When Pope Francis told a group of U.S. community organizers that their work was “atomic,” Jorge Montiel said, “I thought, ‘Oh, you mean we blow things up?'”
But instead, the pope spoke about how the groups associated with the West/Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation in the United States take issues patiently, “atom by atom,” and end up building something that “penetrates” and changes entire communities, said Montiel, an IAF organizer in Colorado and New Mexico, the USCCB reports.
Pope Francis’ hourlong meeting on 14 September with 15 delegates from the group was a follow-up to a similar meeting a year ago. Neither meeting was listed on the pope’s official schedule and, the delegates said, both were conversations, not “audiences.”
“It was relaxed, it was engaging,” said Joe Rubio, national co-director of IAF. “Often you don’t see that even with parish priests,” he told Catholic News Service Sept. 15, garnering the laughter of other delegates.
Elizabeth Valdez, an IAF organizer in Texas, said the delegates told the pope about their work to promote a living wage, to welcome immigrants, to protect the environment, to improve schools and to get more people access to mental health services — all efforts that grew out of listening to people in their communities talk about what they needed and then building partnerships with churches, synagogues or mosques, unions, local nonprofits and community service providers.
Rubio said the group has an 80-year history in community organizing and “in the last 50 years, parishes have become really integral to the work,” much of which echoes the tenets of Catholic social teaching.
One thing Pope Francis noted at last year’s meeting with the group is how it also models key parts of his vision of a “synodal church,” one where people listen to each other, empower each other, take responsibility and work together to respond to concrete needs. Several bishops in Texas used local community organising teams to conduct their diocesan listening sessions at the start of the process for the current Synod of Bishops, said Father David Garcia, who has spent decades working in San Antonio, Texas, with Communities Organized for Public Service.
The Industrial Areas Foundation was founded by Saul Alinsky in Chicago in 1940. Alinsky worked closely with a number of YCW leaders and chaplains, including Msgr Jack Egan, who was also chaplain to the Christian Family Movement
Jack Egan (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)
Obituary Msgr Jack Egan (Catholic New World)
Pope Francis shares a laugh with Tazamisha Alexander, a leader with Common Ground in Solano Country, Calif., a group affiliated with the West/Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation, in his Vatican residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, Sept. 14, 2023. (CNS photo/Courtesy of West/Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation)