USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Forging a New Moral and Political…

Faith groups in the civic sphere of Los Angeles

Currently, faith groups in Los Angeles exhibit five different, although sometimes overlapping, approaches to meeting the needs they see in the public sphere: 1) Charity in the form of volunteerism and service provision in which groups seek to alleviate immediate problems for individuals and families; 2) Organizing efforts intended to nurture community leadership and develop public policy initiatives; 3) Advocacy that involves speaking out on behalf of marginalized populations or addressing particular issues of discrimination or injustice; 4) Community development to improve economic opportunities and well-being of communities; and 5) Interfaith dialogue to foster understanding between different religious traditions, often using a variety of the strategies listed above.

A recent report on volunteerism in American life from the National Conference on Citizenship6 showed that over 35 percent of those who perform volunteer service do so through a religious organization. Much of the work of faith-based organizations and congregations is staffed by volunteers who want to put their beliefs into action in a tangible way. Charitable activities include food programs and the provision of clothing and short-term shelter. These projects can be found in individual congregations, as well as denominational structures and large-scale formal organizations. For individual congregations, charity services operate in addition to their other programs and ministries but may also be related to other civic efforts, such as interfaith alliances or community organizing. The Islamic Center of Southern California, for example, has focused many of its public efforts around interfaith initiatives and outreach with other community groups, but in the last few years has also opened up a food pantry that partners with the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank to serve needy families in the surrounding community. In addition, the Islamic Center has established an alliance with QueensCare, a Christian faith-based organization, in order to provide basic healthcare screening, such as blood pressure testing and flu shots.

Examples of this sort can be multiplied many times over across the Los Angeles area. Many congregations and FBOs have a fundamental commitment to provide the basic necessities for the neediest members of their communities. In fact, charity is the primary mode of civic engagement for most groups rather than community organizing or development. This is not to suggest that these groups are not interested in effecting positive social change in Los Angeles; rather, the particular way they understand how change happens is expressed through action that aligns with their religious worldview. One example of this would be the Dream Center located in Echo Park. The Dream Center, a large Pentecostal Christian organization, operates over 200 social outreach ministries with a reported budget of $650,000 per month. These ministries range from food distribution to personal recovery programs for addicts. The Dream Center operates programs from a religious perspective that is intended to provide assistance and to bring about personal transformation. Transforming the individual, when multiplied thousands of times, is the way organizations like the Dream Center envision achieving larger social change.

Food Trucks go out to serve the community five days
a week, going to 31 sites in some of the poorest areas
of Los Angeles, including many of the inner city projects
and high crime areas, to both the young and the
elderly. They reach 1,500 people in over 400 families
each day they go out. Each month they’re able to
feed over 32,000 people in over 9,000 families.7
Dream Center website description

“We have, on average, about
100-120 families that we feed
each week on Saturdays and
they come here to receive
bags of groceries and other

Jihad Turk, Director of Religious Affairs,
Islamic Center of Southern California

While the provision of basic services is a vital part of the civic efforts of faith-based organizations, these efforts are by definition stop-gap measures, or as more than one person told us, a “band-aid” on the problems in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, without these efforts, many more people would go hungry or find themselves living on the street. For example, a majority of the groups that work with the Los Angeles County Regional Foodbank network, which is currently providing food assistance to about 10 percent of the population in Los Angeles County, are religionrelated organizations. Our calculations show that 71 percent of food pantries, 50 percent of kitchens and 30 percent of shelters are run by faith-based agencies affiliated with churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious organizations.8 However, while faith-based organizations that provide this and similar types of charity relief are an essential part of the social safety net in Los Angeles, it is important to keep in mind that these efforts do not seek to solve the underlying causes of homelessness, hunger, lack of housing and other related issues.

