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Church-based Community Organizing: Philadelphia Perspectives

Donna C. (Katie) Day

Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia
7301 Germantown Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19119-1794
Tel. 215 248-4616



The suitability of congregations for community organizing

Political strategies and their effectiveness with African American Congregations

Political and religious environmental factors




contribute to this conversation on the role of religious institutions in community organizing out of my own dissertation research between 1990-1994 in Philadelphia (Prelude to Struggle: African American Clergy and Community Organizing for Economic Development in the 1990’s, Temple University, 1996). This was a study of ten African American congregations in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the U.S.-- North Philadelphia. All were involved in some form of community economic development (CED) which included activities intent on attracting capital to their neighborhood, as they defined the boundaries. The projects were diverse and complex: commercial development (shopping mall), housing (202 high-rises and large tracts of low and moderate income units), and capital formation (organizing credit unions and even a bank). Job creation was a by-product of all of these projects.

It should be noted that North Philadelphia served as home base for Rev. Leon Sullivan (now retired) who, through his impressive development work in the community and through the establishment of the Opportunities Industrial Centers (O.I.C.) left a strong legacy which continues to be the dominant model for church-based CED in North Philadelphia and elsewhere. This model relies on entrepreneurial pastors, working independently for the benefit of their immediate area through strategies of accessing the power structure for resources, but rarely challenging it. Five of the churches in the study employed this approach.

In 1992, a local affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation was organized,Philadelphia Interfaith Action (PIA). This resulted from four years of training, organizing and fundraising by a "sponsoring committee" comprised almost entirely from Catholic and African American clergy. The church-based community organization model differs in significant ways from the paradigm for community development which had been effectively utilized by African American clergy mentored by Sullivan. I identified four different action frames utilized in the CBCO model:

Not all African American churches were easily drawn to the new model. In fact, some of the original Black clergy who had been instrumental in bringing the I.A.F. to Philadelphia and even participated in their 10-day training left the coalition soon after it was launched, going back to the more dominant paradigm of CED.

My study looked at both models which were pursuing the same development goals in North Philadelphia but through markedly different means. Through quantitative and ethnographic methodologies, I explored how and why congregations in the same context would construct different strategies. While not going into all the findings, I will bring this research to bear on the questions we consider together.

The suitability of congregations for community organizing

Congregations represent a confluence of resources which first attracted Ed Chambers to move toward religious institutions (rather than neighborhoods at large) as the primary units for organizing when he took over leadership of the I.A.F. (upon the death of Saul Alinsky in 1972). The capital resources are already in place: buildings and a base of dues-paying members. Further, congregations often represent the less-quantifiable elements of social capital: "Connectional" faith communities are affiliated with denominational families. This provides access to a greater pool of financial resources plus the enhanced political credibility of the local church.

Within the community, congregations are often the primary, if not only, local institution with a grassroots constituency. As such they "bring to the table" legitimacy within the community,they have been part of its past, usually associated as a stabilizing factor. Further, the futures of church and neighborhood are intrinsically related to each other. Research confirms what church leaders have long known to be true,that the likelihood that congregations are growing is correlated with the growth of its community (Roozen, 1993). Therefore, congregations have an institutional stake in quality of life and indeed, viability of the neighborhoods and communities in which they reside.

Congregations are further attractive to community organizations because of their ongoing work of producing social capital. Central to their institutional purpose is the building of consensus through the reinforcement of values and worldview. Congregations are the only institutions in communities in which volunteers participate for the purpose of individual and collective systems of meaning-making. As individualistic as congregations can be in their interpretation of transformation, there is necessarily an ethos of transcendence,connecting members to that which is outside of themselves. Members therefore participate regularly in affirming that they are part of a larger purpose and reality. Further, most congregations of all faiths reinforce the value of public participation and service. In message and program, most congregations encourage some form of engagement with the public.

An important element of social capital which religious communities also bring to community organizing is the experience of democratic participation which is present in all but the most autocratic congregations. Even those people who are among the politically disenfranchised in the broader culture can organize power bases within the smallest congregations and bring enormous passion to conflicts within their churches. Those who are without voice in the body politic find voice in the micro-democracies inherent in many congregations. It is critical in community organizing to mobilize those for whom the memory of democratic participation is not extinguished.

Of course, these elements of capital and social capital (buildings, budgets, connections, legitimacy, transcendence, ethos and the experience of democratic participation) are descriptive of many, if not most, congregations. Yet not all affiliate with CBCO coalitions. The question of why some are better suited, or at least are attracted, to community organizing was at the very core of my own research.

