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Jesuit Recounts PICO Founding, Role Of Faith In Communities

Heights Editor

Published: Sunday, October 6, 2013

Updated: Sunday, October 6, 2013 23:10

Rev. John Baumann, S.J.

Alex Gaynor / Heights Editor

On Friday evening in the Heights room of Corcoran Commons, Rev. John Baumann, S.J., founder of the PICO National Network, delivered a lecture on religious unity and community organizing in a faith-based context.

The event, titled “Beyond Ignorance, Hostility, and Fear: Organizing for Justice by Embracing Religious and Ethnic and Passion,” was a continuation of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry’s (STM) ongoing lecture series on continuing education.

Founded by Baumann in 1972, PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) is a national network of faith-based organizations that works to address issues faced by urban, suburban, and rural communities—an expansive network of local institutions working in solidarity toward community improvement.

Formed during the early years of Baumann’s Jesuit priesthood in the 1960s, PICO began as a local training organization in Oakland, Calif. as a way to initiate neighborhood development and “revitalize democracy.”
“We wanted to address fundamental systemic change,” Baumann said of PICO’s mission for community improvement.

PICO was largely based around the ideologies of Saul Alinsky, an American pioneer of community organizing—the process by which people act together to change their communities and mediate social strife—during the 1950s, and born out of response to the institutional church’s failure to respond to the needs of the poor.

The concern for people meeting others who share similar values and interests to identify common goals and participate in public life was the product of Baumann’s culminating perspective of seeing God in all things.

“Is it possible to engage the energy that people have for their religious and ethnic identities in a way that fosters the building of relationships and ethnic boundaries?” Baumann asked in regard to discordant communities. “It was difficult to imagine at this stage how anyone could engage religion in the public sphere in a way that would not lead to conflicts.”
Operating under its initial title of the “Pacific Institute for Community Organization,” PICO developed an early “neighborhood model” of creating solutions for community challenges. Baumann implemented foundational principles for the organization centered on the core values of the gospel and “faith that does justice.”
“Theology is about the real world—it interacts with people … Power is the product of relationship.”
PICO’s early neighborhood model, however, was flawed, Baumann said. It only addressed issues when they arose—reacting to community challenges as they occurred, as opposed to fostering an attitude of ethnic and religious tolerance to prevent these issues from happening.

“The central weakness of the neighborhood model was that it focused almost exclusively on outcome,” Baumann said. “So we developed a symbiotic relationship with institutions, not a parasitic one … Values without power is impotence—power without values is tyranny,” he said.

Under Baumann’s leadership, PICO restructured its model of operation to a “faith-based model”—engaging local faith-based congregations across creedal and ethnic boundaries.

This new model of bringing together different congregations of varying faiths witnessed tremendous success and contains three basic characteristics: “The model is relational and value-based, transformative, and engages the faith dimension of the community,” Baumann said.

By incorporating faith into its model of addressing the root causes of social problems, PICO has approached concepts of mobilizing communities not discovered in the Alinsky lexicon, expanding its operations to over 1,000-member institutions in 150 cities throughout 17 states.

Through recognizing ethnic and religious differences in neighborhoods, towns, and cities throughout the U.S., Baumann views community organizing as a transformative experience that starts at a personal level, and believes in the power of relationships to transform people and institutions.

“Working in a faith context brings a sense of humility to our work. Organizing is about people—people are about issues,” he said.

PICO currently focuses on healthcare reform, economic security, youth development, and neighborhood revitalization, among other social needs, and has even extended its mission to other countries, including a solidarity project in Rwanda aimed to resolve differences between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples.

STM, alongside event co-sponsors Church in the 21st Century Center and the BC theology department, will continue its lecture series on continuing education throughout the fall, maintaining focuses on social justice, leadership, and religious openness—“Beyond Ignorance, Hostility, and Fear” being the first to address interfaith issues in an urban context.

“Our goal is to work toward a common understanding of what constitutes justice,” Baumann said. “Sometimes it’s important to put your beliefs and ideologies in your back pocket and listen to other people’s stories.”

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