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Community Organizing Moves Us from Charity to Justice

Bishop Cantú meets with attendees at the SCFFC. Photo courtesy of Jen Vazquez

By Joanna Thurmann

“Charity and justice walk hand-in-hand, and the need for charity never ends. But sometimes there are injustices which are not just transactional but structural. How do we address them?” asked Bishop Oscar Cantú during his Thursday keynote at Santa Clara Faith Formation Conference 2018. We must work together in solidarity to affect the systems that affect the poor.

Bishop Cantú’s talk was part of the preconference day titled “Preferential Option for the Poor: Moving Beyond Charity and toward Social Justice in the Local and Global Church,” organized by the Social Justice Commission of the Diocese of San Jose.

The focus of the day was on both education and action. Presentations by Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), Teamworks Coop, and Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) explored various issues at the local, national, and international level, from affordable housing to immigration. The hope was that attendees walk away with a better understanding of the need and power of broad-based organizing to address injustice and the passion to engage in their parishes and communities.

CCHD provides grant funding for organizing and training people of low-income in order to develop local leadership, build power and sustainability, and promote the values of Catholic Social Teaching. 25% of the annual CCHD collection stays locally and is invested in various types of organizations, such as the TeamWorks Cleaning cooperative. Founded in 2004, Teamworks is an example of success in every aspect. It has provided a living wage, insurance benefits, and growth opportunities to its 20 members who are themselves workers of the business. But beyond profitability, at the heart of the coop is solidarity. “During the financial crisis, the coop had a choice to either cut a member or to lower the pay of everyone else by 15% to make up the difference. Members chose the latter,” said Sean Wendlinder of CCHD. This is testimony not just to the success of forming community, but also to the power of CST teachings on solidarity and respect for human dignity.

Anna Eng is with IAF, and a lead organizer of Bay Area Organizing Committee, which has also received a grant from CCHD. She helps to organize parishes and other institutions, such as teachers’ associations and schools, to tackle structural changes needed locally. Prime example is the Silicon Valley housing crisis created by an influx of tech giants “To be prophetic, you need power. And that is hard to do as single individuals or even a single parish,” says Eng. “When institutions come together, they can fight back. They have the capacity to negotiate on behalf of the people.”

There is process to such organizing, which includes building a team, holding 1-on-1 meetings, researching, acting, and then evaluating. To tackle homelessness, for example, we must understand how the money is being spent, and there isn’t just one answer. When evaluating, the key question is whether people are being changed, not just the policies. Education is part of the answer.

That was the focus of the two afternoon presentations by CRS on the issue of migrants and refugees from Africa and Central America. Conference attendees learned the statistics and reasons for leaving, heard the stories, and explored various CRS programs responding to the issue.

CRS works in 110 countries. “Their work is highly respected,” said Cantú, who visited many migration and conflict hotspots as former Chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace. “The reason is because people recognize in us values which are not sectarian, but human, societal, and communal. It is about valuing human dignity.”