In my small universe (African American churches in North Philadelphia involved in economic development projects), I did not find any trends along denominational lines in the attraction to PIA, or more broadly, to community organizing. Of the five churches which did affiliate with PIA, two were part of so-called Mainline Protestant denominations (Presbyterian and Episcopal) and three were aligned with African American Protestant groups (Baptist and Church of God in Christ). Similarly, among those who followed the more traditional, entrepreneurial strategy two churches represented the African American traditions (Baptist) and three came from the Mainline Protestant denominations (Presbyterian, Methodist and American Baptist). Further, there was no significant difference in the size of the congregations,there were small and large congregations in both groups. This differs from previous studies which found that the size and denomination of a congregation are correlated with the construction of its social outreach (Lincoln & Mamiya, 1990; Paris, 1985; Pope, 1942). Generally data had suggested that larger churches from more independent (rather than connectional) traditions would be more likely to become involved in community issues.

There were a set of variables which I had thought might be at work in the choice of strategy. These included characteristics of the congregation: socio-economic class, political views and religious beliefs. There had been a long-standing tenet in the sociology of religion that political and religious conservatism were positively related (Stark & Glock, 1968, et. al.). Research in African American churches had also correlated increased participation in churches with decreasing activism (Marx, 1967). However, while the survey data in the ten churches (N=1586) showed diversity in religious beliefs, this was unrelated to the choice of strategy for economic development. Similarly, there was no difference in the socio-economic class status or the political opinions related to the economy between the two groups (whether analyzed as individuals or aggregated by congregation). There were interactions among the variables,education and denomination impacted religious beliefs, and s.e.s. was related to political views, for example. However, congregational characteristics related to its size, denomination, theological beliefs, political perspectives or the socio-economic class status of its membership could not be seen to predict who would affiliate with the IAF group and who would not.

I then turned to the pastors themselves for a series of interviews related to how they had developed their CED projects and why they chose the strategies which they had used. There was a lot of similarity among the pastors. Almost all were theologically conservative and well-educated. They shared a commitment to improving the physical, as well as the spiritual, well-being of both their congregants and their neighbors. They all saw the discrepancies in opportunities between races and classes, and acted in the ways they felt would be most effective in bringing change.

All of the pastors were acknowledged by themselves and their congregations as being the primary, if not exclusive, decision maker in whether to affiliate with PIA. The pastors basically described their decisions in pragmatic terms. That is, they either felt that they needed to broaden their power base in order to effect the changes needed for their neighborhood (and therefore joined PIA) or they believed that working in partnership or coalition with anyone would dilute a much-needed focus on their corner of North Philadelphia, and so they did not join the organization.

In back of the pragmatism were some interesting trends which shed some light on the question of "suitability."

First, the pastors who did join PIA were more "up-and-coming" than those who had opted out. That is, they had somewhat less political capital within the African American community than their fellow clergy who did not affiliate: they were younger, with fewer educational credentials and shorter tenures in their churches. Those who had chosen to work parochially (in the Sullivan paradigm) were older, more educated, from slightly larger congregations, and they were more integrated into power structures. This may have contributed to a strong sense of personal security and autonomy from other clergy. For the most part, the non-PIA pastors communicated that they did not feel like they needed to work in coalition,they had the personal and institutional resources and connections to effect the change they sought by working alone. Having gained access to the power structure, they were reticent to challenge it in the confrontational tactics they perceived the PIA to be using.

It was interesting in my sample of pastors that all of those who joined the ecumenical, multi-racial IAF group had gone to integrated colleges or seminaries and lived in significantly more integrated neighborhoods than their counterparts. The five pastors who had chosen not to join the coalition had all gone to Black colleges and lived in more segregated tracts. This suggests that those who joined the coalition had a higher comfort level with working with non-African Americans. It could further suggest that those who had resisted "diluting" their efforts for their people have a higher identification with the African American political agenda. (I am currently continuing to do research in this area of the "dual agenda" of African Americans in political coalitions.) [It should also be said that the ethos of this IAF affiliate is distinctly that of the Black church,actions are usually held in African American churches, the music, prayers and responsiveness are within the Black church vernacular. The majority of those attending rallies are African American, even though only half of the member churches are. All of this makes the experience of working in an ecumenical, multi-racial coalition less of a cultural stretch for African American churches.]

