Parishes Effect Change Through Community Organizing

Wendy Healy In the Headlines

The Province — with its wide range of ministries and broad geographical reach — takes an active Franciscan-hearted role in advocating for the less fortunate.

Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Office director Russell Testa and assistant Fran Eskin-Royer said it is important for the Province to be a voice for those in need, because that concept is at the heart of following St. Francis’ example. Advocating for people often thought of as the voiceless, said Testa, is a primary way to live out the Gospel, especially as Franciscans.

“Franciscans must not be quiet when facing situations of injustice, even, and maybe especially, when it is controversial. However, we do this with a kindness and respect for the other,” according to Testa.

Over the years, HNP advocacy work has included letter-writing campaigns to legislators, peace marches on Capitol Hill and in local communities, and partnering with other organizations, like the Franciscan Action Network and Franciscans International, to advocate for issues.

Another way to be heard, said Testa, is through community organizing efforts. In a nutshell, community organizing, he said, is getting the people most directly affected by an issue working together with allies to bring about change. Although the concept may have a negative connotation with some, it is an excellent tool, he added, because it gives people who usually don’t feel empowered the power to effect change on a grassroots level. “When that happens, it’s a beautiful sight,” said Testa.

Several HNP parishes have been very successful recently in effecting change through grassroots community organizing projects. “Each person is one voice,” said Testa, “but when we join together in a larger group, especially in collaboration with those most affected by the issues, it’s amplified.”

Students Speak Up for Park
One shining example of people effecting change is displayed by the students at St. Anthony of Padua School in Camden, N.J. The school engaged in community organizing when its sixth-through-eighth-grade students rallied to make their local Von Nieda Park, which had become rundown, a safer and cleaner place. With Jud Weiksnar, OFM, as a leader, the students participated in the Von Nieda Park Task Force, and were recognized by the local government for their successful efforts.

The students meet weekly to prepare for monthly meetings with Camden County and City parks officials, government officials, and other interested community members.

The student project originally began as a civic engagement class at St. Anthony School, with the children discussing the issue of the run-down park. Soon, the students were invited to participate with the Camden Churches Organized Through People group, and the park task force evolved and began meeting monthly.

The task force was so successful that its members went to Washington, D.C., on July 13 to present “Community Organizing: You’re Never Too Young,” at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Faith Based and Community Initiatives.

The students not only made the change happen, but put in the elbow-grease to clean up the brush, paint the benches, and make the park pretty again.

The biggest change, according to Jud, is the one the students have noted in themselves. “They now have confidence to meet with public officials and to chair meetings. They also have a belief that public officials will listen to young people; hope for a better Camden; and faith in a future they cannot yet see.”

In addition to getting the park cleaned up, the students learned about community organizing themes such as change, power, vision, attitude, analysis, community, responsibility, common good, research, and faith — all Franciscan values, noted Jud. “Our students represent different faith traditions, and we begin and end our classes with prayer.”   An album of photos taken on July 13 titled Student Leaders’ Von Nieda Park Task Force at HHS, taken by Heather Wilson of PICO, appears online.

Sometimes community organizing efforts force confrontation, according to Testa, a concept that may make some people uncomfortable. However, confrontation, he said, shouldn’t be nerve-wracking as it is nothing more than holding people accountable and requiring them to do their jobs.

“Confrontation doesn’t have to be rude or dehumanizing, though sometimes those being held accountable experience it that way,” said Testa. “It’s requesting that people in power, often in government or corporate leadership, do their jobs.”

Jesus, he added, was confrontational, especially when he chastised the money-changers in the temple, and called out the scribes and Pharisees.

Parishioners Work For Local Issues
The parishioners at Immaculate Conception Church in Durham, N.C., also are involved in community organizing. As part of Durham CAN, a grassroots community organization whose name stands for Congregations, ASsociations. Neighborhood, Daniel McLellan, OFM, pastor, sits on the strategy team. Durham CAN lists and prioritizes local issues and problems and makes plans to tackle them. Maryann Crea, the church’s minister to the community, says that more than 20 parishioners are involved on CAN action teams, discussing issues like local schools, homelessness, and racial profiling.

In the past, she said, the group has worked hard to establish a living wage, as well as develop a health-care access system, where people in need can get pro bono services from specialists.

CAN works, said Crea, because it is a local group establishing its own priorities and working together to solve them.

“It’s sometimes hard to stay focused on the common good and turn off the sound bites and politics, but as the Church, we must always ask what is for the common good. Everyone, it seems, has his or her own personal interests and agendas. But the common good constantly reminds us what we need to be about in the Church,” she added.

Another example of successful community organizing can be seen at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Triangle, Va., part of a community group called Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, or VOICE. With other members of VOICE, the church confronted the worst foreclosure situation in Virginia. They advocated to banks and local government to bring a solution that will help families experiencing financial troubles to keep their homes.

“The example of VOICE shows how community organizing is an effective tool for social justice and building the common good,” said Testa. “Rather than just providing direct service after people lose their homes, which is an important thing to do, they advocated for local government and the banks to do their part and keep people from losing their homes in the first place.“

Examples like these were shared at the 2012 JPIC Local Contacts Retreat held June 8 to 10 at St. Francis Springs Prayer Center in Stoneville, N.C. Testa hopes that more ministries might join community organizations or use the tools of community organizing in their JPIC efforts.

“If we don’t speak up for those in need and, better yet, join together with those in need — the homeless, the hungry, the marginalized, even the environment — then who will?” he asked.

If a parish or ministry is interested in getting involved in a local community project to bring about change, and would like advice or help, friars and their partners-in-ministry may contact Testa at or 301-680-2200.

— Wendy Healy, a Connecticut-based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.