Just under three years old, CSPL combines the methods of traditional grassroots community organizing—pioneered by Christian Base Communities in Latin America and Saul Alinksy’s Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago—with the beliefs and principles of Catholic social teaching, theology, and spirituality. Structured as an independent nonprofit organization and funded by a combination of dues-paying members and donations, it’s an emerging alliance that links a range of partners—parishes, schools, hospitals, universities, unions, cooperatives, and other community and faith-based associations—across the entire Chicagoland area.
CSPL’s mission is to overcome “systemic racial, social, economic, and environmental injustice by building power that is rooted in the vision of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” In concrete terms, that means identifying individuals—especially women and people of color—with the capacity for leadership, and then training them to enter strategically into political and public life.
Appropriately, CSPL itself evolved out of a parish in Maywood, St. Eulalia’s. Founded in 1927, the parish and its parochial school originally served affluent white Catholics who had left Chicago for the elegant new suburbs west of the city. Starting in the 1940s, though, and continuing into the ’60s, Maywood’s demographics shifted drastically.
By 1967 the town had become majority African American, and the tensions of the civil-rights era had spread from the city to the suburbs. But under the charismatic leadership of a new pastor, Fr. William Quinn, St. Eulalia’s welcomed Maywood’s black population, integrating and becoming known not just in Chicago but around the country as a social-justice hub. Quinn, an expert on the Latin American church, had attended two sessions of the Second Vatican Council, marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and advised Cesar Chavez. Fr. Andrew Greeley, a well-known liberal Catholic commentator (and frequent Commonweal contributor), considered him a mentor.
[The Church today looks very different from how it was in 1970. See the data here.]
Quinn died in 2004, but inspired by his legacy, St. Eulalia’s built a community center in his name. It opened in the former parochial school building in 2011, consolidating and expanding the parish’s various social-justice ministries: a soup kitchen and food pantry, youth tutoring and mentoring programs, outreach to the elderly, a computer lab and classrooms for job training, and English and Spanish language lessons for new immigrants, especially Maywood’s rapidly growing Mexican-American population.
It was there, in 2017, that CSPL’s founding members first met and got to talking. They’d all been involved in organizing and justice work, but wanted to bring their commitments to spiritual and public life to push for social change. The key, they realized, would be to ground their activism in prayer and theology. This approach would have the potential not only to galvanize and transcend the divisiveness often found in activist circles; it could also energize and transform a stalled, divided Catholic Church that seemed more focused on parsing doctrine and preserving institutional power than in building community.
Over a home-cooked meal of tamales and flautas, I talked with CSPL training committee chair and board secretary Joanna Arellano and her husband, CSPL executive director Michael Okińczyc-Cruz. The couple live in a modest apartment in Pilsen, a traditionally working-class but now rapidly gentrifying Chicago neighborhood just southwest of the Loop. We were joined by three other members of the CSPL board: John DeCostanza, a campus minister at nearby Dominican University; Kathleen Maas-Weigert, a professor of sociology at Loyola University Chicago; and Gabriel Lara, CSPL’s full-time economic justice organizer.
We talked about how CSPL’s work brings Catholic spirituality, and the church’s mission to care for the poor and marginalized, more forcefully into public life. Lara, originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, explained that he’d once studied for the priesthood but then discerned a call to lay life, afterwards working as a lay minister in a parish in the United States. He valued his time in the seminary, which also left him with a call to service and helped lead him to cofound CSPL.
Arellano had a similar experience. “I wanted to find a way of exercising my power that was also grounded in my faith,” she said. “Growing up as a first-generation Latina in Chicago, I experienced racism and sexism all too frequently. But my mom—a member of UNITE-HERE Local 1 and one of the baddest lunch ladies in Chicago—taught me how to overcome it, not just through organizing, but also through prayer and contemplation.” Arellano explained that as a child she’d witnessed her mother participate in marches and demonstrations for the rights of workers and immigrants. “Her Catholic faith was central to who she was: a contemplative activist, and a prophetic mystic. Injustice is like a broken tapestry—our task is to stitch the People of God back together.”
