- Faith in Action: Religion, Race, and Democratic Organizing in America
In December 2003, nearly five hundred people filled St. Agatha Church in South Los Angeles, for its first public action as a member of the Pacific Institute of Community Organizations (PICO). With their City Councilmember and a Deputy Police Chief on the dais, leaders won commitments for two full-time officers to work with residents on closing drug houses in their neighborhoods. While the action culminated months of individual meetings, research, and training for parishioners at St. Agatha, it also marked the beginning of a long and intentional process to build power and train leaders to address other issues facing people in this community. The work being done at St. Agatha is being replicated across the country as parishes and congregations engage in the political arena as members of faith-based community organizing.
In Faith in Action, Richard Wood studies the "organizational symbiosis between religious institutions and faith-based community organizing efforts" by observing the work of two Oakland-based projects: Oakland Community Organizations—affiliated with the Pacific Institute of Community Organizations—and PUEBLO—a project of the Center for Third World Organizing. In doing so, Wood identifies cultural traits that enable religious institutions to effectively engage in community organizing and that account for divergent outcomes in the depth, effectiveness, and sustainability of local organizing efforts.
Through his research, Wood research identifies key cultural traits that help build political capacity: the intensity of shared cultural elements (religious symbols and practices, in the case of the churches, and racial and ethnic elements, in the case of PUEBLO); a capacity for ambiguity (a concept Wood uses to describe the ability of institutions and leaders to function and adapt within the ebb and flow of political interchange with public officials and institutions); and the cultural resources for contestation and compromise (the capacity to deal with conflict, distinguish between public and private relationships, and deal with the reality of give and take that is required in the political process). In studying the relationship between these traits, Wood devotes the bulk of Faith in Action to examining the environmental characteristics of parishes, congregations, and neighborhood groups that are conducive to community organizing. [End Page 254]
These cultural traits provide a framework for looking at the relationship between churches and faith-based community organizing. While this provides a starting point, what is alluded to but not sufficiently addressed is the role that congregations, and Catholic parishes in particular, have played in integrating and assimilating low-income members—most notably new immigrants—into the social, political and economic mainstream of America. The shifting demographics of Catholic parishes makes them uniquely situated to serve as a bridge between various cultural and racial communities. Few institutions in country are able to gather Hispanics, African-Americans, Vietnamese, Koreans, Filipinos and other groups on a regular basis like Catholic parishes do every week. The diverse membership of religious institutions adds another factor that presents both challenges and opportunities for community organizing?
In addition to the characteristics of local institutions, other significant factors are the assets and resources at the disposal of the lead organizations such as PICO. In this regard, it is somewhat unfair to try to compare projects sponsored by national networks and those supported by smaller, more locally based organizations. PICO is a national organizing network that comes with a well-established system for recruiting and mentoring organizers and identifying and training leaders. While each local organizing project hires its own organizer and raises it own funds, the resources that the local effort has to draw on through its affiliation with the PICO network give it a comparative advantage over smaller, individual membership groups that have limited geographical and organizational reach. PICO—and other established organizing networks—bring human resources, experience, an infrastructure to nurture new organizations through their initial stages, and a culture of successful campaigns. Individual membership-based groups can be and are successful. One need only look at organizations like ACORN—a national individual membership-based...