e-mail us
Reviving the energy for action and justice

Special Report Writer

Growing slowly and inexorably in the Chicago metropolitan area is perhaps the most ambitious and largest citizen’s organization ever attempted. Called United Power for Action & Justice, the massive effort has already recruited scores of religious institutions, labor unions, neighborhood development groups and health centers.

United Power for Action has also organized a reported 212-member organizations to date and has mobilized hundreds of ordinary citizens since its founding was formally announced at a rally of 10,000 people more than a year ago.

A similar but smaller metro-wide movement, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, introduced in late November at a rally attended by some 4,500, is moving in the same direction.

Both organizations have at least four things in common:

  • They are regional in scope, attempting to forge links between city, suburbs and outlying districts in addressing societal problems.
  • They use professional organizers from the Industrial Areas Foundation, the group founded by the late Saul Alinsky 48 years ago.
  • In their formative stages, both have focused not on specific issues like drugs or housing but on building personal relationships, especially among citizens who might be expected to have different, even conflicting agendas.
  • Both are receiving substantial financial and moral support from the Catholic church.

In Chicago Cardinal Francis George told a meeting of United Power leaders recently that he hopes the new mobilization can bring back some of the “energy and commitment” to social action that groups like the Christian Family Movement and the Young Christian Workers brought to archdiocesan parishes in the 1950s and ’60s.

In Boston Cardinal Bernard Law told the initial rally of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, “This is one of the most exciting things to have happened here since I became archbishop in 1984.” The commitment of these two high-ranking churchmen to citizen-based organizations is especially pleasing to Chicago Msgr. John Egan, a lifelong advocate of Catholic involvement in civic affairs and interfaith dialogue.

“I’m thrilled to death about what’s finally happening,” Egan told NCR. “If the Lord calls me now, I’m ready to go.”

United Power for Action & Justice has had an exceptionally long gestation period in Chicago.

Using the expertise

Since the early 1980s, Egan, now with the DePaul University Office of Community Affairs, had long pressed church leaders to support a large-scale organization using the expertise of the Industrial Areas Foundation, but the archdiocese never acted for lack of financial resources. In addition, the Industrial Areas Foundation was a controversial subject in Chicago.

Back in the 1960s, Egan had worked closely with Alinsky in establishing several local community organizations in Chicago neighborhoods.

But Alinsky’s blunt manner and his penchant for in-your-face activism alienated many. He once quipped that, although he had great respect for the Christian message, he would never discuss theology with a pastor because “it would be outside his experience.” All the community organizations Alinsky founded in Chicago have gone out of existence or evolved into social service agencies since his death in 1972.

The Industrial Areas Foundation also experienced an evolution after the passing of the fiery old leader. Under the direction of Alinsky’s disciple Edward Chambers, it has flowered into a network of some 63 largely church-based organizations around the country like COPS (Community Organization for Public Service) in San Antonio and the East Brooklyn Congregations in New York City.

The new Industrial Areas Foundation strategy abandoned rhetoric and confrontation in favor of building personal connections at the grassroots level before giving any consideration to action projects. William Droel, a board member of the National Center of the Laity and a longtime observer of Catholic social action, explained, “As St. Paul did for Jesus and as St. Boneventure did for St. Francis, the Industrial Areas Foundation has done for Alinsky. It has taken his provocative ideas and eccentric personality and modified them, improved upon them and institutionalized a most reflective style of activism.”

In 1993 eight Chicago-area pastors met with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, noted how the Industrial Areas Foundation had changed and pressed the case for church backing of a new organization. They insisted that the city’s problems in housing, employment, education and law enforcement were increasingly the problems of the whole region. The eight, who headed white, black and Latino parishes, believed a broad, unified approach was the only answer.

One of the group, Fr. Donald Nevins, said the cardinal agreed entirely, told them they were “preaching to the choir,” but money still remained the hurdle. Undeterred, the priests set about building interest and getting commitments from parishes and religious orders.

Egan’s connections

When it became clear support was growing, Bernardin called in Egan and said the archdiocese could never endorse a major operation without commitments from the leadership of the Jewish faith and the mainline Protestant denominations. Egan, who knows most of the leaders personally, eagerly set about the task. By 1994 enough interest had been generated that Bernardin announced the archdiocese would provide $1 million for the project. Shortly after, the heads of three of the largest inner-city black Protestant congregations pledged $250,000 to the effort and agreed to serve on an expanding oversight committee.

The Industrial Areas Foundation was hired as organizing agent of the new entity and moved its headquarters from New York City to Chicago. Those who expected quick action or at least a general statement of goals were disappointed. The organization didn’t even get a name until three years later. The oversight committee, called Metropolitan Chicago Sponsors, continued the spade work, garnering support from labor unions like the powerful American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, health centers, social service agencies and virtually every religious body in the area. Those groups include some, like the Muslims, that had previously avoided civic associations. Collectively, some $2.6 million was pledged, $2 million of which has now been paid. During the next three years the sponsors, trained by the Industrial Areas Foundation staff, conducted hundreds of workshops across the region to educate citizens in “the art of public life” and to train them for one-on-one “relational meetings” to spread the word.

