When my husband Bill and I were based in Chicago, we became involved with the Community Renewal Society, a faith-based organization that focuses on race and poverty issues. CRS is a stellar model of churches organizing for social action.
Here’s how their website, www.communityrenewalsociety.org, describes what they do: “Community Renewal Society works to empower individuals, community-based organizations and congregations to advocate for social and economic justice. Through its pioneering efforts, Community Renewal Society moves civic and religious leaders to take action on issues of racism and poverty.”
CRS publishes two newsmagazines that help to research and identify issues of concern, providing fodder for community action. Catalyst Chicago focuses on public education, and The Chicago Reporter focuses on race and poverty issues. The CRS Civic Action Network provides advocacy training and organizes individuals from an ecumenical group of over 50 churches to take action.
Bill worked with a group that sought equality in nursing home care for homes located in the poor and primarily African American south side of Chicago. The Chicago Reporter found that nursing homes owned by one company provided higher quality services for the homes it ran in predominantly white neighborhoods than for those it ran in predominantly black neighborhoods. With publicity, that campaign was successful.
Both Bill and I worked with a group that challenged the Illinois General Assembly to provide adequate funding for the public school system. At that time, Illinois was the 4th richest state in the United States, but it ranked next to last among the states in the amount of state funding provided for public schools. Public school financing in Illinois is predominantly based on real estate taxes, resulting in a large disparity in the amount of money available for public schools among the rich and poor neighborhoods. Studies show that children from poor and broken families need twice as much funding for their educational support than do the children from families with better resources. Illinois’ system provides the opposite.
We also advocated for the Chicago Public School system to stop expelling minority boys from school at a much higher rate than other children. An investigative report showed that the CPS policy on expelling children related directly to the number of children who ended up in the correctional system–i.e., that’s where the “poverty to prison” pipeline begins, and also where, with some effort, I believe it could be ended.
What fond memories I have of some of the elders of our congregation getting on a bus with people from all over the city to go down to the State Capitol in Springfield and advocate for equality in nursing home care. How great it felt to participate in a rally outside of the Illinois Capitol building and find out that the legislators really were paying attention. How inspired I was when we gathered hands in the rotunda of the Capitol Building to sing hymns and pray, and some of the lobbyists and legislators joined with us. How invigorating to converse on topics of importance with state Senators and Representatives, even though sometimes it seemed like we were talking to brick walls.
Too many of our young people today think that church is not relevant. Seeing churches in action and making a difference in the society may be just what they need to become more involved. I applaud the Community Renewal Society and the young people who work there. I especially appreciate the lead organizer, Alex Wiesendanger, for his superb leadership and organizing efforts, and I offer my sincere gratitude for the leadership of Rev. Dr. Calvin Morris, who retired last year as the Executive Director.
If some of you have had similar experiences with faith-based community groups, I’d love to hear about them.