“Shelters are not housing.
They are not a fix; they are
a band-aid and there are not

Susan Stouffer, Peace with Justice Organizer,
United University Church

Faith Communities and Organizing
There are several organizing groups in Los Angeles that involve faith communities, each of which has a general focus on policy issues in areas such as education reform, building healthy and safe neighborhoods, addressing issues of housing and homelessness, health care, immigration, and prisoner reentry. Two of the most well known groups are the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) organization One LA, and the PICO9 affiliate, LA Voice. One LA, which was formed in July 2004, is the product of several years of work to combine many related IAF organizations into one regional organization. Its goal is to “publicly recognize and take responsibility for civic life in Los Angeles County.”10 LA Voice is the result of the 2006 merger of two PICO affiliates. In contrast to One LA, which also includes in its membership groups beyond the faith community such as schools, unions and secular nonprofits, LA Voice is rooted exclusively in religious congregations focused in four parts of Los Angeles: West L.A., Hollywood, East L.A., and South L.A. Its 26 member congregations include Catholic, Protestant, and an increasing number of Jewish and Muslim congregations. Two other important organizing groups in Los Angeles are Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), and Regional Congregations and Neighborhood Organizations (RCNO). CLUE was founded in 1996, bringing together religious leaders of different faiths to “support low-wage workers in their struggles for a living wage, health benefits, respect and a voice in the corporate and political decisions that will affect them.”11 CLUE is also an interfaith organization and includes diverse religious representation: mosques, synagogues, and various Christian congregations (African American, Latino Pentecostal, Korean, and others). RCNO was originally established in Philadelphia, but was relocated to Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. Unlike the other organizations noted above, RCNO has a particular niche in the faith-based organizing world, focusing on small to medium size (250-member or less) African American congregations as the site of most of its efforts.

“Every major faith tradition
speaks to justice. Every major
faith tradition says pretty
firmly that there is a God who
believes in justice. What we
try to do is to translate those
collective religious values into
the creation of just public

Jared Rivera, Former Executive Director,

Beyond their differing strategies of community engagement and core constituencies, these groups share a commitment to pursue social justice and to build the social capital and leadership capabilities of the people in the communities they serve, with the goal of producing more active participants in the civic sphere. This in turn increases the capacity of communities that have often been shut out of public discussion and expands the public square to include a broader range of voices and perspectives on important public matters.

When we asked about successes in their work, leaders from these organizations pointed to a number of “wins,” like getting a “living wage” law passed and working with Los Angeles City Council members to pass a “responsible banking” ordinance12 intended to reward banks for community-minded business strategies. But they also measured success in other ways. For instance, they pointed to the importance of nurturing the kind of deep relationships that would be essential if their organizations were to have success at promoting positive social change over the long term.

Another area that organization leaders highlighted as a measure of success are the many community leaders that these organizations have cultivated. These civic fellow travelers, many from immigrant backgrounds, now understand the role that faith communities can play in addressing policy issues and other community concerns.

“It’s a long, slow, patient work
of one-on-one meetings, of
training sessions and debating
and arguing with people that
you really like, but who might
not think the same way as
you do.”

Samuel Chu, Chair and Board President,

Many groups from within the faith community pursue advocacy efforts for or against different social and political issues. These efforts, however, are not univocal; individual religious groups often harbor different or even competing perspectives. The debate on Proposition 8 (2008), which restricted the right to marry to heterosexual couples, provides a case in point. Several religious groups, most notably the Latter Day Saints and the Catholic Church (including Cardinal Roger Mahony), were strong proponents of the passage of Proposition 8, while the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles13 and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California lobbied against it.14 Other groups, such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council, declined to take a position on the matter.

Those of us who supported Prop 8 and worked for
its passage did so for one reason: We truly believe
that Marriage was instituted by God for the specific
purpose of carrying out God’s plan for the world and
human society. Period.

Cardinal Roger Mahony15

The Board of Rabbis of Southern California therefore
urges its members and the Jewish community to oppose
Proposition 8 which would eliminate the equal
rights of gay men and lesbians to civilly marry and
deny them equality under the law.

Resolution from the Board of Rabbis of Southern California

As Episcopal Bishops of California, we are moved
to urge voters to vote “No” on Proposition 8. Jesus
calls us to love rather than hate, to give rather than to
receive, to live into hope rather than fear.

Statement from the Episcopal Bishops of California

At the same time, religious groups that oppose each other on one issue are often strong partners on other issues. For example in contrast to its stand on Proposition 8 and its attempt to limit rights to one segment of the population, the Catholic Church and Cardinal Roger Mahony have strongly promoted immigration reform, prompting many Catholic parishes to partner with liberal mainline churches to address this issue.