One of the most enthusiastic volunteer sponsors was Thomas Lenz, an active Catholic and an urban planner at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

“I think we were trying to find an alternative to the way the Christian right engages in public life and public discussion,” he said. “We wanted to find the links among people and build on the principle of solidarity.”

That can only happen, he believes, when people know one another on a personal basis and not as abstract humanity.

On Oct. 19, 1997, the results of the effort were on display at a University of Illinois auditorium, as a vast assembly representing every color, religion and every social and economic class in a 7.5-million population area cheered United Power into existence. Sitting on the stage were the sponsoring church leaders, including Cardinal George and Msgr. Egan, as well as heads of supporting civic and service groups. At the appointed moment they left the seats of prominence to be replaced by the new “citizen leaders” of the organization.

But still no agenda.

Speakers referred in a general way to racial discrimination and inferior schools, but the mandate for the assembly was to go forth and engage in yet more “one-on-one relational meetings” and to get involved in one of the designated geographic United Power “assemblies” in the city and region.

The Chicago media, more accustomed to hearing stinging criticisms and nonnegotiable demands at such rallies, seemed confused.

The Chicago Tribune headline the next day read, “Activists powered by faith, not plans.” The press then virtually forgot about the budding creature, since one-on-one relationships and small-group gatherings are hard to report.

Yet the work quietly continued.

Gregory Pierce, copublisher of ACTA Publications and a United Power leader from his North Side Chicago parish, said, “I’ve met and gotten to know more black leaders in a few months through United for Power than in all the previous 10 years I’ve been in Chicago.” Traditional community organizations, he added, can easily foster “self-interest and parochialism,” while a more inclusive group tends to “promote the common good.” The United Power organizational structure now consists of four cochairs, five vice chairs, and some 80 leaders designated by the assemblies.

Two focuses for action

Three Industrial Area Foundation organizers work full-time. Lenz, one of the cochairs, said, “We’re trying to resist becoming excessively hierarchical, so the real leadership is intentionally broad.” After four years of planning and discussion, he said, two major focuses for action have emerged: health insurance for the estimated 800,000 people in the metro area who lack coverage and making home ownership more available to middle and lower-class families.

And though United Power hasn’t made any demands in these areas, its very size can get attention.

At a candidates forum before the November elections, the incumbent president of the Cook County Board, John Stroger, appeared stunned and a bit intimidated when 1,000 people, largely United Power members, turned out to hear his position on these issues.

Similarly last July, some 800 United Power supporters rallied in Evanston to back city recycling workers whose jobs were threatened and to oppose the city’s refusal to allow an evangelical congregation to hold worship services in a building the church owns. Both disputes are now on the way toward amicable settlements. In Chicago, a United Power assembly negotiated a settlement that allowed Deborah’s Place, a center for homeless women cofounded by Patty Crowley, to use a vacant convent.

Controversy over the presence of such women in the neighborhood had raged for months.

When George became archbishop of Chicago in 1997, some doubted he would show much enthusiasm for this Industrial Areas Foundation-backed enterprise.

Those doubts have now dissipated. Speaking to some 300 United Power leaders in November, George put a decidedly biblical spin on the organization’s approach by distinguishing between “protective justice” and “connective justice.” Too often, he said, justice in society is understood only as “the vindication of individual rights” -- to be achieved through court decisions and legislative action.

Such an approach leads to “unbridled affirmation of self-interest,” he said, at the expense of others’ interests.

But justice in the biblical sense, he said, involves “the restoration of right relationships.” He praised United Power’s emphasis on promoting “connections rather than confrontation. ... If we spend time, if we give time ... there is created a sense of internal cosmos in which everything is connected, everything is centered, everything is seen in its proper light.”

If different sides keep talking and trying to relate on a personal level, he said, “some form of a just society may develop.” He cited the absence of “personal relationships” as a factor in the huge exodus of white Catholics from their southside Chicago parishes during the 1960s when blacks began to move in.

Church teaching about racial equality was well known and generally acknowledged, he said, but it had little effect because the parishioners had no real connections with the newcomers; they did not know these people, so they moved.

Others at the UP gathering emphasized similar themes.

The ‘habit of relating’

The Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, whose St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn, was the subject of the book, Upon This Rock, warned the leaders that modern life can militate against the development of generative relationships.

“We ‘touch base’ with others and ‘make an appearance’ or give ‘brief remarks,’ “ he said.

“But we don’t take the time to meet one-to-one with others, to understand their interests and reveal our interests to them.” Only by developing a “habit of relating,” he said, can we avoid the pitfall of “looking for the weaknesses and needs of the poor, so that we can turn the other into a client of a service that we provide.”

The sort of relational meetings that have characterized United for Power were occurring also in Boston for three years before the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization officially surfaced.

“Thousands of people who under normal conditions might not have even met each other sat down to talk one-to-one for 30 minutes,” noted the Boston Herald.

“That’s the glue that’s been developing; that’s our best safeguard against splintering,” Lewis Finfer, an Industrial Areas Foundation organizer who has been working with the group told the paper.

As in Chicago, no one is in a rush to identify specific issues.

Though black Pentecostals from the inner city may tend to see things differently from Unitarians in more affluent areas, Finfer said, “we’re going to work on the things we can agree on.” Said Joyce Simon, a Lutheran and a social activist, “We’re in it for the long haul. Issues organizing is in it for the short term.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999