Community Organizers Discuss Justice
Published: Monday, October 7, 2013
Updated: Monday, October 7, 2013 00:10
“How can faith-based community organizing, diversely constituted in terms of religious faith, ethnicity, and race, inform our theological discourse and our practice of ministry?” asked Nancy Pineda-Madrid, a featured presenter in the symposium “From Plurality to Solidarity through Justice.” Boston College and the School of Theology and Ministry (STM) held this symposium on Friday, Oct. 4. The symposium explored how community organizing around issues of justice can provide common ground among diverse religious communities.
The speakers included Rev. John Baumann, S.J., founder and director of special projects for People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO) National Network; Catherine Cornille, Newton College Alumnae Chair in Western Culture and chair of the Boston College theology department; Larry Gordon, senior organizer of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation; and Nancy Pineda-Madrid, STM associate professor of theology and Latino ministry.
Each speaker addressed the pursuit of social justice through the work of faith-based community organizing. “The ministry of organizing creates solidarity across religious and ethnic differences,” Pineda-Madrid said. “In doing so, it lives out two Jesuit insights: finding God in all things, and being a contemplative in action.”
Community organizers seek to work out a political vision for the oppressed and marginalized, and bring this vision to fruition through their work in the community.
“Organizing is putting gospel values into action—values such as justice, integrity, love, hope, healing, compassion, and service,” Baumann said. Baumann’s longstanding career in community organizing was evident in the words of Larry Gordon, another featured presenter at the symposium. “[Baumann] is a man who has dedicated himself to the poor for the whole of his professional career,” Gordon said. “Not only to the poor, but also to this distinction between charity and justice, as he has lived out a vocation with a mission of empowering the poor and extraordinary, dedicated service to the priesthood.”
These broad-based organizations bring together people from all religious traditions to foster solidarity and justice, while creating diverse communities and informed theological discussions. “Solidarity, that is the focus of this work, is built through the creation of diverse organizations,” Pineda-Madrid said. “They include churches, both Catholic and Protestant, Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques, and they bring together people from all of these religious traditions around values that they hold in common, values that are the fruit of their diverse faiths.”
The life of Gordon, one of the key speakers at the symposium, shows the culmination of diverse community organizing. Gordon began his organizing career in the civil rights movement in 1969, working with the national welfare rights organization. In 1990, Gordon began his association with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). In his 23 years with the IAF, Gordon has helped build several broad-based community organizations in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and California. Today, Gordon is the senior organizer of the IAF affiliate in Boston, known as Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO).
“At GBIO, we have committed ourselves to building broad-based organizations inside of a context that helps strengthen the fabric of our society,” Gordon said. “If you have this institutional strategy, you have a greater likelihood of getting power to deliver for the poor and marginalized, whom the IAF is trying to organize with.”
The GBIO is most notorious for its political endeavors in Massachusetts, namely in the arena of healthcare reform. The work of the GBIO played a large role in the conception of the universal healthcare system in Massachusetts. This healthcare system has become an influential model for the federal government in developing the widely contested Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The success of the GBIO in organizing a healthcare campaign was made possible by the work of diverse community organizing.
“Usually in work of organizing, we are fighting to get to the negotiating table where policy decisions are made,” Gordon said. “The issue is who gets to be at the table when the deals are made, and organizing aims to make it a bigger negotiating table. Sometimes when you make it to the table, you get to stay there. That is what has happened at GBIO with healthcare reform.”