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Interfaith community groups leverage power

More than 100 Unitarian Universalist congregations participate in congregation-based community organizing.
By Donald E. Skinner
Spring 2007 2.15.07

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Thanks to the People’s Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan, more school children are receiving dental care. In Massachusetts, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Greater Springfield helped the city hire its first Vietnamese police officer and got public library hours extended.

These UU congregations are two of a growing number that are becoming members of multifaith “congregation-based community organizing” groups. A CBCO is a collection of faith communities, labor unions, schools, and other groups that use their collective power to bring about change. More than 100 UU congregations participate in CBCOs.

In Kalamazoo the People’s Church is one of about fifteen congregations that constitute ISAAC (Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community), an affiliate of the Gamaliel Foundation. In the past three years ISAAC has increased dental care in the schools for children from low-income families, registered several thousand voters, and helped get a mixed income housing development built. Now ISAAC is working on developing a countywide transit system and a home healthcare program.

People’s Church members worked on task forces gathering information on community problems and then turned out for public mass meetings to compel politicians to follow their lead. “This has been challenging, enlivening, and transforming work for us,” said the Rev. Jill McAllister, People’s Church minister. “We are stretching and deepening our understanding of what it means to put one’s faith into action.” The congregation joined isaac when it was founded three years ago.

Public mass meetings are a hallmark of CBCO groups like ISAAC. Hundreds or even thousands of people gathered on a specific issue can have a strong impact on elected leaders who are invited to the meetings. At one such meeting in Kalamazoo, close to 1,000 people, including about 80 from People’s Church, showed up to share with public officials their vision of change for the city. “This is much more effective than if we as a single church were to take a stand in the community,” said McAllister.

The top issues that CBCOs tend to focus on are affordable housing, access to health care and transportation, a living wage, education, criminal justice reform, and jobs programs. Projects can be huge. The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization won a commitment of $100 million in Massachusetts state funds for affordable housing. Or projects can be as simple as a new stoplight at a school crossing.

The UU Society of Greater Springfield, Massachusetts, has been working with the Pioneer Valley Project (PVP), a CBCO in Springfield, since its inception ten years ago.

In ten years PVP has gotten the city, which has a sizeable Vietnamese population, to hire its first Vietnamese police officer. It successfully lobbied for better after-school transportation for youth and it waged a successful campaign to get the city library system to extend its hours so the libraries would be more accessible to children after school. “That wouldn’t have happened without us,” said Verne McArthur, a UU Society member who has been involved with PVP since it was formed.

Approximately 50 friends and members of the 250-member Springfield congregation participate in PVP. “Our involvement with PVP has really resonated with the congregation,” said McArthur. “It’s changed a lot of people by giving them opportunities to be involved around the city dealing with some tough issues. It’s connected the congregation much more deeply with the city.”

One of the most important benefits to a congregation of being part of a CBCO is that members get to know other groups’ members while working to improve their communities.

CBCOs are supported by parent networks that provide training for leaders and organizers. Most of the CBCOs of which UU congregations are a part are affiliated with one of five of these parent networks: the Industrial Areas Foundation, Gamaliel Foundation, InterValley Project, Direct Action Research and Training, and Pacific Institute for Community Organizing. Seven UU congregations have started their own unaffiliated CBCOs.

Congregations are encouraged to turn out as many people as possible for mass meetings in order to sway public and corporate officials. “The best way to sell people on a CBCO is to have them attend one of these meetings,” said McArthur. “We had 600 at a recent meeting, and it was exciting to be plugged in to the diversity of the city both in terms of faith and ethnicity.”

Not every CBCO relationship works. One UU leader who tried to lead his congregation into a CBCO said people were willing to show up for mass meetings when politicians were on the hot seat, but they were not willing to attend the many smaller meetings that were necessary to define issues and establish relationships.

Because members of the church came from a wide area, it was hard to define issues, he said. “The issues in our urban neighborhood didn’t directly impact most people in the congregation because they didn’t live there. And the ones who did live there framed quality of life issues in terms of property values rather than human values.”

Fred Seidl, a retired professor of social work and community organizing, is a consultant to UU congregations considering CBCO involvement. He says CBCOs are “a good exercise for us. We learn to be comfortable with people who are not like us,” noting that CBCOs are predominately composed of people with lower incomes and who may be religiously conservative. “We need to represent ourselves and our faith tradition in ways that are understandable and not scary to other people,” he said.

Seidl said CBCOs generally want UU churches to join because their members have expertise in social justice work and they provide entrée for other non-Christian groups.

See sidebar for link to a new UUA resource called Congregation-Based Community Organizing: A Social Justice Approach to Revitalizing Congregational Life. A UU Ministers Advisory Council on CBCOs has also been established.

See sidebar for links to related resources.

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