By Rocky Supinger
The congregation I serve as an Associate Pastor has been working in earnest for a few years on community organizing. Last week my colleague wrote about the impact this kind of organizing has had on the life of our church. I want to say something about the extra-congregational part.
In places like New Orleans, El Paso, and Chicago, Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) style community organizing networks are well established, as has been impressively documented by Jeffrey Stout. Leaders and churches wanting to make an impact in those places can get connected to those networks and begin learning how organizing works hands on. But what if there is no network?
Claremont, California is on the far eastern edge of Los Angeles county but the western edge of what’s known as the “Inland Empire,” a vast unorganized swath of communities and municipalities with some of the highest jobless rates in the country. There’s no network here. There’s hardly anything unifying this region, save for the Ontario airport, which is dying a slow death. So a few years ago some organizers decided to try and build one.
This is where the Claremont Presbyterian Church got involved, on the ground floor of efforts to build a regional community organizing coalition. A major part of this ground floor work has been to learn the IAF philosophy and to reflect theologically on it. Friends like Jeff Krehbiel and Bob Linthicum have been invaluable resources here. But another major part of this work has been building an organization. And that’s a different kind of work altogether.
What started as the Inland Empire Sponsoring Committee has now become the Inland Communities Organizing Network (ICON). Building this regional organization is teaching us some things. I’ll highlight two. First, community organizing is not inherently Presbyterian. That sounds ridiculously obvious, but it’s been a valuable learning.
The organizer in charge of getting ICON up and running became impatient with our church’s discernment. He was clearly used to working with church leaders whose churches did what the leader thought was most important; waiting for a congregation to learn about and a session to authorize public commitment (including financial commitment) to IAF’s ideals and aims created some tension we had to negotiate.
The other major learning concerns the conflict between getting important things done and strictly adhering to principle. The first issue ICON took on was a proposed waste transfer station in a neighborhood dotted with elementary schools. We joined rallies and wrote editorials decrying the proposal, and we surrounded more than one City Planning Commission meeting with megaphone-led chants. In the end, the proposal went forward, but with hard-won concessions about the station’s citizen oversight and the volume of traffic it was allowed. For these concessions our networked was branded as sellouts. We were shouted down by an angry crowd of fellow demonstrators wielding “no compromise” signs as we celebrated what we’d accomplished.
As we grow with ICON, our church is working some muscles it hasn’t worked in a while, and not without some strains. The NEXT Church is a building church, though, and we’re learning how to build something of value with partners who have different instincts. I think that’s making us better, and I think it’s making ICON better.
Rocky Supinger is Associate Pastor of Claremont Presbyterian Church. He blogs at yorocko.com.