Where Religion and Politics Embrace
I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
You shall not have other gods before me. Exodus 20:2-4. New American Bible, 1982-3 Ed.
With a foot in both worlds, PICO provides precisely the kind of
democratically controlled links from society, to the faith-based community,
and to the state, that are so scarce in contemporary American society.
Faith in Action: Religion, Race and Democratic Organizing in America, Richard L. Wood, 2002.
The next time a politician or a priest tells you that politics and religion shouldn’t mix, tell him or her about Richard Wood’s 2002 book “Faith in Action: Religion, Race and Democratic Organizing in America.” The book details the successful raising of community organizing for political power to the heights of religious fervor. Though Wood is a proponent of community organizing, he writes a powerful expose of the goals, objectives and tactics of direct action programs.
Community organizing became a common catchphrase with the presidential campaign of Barack Obama and questionable voter registration activities conducted by a group called ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Even so, little has been written about what this and similar groups actually do and how they organize.
Religion and politics have been mixing it up long before President George W. Bush’s administration created funding for the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives and certainly well before President Obama, on February 5, 2009, expanded it to include neighborhood partnerships.
A good example of a community organizer is found in the popular 1957 musical production “The Music Man,” which tells the tale of Professor Harold Hill arriving in a small town. Unbeknownst to the townsfolk, he is a musical instruments salesman. And he cons the entire town into believing that the best way to keep their youngsters out of trouble is by starting a boys’ band, adding for emphasis, “I mean they need it right now.” He gets the townspeople’s hopes up and they buy his band instruments, even as they wonder how they are going to form a band when the would-be musicians can’t even read music. They trust him so much that they believe him when he tells them that they don’t need practice; they just have to have the confidence that they can succeed.
That’s basically what a community organizer is. He plants dreams and hopes into the minds and hearts of selected communities and then convinces these people that their personal hopes and dreams are what the entire community needs. What the good citizens don’t realize is that this community organizer’s own priorities are always uppermost in his mind. And these priorities always encompass more laws, taxes, legislation and government interference in private lives.
Just as Professor Hill sounded the cry for a boys’ band, today’s community organizer would have you believe that what your town needs is affordable housing. (“And I mean you need it right now!”) Or maybe it’s health care that he’s selling, telling you that you have the right to demand it from the government right now. I’m sure you can recall the slogans. “What do we need? Health care. When do we need it? Now!”
In so doing, the organizer takes a thesis, creates an antithesis from which oozes forth a synthesis. In other words, he takes the people as they are, creates a yearning in them to strive for something that they most likely will not be satisfied with in the long run, i.e., affordable housing, (the antithesis) and the community ends up with a synthesis (a dislike of officials and burdensome laws). Or, put another way, he victimizes them, causing them to blame the government for what they now view as their oppression.
There are four main federations of community organizing agencies. Two of them – DART, Direct Action and Research Training www.thedartcenter.org; and ACORN, www.acorn.org – focus on secular and political organizing of the most marginalized people and neighborhoods. This includes the recent immigrant, the welfare recipient and the racial and ethnically victimized.
Gamaliel, www.gamaliel.org (named for a minor, rather shadowy figure in the Old Testament), and PICO, Pacific Institute for Community Organizing, www.piconetwork.org, emphasize organizing within religious communities and are often referred to as faith-based entities. These groups tend to search out the lower to middle income faith-based citizens who are members of ethnic and racial minorities, recent immigrants and those church members who are anxious to do the Good Samaritan work that their ministers and pastors have been preaching about for years.
It can be said that the direct-action folks soften up the politicians and that the faith-based groups make the politicians feel ashamed that they are preventing the people from living the America-as-Utopia life that was presented to them.
All of these groups share a common base from the Saul Alinsky Industrial Areas Foundation method of training for organizing communities. Alinsky began in Chicago in the 1920’s with the help of a Jesuit priest to organize the “back of the Yards” neighborhoods around Chicago’s slaughterhouses. Their first success was in bullying the banking industry to provide housing loans to the local residents who, basically, had little or no collateral to put up.
Jesuit priests John Baumann and Jerry Helfrich were two Alinsky-trained organizers. They came to Oakland, California, in 1972 and formed PICO. Baumann retired as PICO’s director in December 2008. During those years PICO grew to involve more than 50 organizations in the United States, Central America and Africa. Here are Fr. Baumann’s praise-filled words:
“PICO’s success points to the powerful role that faith communities play in shaping our nation. Across the U.S., people from all varieties of religious traditions are hungry to put their faith into action, and PICO has helped channel this energy into concrete wins for working families.” http://www.piconetwork.org/news-media/news/archive?id=0413
PICO started out, according to Wood’s book, relying strictly on their skills as community organizers to rouse up the neighborhood residents to demand change. They had only minor and scattered success until they began to realize that they were ignoring the very people who would best respond to their call to be organized - the faithful, church-going community. And, after all, they were Catholic priests; they had a natural entry into the churches.
PICO set up its first local organized affiliate within St. Elizabeth’s Parish in East Oakland in 1982. St. Elizabeth’s is a mostly Latino neighborhood parish of lower income and welfare recipients.