Our highest priority today is to bring calm and reasoning to discussions about our immigrant brothers and sisters…. Let’s not allow fearful and ill-informed rhetoric to shape public policy. Let’s put a human face on our immigrant friends, and let’s listen to their stories and their desires to improve their own lives and the good of the nation.
Cardinal Roger Mahony 18

These cases point to the diversity of perspectives in the faith community, and suggest the challenges of maintaining alliances on important issues facing the region.

Community Development
Several faith-based community and economic development organizations were active in Los Angeles before the civil unrest of 1992, while others were established in the mid-1990s. Most famously, First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME) launched FAME Renaissance in 1992 with the intention of rebuilding south Los Angeles “economically, socially, mentally and politically.”19 Over the 13 years that Mark Whitlock was in charge of FAME Renaissance, the organization raised over $400 million through various public and private partnerships, including federal, state, county and city agencies, as well as from prominent corporations like ARCO, Disney, Warner Brothers, DreamWorks, Wells Fargo Bank, Bank of America, Comerica Bank, CitiCorp and City National Bank.

Among the array of initiatives established at FAME Renaissance was a transportation program through which people in the community were able to get to jobs and to health clinics, a welfare to work program, a venture capital fund, and a small business loan program. Since the retirement of Rev. Murray in 2004, the West Angeles Community Development Corporation (West Angeles CDC) has taken a leading role in Los Angeles faith-based community development. West Angeles CDC has had a number of successes such as building affordable housing, establishing small business development and many different public education programs, particularly around financial literacy and homeownership. West Angeles CDC also demonstrates its leadership by providing symposia and conferences to create learning opportunities for other community development organizations.

Our mission is to increase social and economic justice,
demonstrate compassion, and alleviate poverty
as tangible things of the kingdom of God, using the
vehicle of community development. What we’re saying
then is that livable wage jobs, decent affordable
housing, and an atmosphere of peace are things that
demonstrate God’s love to his people, and we’re to
be walking, living, breathing examples of that community.

Dr. Lula Ballton, Chief Executive Officer, West Angeles Community Development

There are a number of other faith-based community development organizations in Los Angeles, although few have achieved the success of FAME Renaissance in its heyday. Still, these are vital institutions in their communities, providing needed energy for affordable housing and homeownership assistance, education, small business development programs and similar efforts. Three such organizations are Ward Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), an “independent affiliate” of Ward African Methodist Episcopal Church; Korean Churches for Community Development (KCCD); and the Vermont Village Community Development Corporation, which is associated with the Crenshaw Christian Center. While each of these organizations is Los Angeles-based, the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) is national in scope but has 11 affiliates in the Los Angeles region.

The common thread that holds all of these faith-based community development organizations together is their emphasis on the need to approach community development in a holistic way, addressing not only issues of economic development but also the well-being of the people who live in the communities they serve.

“Everything that we have
done, we have done through
partnership. And as a result
of that we have people of all
colors who care about our
success because our success
is their success. Our failure is
their failure.”

Hyepin Im, President and CEO, Korean
Churches for Community Development

Interfaith Dialogue
If most of the energy of faith-based organizations is directed toward charity work, then the development of interfaith groups is the area that has seen the most growth since 1992. Many of the original efforts to “bring the community back together” after the civic unrest were oriented around dialogue within religious traditions, such as between Catholics and Protestants, as well as between different traditions, such as Christians and Jews. Outreach between ethnic congregations also figured into the mix. Although interfaith efforts in Los Angeles obviously pre-date the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, since 9/11 Muslims have become key participants in every interfaith dialogue group, whereas this was not true in 1992. After 9/11 most interfaith groups understood that they needed to include Muslims to be truly “interfaith.” Still, it is important to note that the primary impetus for this development came from Muslim leaders themselves, who understood the importance of becoming more visibly involved in interfaith efforts and more deeply engaged in the civic life of Los Angeles.

9/11 was the defining moment for the entire country
and brought out the best and the worst in people.
That no major anti-Muslim event happened spoke
volumes about the character and tolerance of the
American people. Although there was and is a lot
of Islamophobia, there was also an awareness about
Islam and Muslims. Muslims moved and made a conscious
effort to move into the mainstream and become
part of the local polity.
Dafer Dakhil, Director, Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation

These interfaith groups tend to be dominated by the more progressive elements of their participant traditions, although they are not exclusively the domain of progressives. Nor should the term “progressive” suggest that participants are somehow less committed to the particularity of their faith expressions, rather, that people participate in interfaith groups because of their strong religious convictions and experiences. This also does not mean that interfaith groups are the exclusive domain of people who agree on everything. On the contrary, the groups tend to succeed because of the relationships forged during disagreements.