But how? Again and again, our conversation turned to the necessity (and difficulty) of building power at the margins of society. Racism, xenophobia, income inequality, and other forms of oppression aren’t easily overcome. But there’s a method for it, and for CSPL, it starts with listening to people on the ground. You can’t accurately gauge the needs and aspirations of members of marginalized groups and communities just by hosting big town-hall-style meetings or rallies. What about those who don’t speak up? And social media can be useful in getting the word out, but it can’t substitute for actual dialogue. That’s why intimate person-to-person meetings called “one-on-ones” are so essential. These “sacred conversations” don’t just permit greater honesty, and trust; they allow the Spirit, not the ego, to set the agenda.
And then there’s always the temptation to “do something,” to “take action.” That’s necessary to bring about change, but the impulse needs to be resisted, at least at first; reflection is more important. It’s another way CSPL infuses traditional methods of community organizing—which often begins with political and power analysis—with Catholic spirituality. Instead of a purely secular “clarification of thought,” CSPL engages in spiritual discernment, a process (pioneered by St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits) of prayerfully and communally pondering the path forward in the light of God.
Discernment, the group explained, isn’t so much about obtaining pragmatic consensus as it is a way of incarnating the church as the members of CSPL want it to be, moving it into more direct engagement in the public square. It’s a way of proceeding that’s not hierarchical or authoritarian, but horizontal and relational. Pope Francis might call CSPL’s approach synodal—by walking together, members create new synergies and open new spaces, freeing people’s latent energies and talents to emerge and bear fruit.
“And that’s precisely where many of our parishes are falling short,” Okińczyc-Cruz said. He meant that while parishes may well provide community, sacramental nourishment, and a spiritual home, they’re also failing to empower their parishioners to advocate more forcefully for their political and economic interests. Parishes might be ministering to people on the margins, but they’re not letting them lead.
“As Catholics we hear terms like ‘power’ and ‘self-interest,’ and it makes us nervous,” Okińczyc-Cruz said. “But we’re followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who preached a message of justice and radical mercy, who boldly challenged unjust systems of oppression.” He stressed that Christ Himself—whom he characterizes as one of the most successful community organizers in history—encourages us to enter directly into politics not naively, but compassionately. “We can’t understand the depth and meaning of God’s love if we’re not willing to hear and respond to God’s cry for justice.”
Just before dinner, Okińczyc-Cruz had driven me around Maywood. He explained that many of its suburban residents lacked access to the economic opportunities available in the city. “All of the construction, all of the capital is being pumped into the old working-class neighborhoods of Chicago, colonizing those neighborhoods and pushing people out here. Due to rising rents, poorly funded schools, and violence, Maywood’s one of the few places families can afford to live.”
Which is what makes Maywood such an important community to organize with. Parking outside the Quinn Center at St. Eulalia’s, Okińczyc-Cruz talked me through CSPL’s successes thus far. One early victory was bringing together parents, school administrators, and police to create the “Smart Routes” program. Modeled on “Safe Routes,” developed in Chicago’s South Side, it’s a violence-prevention initiative that, besides guaranteeing a safe passage to school for young children, enables Maywood parents to take a more active role in communicating their needs to local government officials.
That experience of organizing and being heard had a ripple effect, leading CSPL to take action on a number of other issues. First was the lack of access to a decent supermarket. Maywood is a food desert, and residents have to travel to shop for groceries a few miles away. But the store is near an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office, which discourages undocumented residents from making the trip. So CSPL began working with local grassroots leaders, parishes, and universities to form worker-owned cooperatives (cooperativas) to help provide healthy food alternatives to the Maywood community. Then, besides the census initiative currently underway, CSPL also wanted to confront the acute mental-health crisis and suicide epidemic in the Latinx and African-American communities, which tend to stigmatize mental illness and depression. So it started training community leaders, and advocated for training for local police officers, to administer person-to-person mental health first-aid. Even with events like the El Paso pilgrimage drawing closer, Okińczyc-Cruz stressed the importance of the local. “The trip will come and go. Our work—training leaders, building our institutional partnerships, engaging in grassroots community organizing—has to happen here.”