I had expected that personal histories of activism would be related to the choice of whether or not to join the IAF group. However, I found no such correlation in this sample. Those who had participated to a high degree in the Civil Rights Movement were just as likely to be pursuing the entrepreneurial approach as they were to becoming a member of the PIA. Several of the pastors in my study who had become strong, vocal leaders within PIA were actually neophytes to activism of any kind.

It was clear, however, that the action frames of the IAF, and more specifically PIA, resonated with pre-existing consciousness of the pastors had who later joined. They were not converted, or transformed, through 10-day training but found that their ideas about shared leadership, ecumenical collaboration, grassroots empowerment and challenging the power structure when needed were reinforced through their participation in PIA.

Therefore, what I would recommend (and have), to organizers wanting to recruit more African American churches not to exclude any from consideration because of assumptions about denomination, theology or church size. Large Pentecostal or small Mainline Protestant congregations are just as likely to affiliate. They should approach those pastors who they know to have had some multi-racial experience, especially in ecumenical contexts. Those more likely to respond positively, from my data, would be those on the "second tier" of political status within the African American community, rather than those who are well-known because of their political connections and/or community development projects. Those with less political capital to lose will be willing to take risks.

In conversation with potential pastors, they should not discount those with no prior history of community activism; rather they should listen for resonance to the components of shared leadership, a citywide perspective on issues, openness to challenging power structures through the empowerment of those who have been disenfranchised. Do not expect pastors to accept or reject the invitation to join the organization on ideological grounds; rather they will process the decision in terms familiar to the IAF,institutional self-interest and political pragmatism.

Political strategies and their effectiveness with African American congregations

For the most part, the African American churches in my study which had affiliated with PIA were comfortable with most of the strategies employed. As with the pastors, lay people who attended the 10-day training found that it corresponded to their worldview and life experience (several compared it to training within the corporate sector). Most of the skills learned in the training are adaptive to congregational life, such as how to analyze issues, plan and moderate meetings. One pastor remarked that he realized in sending church folk to the training that "the first action they’re going to do when they get back is on the church." He was right. Listening and conversation skills learned in doing "one-on-ones" corresponds to the religious culture of relationality and caring.

Shared leadership has been more of a stumbling block. As PIA was just moving from sponsoring committee to launched organization, a group of clergy (including two prominent African American pastors who had been instrumental in bringing the IAF to Philadelphia) wrote to Ed Chambers asking that this chapter be exempted from the larger organization’s commitment to sharing leadership among clergy and lay people. He, of course, declined. They, in turn, used this as the basis for their decision not to affiliate with PIA,he just didn’t understand the way things were done in Philadelphia, they argued. Even for those who have enthusiastically joined the coalition, sharing the podium and the power with others,especially laypeople, women, and even other pastors,has taken some getting used to.

For African Americans, at least in North Philadelphia, there is low expectation for democratic participation in policy-making which impacts the quality of life in their neighborhoods. There is not a strong memory of public democracy which they hope to recover. Even those pastors who have managed to access power realize they are the exceptions, rather than the rule and have a responsibility as representatives of the community.

Alongside the low democratic expectations, there is a high sense of grievance. Poverty is becoming more entrenched in Philadelphia. Nine new "ghetto" tracts were created between the 1980 and 1990 census (Wilson, 1996). In the survey, more believed that government was to blame for causing poverty than individual characteristics of laziness or luck or structural causes of racism or job availability. A clear plurality believed that government was primarily responsible for ending poverty,again ahead of individuals, businesses, churches or community organizations. The statement on the survey which elicited the highest consensus was "In order to bring poverty to an end, there will have to be major changes in our economic system" to which 80% agreed. Despite the level of dissatisfaction with the government and economy, even among this middle-class sample, the overwhelming strategy for social change they believed to be most effective was "spiritual conversion". Three times more respondents opted for divine intervention above electoral politics.

Therefore, what resonates with the African American members of PIA is a political process which bypasses electoral politics. (There is more that can be said about the disillusionment with electoral politics at this moment in Philadelphia’s history.) The IAF is careful about remaining non-partisan so that it can maintain freedom to "hold accountable" public officials. As issues are framed in moral, even spiritual terms, there is the opportunity for a righteous rage to find voice. In interviews, PIA pastors spoke of threat and conflict in the metaphors of war (while the pastors using the traditional model preferred more corporate images). There is a deep prophetic tradition embedded in the collective memory of these Bible-believing African American Christians which is visibly tapped in public actions. One defining moment of the organization came when Philadelphia District Attorney, Lynne Abraham, was booed out of the church by PIA members at a rally. While a few laypeople did feel uncomfortable with some of the confrontational tactics, most (including all the pastors interviewed) found them to be appropriate responses coming out of a strong theological/moral rationale. They were able to locate the threat not in the person, but in the system within which they acted.