Sometimes we disagree. When you talk about Proposition 8, that was a campaign that was very heavily supported by the Roman Catholics and the Mormons. Well, I have relationships with the Roman Catholics and the Mormons, so it’s a balancing act. We walk a fine line here of being true to our principles, being prophets, and at the same time being decent ordinary human beings who respect other people.
Rev. Albert Cohen, Executive Director, Southern California Ecumenical Council

The respect accorded to others illustrates the importance of interfaith groups and their work. The first and most obvious benefit of interfaith efforts is to expose people of different faith traditions to each other in order to expand mutual understanding. For example, the Christian-Muslim Consultative Group (CMCG) has developed an educational curriculum to help people understand traditions other than their own. The CMCG was founded in 2006, when a meeting of Christian and Muslim leaders in Los Angeles and Orange County was convened by Rev. Dr. Gwynne Guibord, then ecumenical officer of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, and Jihad Turk, religious director of the Islamic Center of Southern California. The group discussed the need for an ongoing leadership conclave that could address issues of common concern to Christians and Muslims in the post-9/11 context.

The educational curriculum that CMCG has developed is the “Standing Together” study program that can be used in different settings, such as churches and mosques, to “bridge the gap between Christians and Muslims.”20 There are many other interfaith groups operating in Los Angeles, each committed not only to exposing members and their congregants to other religious perspectives, but to genuine dialogue and understanding of other faiths. Some of these groups, such as the Interreligious Council of Southern California and the South Coast Interfaith Council, have been in existence for many years. Others, such as the Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP), and New Ground: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, were established in response to recent events beyond Los Angeles, but have resonance in the local multi-faith religious community.

Summary Conclusions
The net result of the many programs and faith organizations operating across these five general areas (Charity, Organizing, Advocacy, Community Development, and Interfaith Dialogue) is that there is now a “new normalcy” attached to the inclusion of faith groups in an array of civic efforts across the city and county. Still, networks across the spectrum of the faith community, regardless of which area of activity they emphasize, are, for the most part, closed organizational systems that rarely interact with other networks. Instead, they tend to focus their efforts on particular issues—neighborhood economic development, easing tension between different constituencies, and narrowly defined policy initiatives—that limit the scope of their work. This has led to the paradox of a significant amount of activity on the part of different faith groups, but few opportunities for existing networks to grow or to partner with other networks, in order to create synergy across the religious spectrum and across all of Los Angeles.


6 “Civic Life in America: Key Findings on the Civic Health of the Nation,” The National Conference on Citizenship, Corporation for National and Community Service,
September 2010. Available at
7 Accessed 11/15/2010
8 See for reports on hunger in Los Angeles. The numbers of faith-based groups participating with the LA Regional Foodbank were
calculated using the different lists of its partner agencies available
9Originally Pacific Institute for Community Organizations. See
10 Accessed 11/15/2010
11 Accessed 11/15/2010
pdf. Accessed 11/26, 2010. For a description of how the faith community was involved,
html. Accessed 11//26/2010.
13; accessed 12/20/2010. For the text of the statement from the Bishops see, http://diocal.
org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=303&Itemid=215; accessed 12/20/2010.
14,+board+of+rabbis+southern+california&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8; Accessed 12/20/2010. For the official resolution see,; Accessed 12/20/2010.
retrieved 12/13/10.
16; Accessed 12/20/2010.
17 As Episcopal Bishops of California, we are moved to urge voters to vote “No” on Proposition 8. Jesus calls us to love rather than hate, to give rather than
to receive, to live into hope rather than fear (Statement from the Episcopal Bishops
of California).
retrieved 12/13/10.
19 Accessed 11/27/2010.
20 option=com_content&view=article&id=56&Item id=56. Accessed 11/27/2010

Richard Flory is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

Brie Loskota is the former executive director (2016-2021) of the USC Center for Religion and Civil Culture.

Donald E. Miller is the co-founder of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.