byrd of Vanderbilt University in a study of the Tennessee community organization Tying Nashville Together (TNT). "At Mass," a Catholic woman deeply involved in the organization told Byrd, "we all come together as sinners and then we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, and then we go out...and try again to do better, but that is the very reason why I'm involved outside the church. It's as though once there's some forgiveness and redemption ...I almost don't have a choice but to go out and act that way in the community."

It is this reservoir of spirituality and idealism, Byrd wrote, that keeps organizers relying on church members to address social inequities.

However, congregation-based operations are not the only players in community organizing. There are thousands of other groups all over the country composed of members united around a specific social issue such as housing, public safety, or the environment. Many operate under one of two national networks that supply training and advice: the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), based in New York, and National People Action in Chicago.

Like just about every other veteran of the organizing movement, Gale Cincotta, NPA president, came under the influence of Alinsky when she was a young Chicago organizer in the 1960s, but she was less than impressed. "He came in on us like he knew everything and we knew nothing," she says. "So I was like, 'Whoa! We're the ones putting this thing together.'"

Today Cincotta remains a feisty critic of anything carrying Alinsky's fingerprints, especially congregation-based organizing. "To get things done you need people from block clubs, PTAs, and businesses-as well as churches," she says. "And then you just go do it!"

The more deliberate style characteristic of the church-based approach takes too long, tends to get too hierarchical, and ultimately fails to deliver, says Cincotta. Chicago's United Power she cites as "just another one."

Issue-based-not church-based-organizations "are the winningest groups around," she adds.

Another source of contention is the fact that not every church (or every churchgoer for that matter) adheres to the notion that religious institutions should be involved in worldly affairs. Many see the sole goal of religion as personal, individual salvation and distance themselves from an evil, sin-filled world and its corrupt institutions.

Advocates of church-based community groups disagree with this God-and-me approach and counter that not only are churches good for community organizations, but the organizations are good for the churches.

"We're rooted in a biblical understanding that what God intends is a just society," says John Calkins, director and founder of Florida-based Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART), another congregation-based network. "But creation has been corrupted. We have a responsibility to repair...on the political, economic, and religious levels."

DART organizations, he says, try to "build the power of congregations for justice," not to see them simply as vehicles for selected causes. "We haven't even touched the potential that's out there in congregations," says Calkins. "It's a very big arena."

The benefits of community involvement are already visible in local churches, says Susan Bowles of Voice-Buffalo. For years, she says, many city parishes struggled on with small, mostly elderly congregations, even in neighborhoods populated with young families. Through Voice, she says, the young are finding a new interest in church, some even returning to Mass.

Gregory Galluzzo says such a rebound effect is one of the conscious goals of his approach. "Long ago organizers used the churches to solve community problems," he notes. "Now we're using the problems to save the churches." To be effective, he insists, organizers must really care about the congregations they serve and must relate with church leaders, especially pastors. "There's definitely an evangelizing dimension to what we do," Galluzzo says.


Training local talent
Community organizers, whether congregation-based or not, are in agreement on the need for high-quality leadership training and continuing support for the local staff and community leaders. Chambers says he first realized this fact when he was a young Alinsky organizer back in the 1960s.

"It became clear to me that I and the other organizers would be burned out cinders by the age of 40 if we didn't get smart," he says. "We were running all over the country doing everything ourselves."

So instead of devoting itself full time to direct management of various citizen groups, the IAF began concentrating on training local talent-the parish leaders of an area-in the techniques of forming and maintaining an organization. IAF staff then provided ongoing advice and oversight of operations, but the local entity was expected to support itself and hire its own staff. Training organizers has therefore been the operation's main activity during the past 25 years.

The training emphasis today, say leaders of the faith-based networks, is not on analysis of the typical societal problems in a community but on "teaching people how to connect with one another" and "how to build relationships that empower them to act," regardless of the issue or their personal stake in it.

Bill Masterson, director of strategic planning for the Pacific Institute for Community Organization (PICO) network, says the professionalization of paid staff is also a critical priority today. During the 1980s, he notes, many groups experienced rapid staff burnout and turnover.

"The groups were heavily dependent on religious leaders, parish volunteers, even college students, but their involvement was for a limited time, and groups were constantly starting all over," says Masterson.

Now, he explains, there's a priority on attracting and keeping committed people for the long haul. That means providing high-level training, professional development, decent wages, and work benefits. Even a small staff can initiate large changes, he says, if they are competent and committed.

The Oakland Community Organization (OCO) may be an example of what Masterson means. For 10 years this association of some 35 churches has worked on school reform. In the mid-1990s OCO campaigned for class-size reduction in the early grades of Oakland's overcrowded public system. The state-mandated limit was 20 to a class, but Oakland schools-some with twice the enrollment they were built for-came nowhere near that.

OCO's efforts have begun to pay off, says its executive director, Ronald Snyder: classroom size is down, though not in full compliance, in most places. Now the organization is working to improve the teaching environment through the creation of smaller "schools within schools." OCO found funding partners for the creation of six new charter schools, which can operate more innovatively and involve parents intimately in school governance.

Achieving this would be impossible for his four-member crew, says Snyder. It happened because the community got mobilized: Up to 350 OCO members regularly attended school board meetings and 400 or more came to each in a series of action assemblies throughout the city.

"We're seeing progress," says Snyder, "because we're well organized here and we're able to negotiate out of power, not supplication."

That is the sort of comment that would have pleased Saul Alinsky. He died in 1972 of a heart attack at the age of 63, and none of the community organizations he founded has survived. (A few exist in name, though now transformed into social service agencies.) Still, he would be gratified and perhaps surprised to see such energy and commitment being poured into so many institutions dedicated not to profit but to justice. Their very existence contradicts the image of organized religion as self-absorbed and speaks to the perennial power of faith to make a difference in this world.