There was one sticking point for some of the African American PIA members which was more problematic,the inclusion of a synagogue in the coalition. While they shared the prophetic tradition with the Jewish faith, they often invoked the name of Jesus as source of their power and blessing for their actions. Prayers, songs and speech often made reference to Jesus. Learning to be more inclusive felt like compromising the faith to many. While this issue was not resolved during the period of my research, it remained subterranean. Eventually, the synagogue left PIA.

Political and religious environmental factors

The most obvious hindrance to CBCO in Philadelphia is that this is such an inherently parochial city. Ecumenism has always struggled. Congregations and faith traditions remain segregated, on Sunday morning and throughout the week. Throughout the four years of the sponsoring committee, significant relationships were built between African American and Roman Catholic clergy. There was little precedent for this in Philadelphia. The week before the opening assembly (February, 1992), the Cardinal forbade Catholic participation in the organization. [No explanation was provided but it was suspected that he had a negative view of the IAF from his previous assignment in Pittsburgh.] This was surprising, especially given the investment of resources made by the Catholic church,not only human, but financial as well through the Campaign for Human Development. The African American clergy grieved with the priests in the group over their enforced exclusion.

Given the institutional parochialism of Philadelphia, crossing boundaries of race, class and tradition is a behavior which has to be learned (and not always easily, as in the case with the synagogue). Beyond the intentions of individuals are the structural sources of parochialism,as in the case with the Archdiocese, which still prohibits Catholic participation in PIA. While denominations have provided funding for the group, as with other IAF affiliates, support for a cause outside of the tradition does not come easily.

The participation of African American churches was probably aided by a "trigger event," or "change in political opportunity" in the language of social movement theory (McAdam, 1982). There was a dramatic and sudden rearrangement of the Black power structure when Mayor Wilson Goode left office and Congressman Bill Gray resigned in 1991. The Black Clergy Association, which had been closely associated with both of the politicians, and fostered the Sullivan paradigm of CED, found itself politically disoriented without its direct access to political power. This led some pastors to question how they would then be able to leverage public funding for local CED projects. For some, the conclusion was a reformulation of their understanding of power as represented by the newly emerging coalition, PIA. Of course, these sorts of trigger events are difficult to predict or to manufacture. But PIA was able to capitalize on the realignments which were taking place.

Perhaps the greatest political challenge to PIA right now is the popularity of the mayor, Ed Rendell. His national profile ("America’s Mayor") has resulted from his dramatic reversal of Philadelphia’s fiscal health largely through some highly visible strategies including a showdown with the municipal workers unions and extensive downtown development. His political capital is such that he can ignore neighborhood issues or act rudely to delegations from PIA and not suffer public censure. While he has supported land acquisition for PIA’s first stage of Nehemiah Housing, that support did not come easily. Rendell’s predecessor, Wilson Goode, owed his election (and especially his re-election) to the African American churches of the city. For Rendell, political indebtedness to the religious community, and more particularly the Black churches, does not exist. One of the congregations in the study, which had opted not to join PIA but was involved in developing its own shopping plaza, had contributed $10,000 to the Rendell campaign. It remains to be seen whether that will be buy enough political capital to leverage much-needed federal funds.


I have engaged these questions out of the particularity of Philadelphia, PIA and African American congregations in North Philadelphia. These observations should be tested in other contexts to determine the extent that they can be generalized, if at all. However, in a variety of particular contexts a broader social movement is taking place,the grassroots movement to re-enfranchise the poor in democratic participation in the public decisions which affect the quality of life in their communities. It is essential to document the many expressions of this movement so that the overall directions can be identified.


Day, Donna C. (Katie). Prelude to Struggle: African American Clergy and Community Organizing for Economic Development in the 1990's (Dissertation: Temple University, 1996)

Lincoln, C. Eric and Lawrence H. Mamiya. The Black Church in the African American Experience. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1990.

Marx, Gary T. "Religion: Opiate or Inspiration of Civil Rights Militancy among Negroes?" ASR 32(1967): 67-68.

McAdam, Doug. Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency 1930-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Paris, Peter. The Social Teaching of the Black Churches. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

Pope, Liston. Millhands and Preachers. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1942.

Stark, Rodney and Charles Glock. American Piety: The Nature of Religious Commitment. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

Wilson, William Julius. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.