Community organizing is nothing new to St. Charles Episcopal Church in St. Charles, Illinois. As a founding member of the Fox River Valley Initiative (FRVI), an affiliate of a community organizing network called the Industrial Areas Foundation, St. Charles has been building relationships and making change at the local level for nearly a decade.
As social and political divisions have deepened in recent months, the work has taken on new meaning, providing an increasingly rare example of a non-partisan partnership that effectively advocates for the most vulnerable members of the community.
“Organizations like the FRVI are fiercely non-partisan,” says the Rev. Stacy Walker, St. Charles’s rector and FRVI board member. “And they are an example of democracy at work from the ground up. The people in our churches and other institutions in our neighborhoods are aware of the needs of the people in the community, and we’re all about raising those needs and building relationships with allies, including political leaders, to bring our faith to fruition for the good of the community.”
These days, FRVI focuses on access to affordable housing, the needs of the mentally ill and those with substance use disorder, gun safety, and government transparency. Its priorities emerge, says St. Charles member and FRVI staff organizer Ed Manning, from the relationships among its members.
“We were part of the first five or six churches that came on board with this idea of a community organizing initiative in our area,” says Manning, who served as St. Charles’s senior warden when FRVI was founded. “For the first couple years, we learned to know a little bit about each other, what we were passionate about, what excited us about our community, and we built those inter-institutional relationships,” Manning says. “We started with five or six member organizations and now we have 17. So now we’ve got that relational power and those relationships so we can go to politicians and talk about issues. And when I say relationship, I don’t mean just we go to them when we think there’s a problem — they come to us too.”
For example, recently the state’s attorney alerted FRVI to the fact that the county board chairman had put together a committee made up of five men tasked with distributing the $93 million awarded to the county as a result of the Coronvirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
“So, we put our heads together,” Manning says. “We wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper decrying this and asking ‘Where are the women, where are the people of color, why isn’t there more representation on this committee?’” Shortly after the letter was published, the county board met, dissolved the existing committee, and convened a new, larger committee with “better, but not perfect representation,” he says. “We sent a representative from our group to every meeting. When they started out, there was no talk about distributing the money to non-profits. In the end, they did give money to non-profits — it’s not a lot, but it’s more than $0, which is where we started.”
“This is a way of living our faith actively in collaboration with other people of faith and other concerned citizens,” Walker says. “We don’t raise money to do these things, we raise and organize power and build relationships. Because the money is already there — at the county level, for example.”
Walker emphasizes that the nature of community organizing allows a congregation of any size to get involved and make a real difference in its community. “You don’t need a big church with lots of money to have a powerful impact on your community,” she says. “A church of any size can get involved and organize with other churches and groups in their community and build relationships with their local officials. It’s not only possible, it’s necessary.”
Right now, FRVI is focused on two local elections. For the first time in eight years, neither the incumbent for state’s attorney nor the incumbent for county chairperson in Kane County is running for re-election. On Sunday, September 20, FRVI hosted a “virtual action” on Zoom with the candidates running for these positions. The central question asked of the candidates was, “Will you commit to sitting down and meeting with FRVI within 60 days of your taking office?”
“In this current political climate, it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed, discouraged and afraid to talk about politics in any way, shape or form, because there’s so much polarization,” Walker says. “But the truth is that most of the decisions that get made that have a direct effect on the lives of the people happen at the local level. What I saw from this virtual action we had on Sunday is that most of our local politicians really do care and they really do want to hear from the people, and they love their communities as much as the rest of us do. And so, work like this is very important work because together we can make positive change that has the most impact on folks. I’ve found that in working with FRV Initiative it really hasn’t mattered which party the person is. What matters is the mutual respect and working together for the common good.”
Walker and Manning encourage congregations of any size to consider getting involved in local community organizing. Those interested may email Manning to learn more about how to get started.
“People do want to hear from the church,” Walker says. “I think our voice is most powerful and most needed when it comes to the concerns of the vulnerable and helping people of power hear that. And not just helping them — insisting they hear that and respond. Living the Gospel is not an intellectual exercise, it’s a spiritual daily discipline. It’s a way of life.”