In October, 1995, 2,000 angry citizens packed a hotel ballroom in San Jose, Calif., to proclaim their discontent with an education system that runs their children through the grades without teaching them the skills needed to land a job. According to The American News Service, the protests produced results, as state leaders endorsed a bill to expand school-to-work programs.
The confrontation was revealing in part because of who was behind it--a coalition of church organizations representing a face of religious activism that usually does not get the headlines. Normally what grabs attention is the high-profile conservative political agenda of groups such as the Christian Coalition founded by televangelist Pat Robertson.
Even as the religious right carries the day in the national news, another side of religious activism is growing. Hundreds of thousands of church members are confronting social and economic problems that range from drug addiction and homelessness to low wages and low-quality education. For instance, the San Jose group was rallied by the church-backed Pacific Institute for Community Organization, with a combined membership of 750,000 spread across nine states.
In some cases, individual congregations or denominations have plunged ahead--on their own--into the rough waters of social change. More often, though, they go forth as members of an ecumenical body that connects congregations--Catholic and Protestant, white and black, occasionally Jewish and Muslim--in a common cause. These groups concentrate less on single issues such as housing than on building community organizations and strengthening their ability to address a wide array of concerns. …