To quote from Wood’s book (pg 51):
“But when faith-based organizing is successful, many factors contribute simultaneously to that success. Such factors include trained leaders, astute strategy, professional staff organizing, the legitimacy accorded by church affiliation and clear pastoral support, the cultural resources of church life and of American traditions…makes faith-based organizing unique.”
It is somewhat easy to recognize a PICO affiliate at work in your community. Its name tends to reflect the title of its parent organization, using words such as “community organizing” or “interfaith organizing” or “reform now.”
East Oakland’s local PICO affiliate is called COR, which stands for Communities Organizing for Reform. This group tends to focus on local community issues of affordable housing and workforce development in the school setting. The official newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Oakland continually reports on COR’s activities within the parishes and general community.
Groups that operated in West Oakland and other parts of Alameda County are collectively referred to as OCO, or Oakland Community Organizations. OCO tends to work on organizing around statewide issues of education, health care and jobs while also working on the parish level. PICO also promotes charter schools.
Often, in tracking state legislation, I have seen PICO and CCISCO (Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Communities Organizing) listed as supporters of health care bills or workforce development and education bills right along with Planned Parenthood and the California Catholic Conference.
Another of PICO’s early pioneers is Jim Keddy. He was a student at the Berkeley-based Graduate Theological Union when Fr. Baumann came to give a talk about PICO. He now is a PICO director based in Sacramento, working closely with the CCC.
PICO, like the other organizations, is a parish or fraternal membership organization. The fee for joining is anywhere from $200.00 to $1,000.00, depending upon the size of the group. However, the major portion of their funding comes from large donors, foundations, gifts and, especially, the annual Catholic Campaign for Human Development. This is a nationwide fundraising endeavor conducted annually. The CCHD, both nationwide and locally, has been held up to close scrutiny for a few years now due, in part, to its funding of both ACORN and PICO.
In the adjoining county of Contra Costa, where CCISCO is based, the organization periodically makes slight changes to its name, but the acronym stays the same.
CCISCO is very busy in Richmond, Concord and Antioch, cities with dense ethnic and lower income neighborhoods. A young, Latina community organizer proudly stated to me recently that she was working within four of the five Catholic churches in Concord. The pastor of Queen of All Saints Church is so enamored of CCISCO’s efforts that he has included their logo on his parish letterhead and provided the young lady with an office and a committee.
They have also captured the heart and soul of the Catholic Community of Immaculate Heart Parish in Brentwood, where the pastor, formerly an Episcopal priest and registered nurse, has openly embraced their presence, placing his signature on CCISCO letters, even though he knows that abortion and contraception is a main thrust of CCISCO’s health care advocacy. The same is true for the Antioch parish of St. Ignatius.
So, what’s wrong with all of this organizing of communities and parishes? Haven’t we all, at some point, prayed that our churches would wake up to the need to address the state of politics and human struggles? Aren’t we constantly reminded that we are a nation of immigrants and we should, like the Good Samaritan, help our neighbor who may be, figuratively at least, lying alongside the road with no one to come to his aid?
The answers to these questions can be seen in the following story. I recently attended daily Mass at my parish, during which the Gospel reading was Matthew 12: 1-8. This is the passage about the Pharisees complaining to Jesus because his disciples were breaking a Sabbath law.
Our pastor said, in his homily, that in the Old Testament many of the laws had become too burdensome to follow. These laws were inflicting suffering on the people. Jesus, on the other hand, had encouraged his disciples to go into the field and pull off the heads of wheat so that they would have more to eat – a clear violation of the law. In other words, as told by our pastor, Jesus favored setting aside laws that were burdensome. In telling this story as he did, I believe our pastor endorsed – whether directly or tacitly – the violation of current laws that are equally burdensome, including immigration laws. While we’re at, just for sake of argument: Aren’t all laws, civil and religious, somewhat burdensome to those who do not wish to follow them?
Father continued with his sermon, saying Jesus came to preach love, not to support burdensome laws that were causing His people suffering. What did it matter which side of the border these people of God came from; weren’t God’s laws, His new way of life, for all people?
This very nice priest, an admitted anchor baby, sees restraints on illegal immigrants as a sin. He openly advocates for amnesty, the sooner the better. I asked him if he thought abortion couldn’t also be considered a burdensome law on the faithful. He said of course abortion is wrong. I reminded him that when groups like PICO and CCISCO organize groups of parishioners to travel to Sacramento and Washington, D.C. to lobby for health care they are, in fact, lobbying for abortion. They are lobbying for the very thing that our church declares immoral. At that point, the good Father responded as any non-religious person might. ”Oh, so, what, we shouldn’t have health care? You would deny health care to sick, poor people just because it has abortion in it?”
He is not the only member of a religious organization who has uttered such words. A church spokesperson once told me that abortion is a given in California. The people need health care and they need it now. If a patient chooses abortion, that’s not the church’s fault. And so, the church is selling out its soul for a few doses of medicine. It is symbolically placing health care on the high altar of worship. It is no longer God who saves His people, but the almighty federal bureaucrat.
Many immigrants risk their lives and their health to come here to have the good life, or so they believe. What happens is that they become pawns in the hands of unscrupulous activists who lead them to the very bondage from which they tried to escape.
It’s as if Professor Henry Hill were telling them that the answer to their troubles can be found in new band uniforms and musical instruments. Only, in this case, it’s the community organizers convincing them that their salvation can be found not in God, but in government.