Delegation of West/Southwest IAF leaders and organizers stands with Pope Francis. [Photos credit: Rabbi John Linder]
Our network had the rare opportunity to visit with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
An interfaith delegation of 20 leaders and organizers from the West/Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation met with him to share our collective work of broad based organizing at a time when the Pope is guiding the global church in a historic Synod listening process.
The Holy Father sat side by side with us in his residence, thanking us for inconveniencing ourselves to come see him. What ensued was a true dialogue, a 90-minute conversation in Spanish with lots of back and forth engagement. The encounter was filled with many graced moments about both the joys and the struggles of our work, and the work of the Church, past, present, and to come.
This invitation to meet was in large part due to the recognition of our work by local Bishops, particularly those involved with the 'Recognizing the Stranger' strategy, which is dedicated to formation and leadership development of immigrant parishioners. As well, our involvement to support the Synod process in multiple dioceses has helped to bring those in the margins to the center of the synodal dialogue.
As we shared our experiences of organizing, we were struck by how carefully he listened, asked questions, and engaged with lots of humor. Early on, he reflected back to us, “Usaron mucho las palabras ‘ver’ y ‘escuchar,’... Me impresiona que ninguno de ustedes es parte de alguna teoría. Ninguno dice ‘leí un libro y me interesó eso.’” (You constantly use the words “to see” and “to listen.. I am impressed that none of you start with any theory. No one says ‘I read a book and that interested me.’) “El peligro es intelectualizar el problema” (The danger is when you intellectualize a problem).
He stressed the importance of being with people and paying attention to their reality, emphasizing Amor Concreto, love concretely in action, saying that he understood our work as seeing and hearing of injustice in the real lives of our people, acting to change the situation, and being changed ourselves as a result. He expressed his appreciation for our focus on what we are doing, rather than to complain about what is not being done or to disparage anyone. “Ustedes no menospreciaron a nadie.”
Before concluding, he thanked us for our visit, saying that although he had never known of IAF before, he was glad that he knew us now, and he welcomed further conversation around our continuing work with the Synod process.
We teach that power recognizes power. For Pope Francis, “el verdadero poder es el servicio,” (“true power is service”). Recounting the Good Samaritan, he clearly stated that the Gospel cannot be understood without acting with those who are suffering. He recognized the leaders and organizations of the IAF and the powerful work that is happening every day at the margins. He referred to the IAF as “Good News for the United States.”
We are humbled to represent the many decades of work from those who preceded us, and we are encouraged in the continuation of our work into the future.
A successful partnering of West Side parishes with COPS/Metro Alliance to study Pope Francis' recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship), owes it all to Zoom-and the savvy leaders involved.
It began with an informal discussion on the encyclical between Father John Rajarjo, CICM, Pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Father Bill Kraus, OFM, Cap., Pastor of Our Lady of the Angles and Mayra Juarez-Denis, an organizer for COPS/Metro. Their intent was to offer a study program on Fratelli Tutti to parishioners, but instead of clergy leading the gatherings, parishioners would be enabled to teach it themselves.
"One of the things we do at COPS/Metro," notes Juarez-Denis, "is identify talent in the parishes so they develop their leadership, which will benefit not only themselves, but their families and parish life and the community."
Such a study program would expand the parish sense of community as well as lead them to reflect together on an underlying theme of Fratelli Tutti: Who is My Neighbor?
"Fratelli Tutti is a great document, not just for the Church but for the world," says Father Kraus. "It talks about how we understand and approach the common good. If we are going to work for the common good, locally, nationally, internationally, Pope Francis says we have to base it on the fact that we are brothers and sisters."
Parish 'Fratelli Tutti' Study Groups Go Virtual, Today's Catholic
In an essay for The New York Times last November, Pope Francis exhorted us to “dare to create something new.” With the coronavirus pandemic reaching new heights, he challenged us to reject a strain of selfishness fed by a distorted ideology of personal freedom.
For this reason, the primary audience for Let Us Dream includes ordinary citizens and the institutions in which they organize. The book was written in collaboration with Austen Ivereigh, who previously worked with Citizens UK—which is a sister organization of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the largest and longest-operating community organizing coalition in the United States. (Listen to an interview with Mr. Ivereigh about the book on America’s “Inside the Vatican” podcast.) The “inclusive populism” of community organizing is a practical embodiment of Pope Francis’ vision.
In Let Us Dream, Francis urges the church to be more receptive to such popular alliances—accompanying them both practically and spiritually, without seeking to dominate. He identifies “labor” and “lodgings” as two of the key issues for grass-roots action. The success of the I.A.F.’s Living Wage campaigns, and its renewal of whole neighborhoods in New York and Baltimore through the Nehemiah Housing program, demonstrates the power of institution-based organizing. If parishes and dioceses heed the pope’s call to engage with new vigor in this work, it can play a significant role in the civic renewal that is so urgently needed.
Pope Francis has Criticized Both the Left and the Right’s Politics. Community Organizing Offers a Third Way, America, The Jesuit Review [pdf]