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Edgar Velasco had plenty to be nervous about as he stepped into a meeting with San Bernardino County’s Housing Director last August to discuss rental assistance funding for those hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

He was new to talking policy with government leaders, and the meeting was not in his native Spanish. Still, he says he believes God put him in the meeting and would give him the words to help him get his point across.

“We made him see he could make changes to help people in need,” Velasco, a parishioner at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Chino, said of the meeting. “I was very emotional getting that opportunity to participate, to be there to represent the people in need.”

Velasco is one of many Catholics in the West End Vicariate of the Diocese that is receiving formal training in the process of civic engagement from Inland Communities Organizing Network (ICON). The community organizing group began working with parishes in the West End at the invitation of Bishop Gerald Barnes in 2017. It is being funded by a three-year grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the anti-poverty program of the U.S. Bishops. The grant is allocated on a $60,000 per year basis.

Sister Hortensia del Villar, SAC, Director of Community Services and Outreach Programs, oversees the awarding of CCHD grants in the Diocese. She said groups like ICON and Inland Congregations United for Change (ICUC) provide the expertise to help Catholics connect their faith with advocating public policy issues that are most affecting their communities.

“It’s empowering the people to be agents of their own change,” said Sr. Hortensia.

The need for the faithful to engage decision makers in government became more acute with the onset of the pandemic and its devastating health and financial impacts. San Bernardino County was charged with dispersing millions in federal rental assistance dollars, but bureaucratic red tape and arduous requirements were preventing many who were on the edge of eviction from getting the help they needed.

Velasco was among a small group of Catholics who met with Gary Hallen, then Director of Community Development and Housing for San Bernardino County on August 20, 2021. The discussion ultimately helped prompt the County to remove several application barriers that were preventing impoverished families from receiving rental assistance, when the next round of federal funds was released a few months later. Among the lessons learned from ICON’s training, Velasco said, is that there is strength in numbers.

“We’re like fish in the ocean,” Velasco said of his lobbying group. “It’s hard for them to listen to one, but they hear us as the whole group.”

Parishes that have received regular training from ICON include St. Mary, Fontana; Sacred Heart, Rancho Cucamonga; Our Lady of Guadalupe, Chino; and Our Lady of Guadalupe, Ontario. St. Anthony, Upland; Our Lady of Lourdes, Montclair; St. Margaret Mary, Chino; and St. Joseph, Upland have also worked with ICON.

While the end goal is often policy change, an important first step is questioning and dialogue among the parish communities about what issues are affecting them the most, says Rebecca Gifford, lead organizer for ICON. During the pandemic these consultations have revealed the emotional toll of death, sickness, financial instability and other impacts.

“Parishes have been feeling the impact,” said Gifford. “Lower income families are really affected; conditions have become more unstable as costs continue to rise.”

After key challenges have been identified, parish organizing teams are formed and they begin a closer study of the issues and what are the systemic factors that drive political decisions. Velasco said that as issues like hunger, housing and the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine rose to the top of the priority ladder, he and the rest of his parish team went out to find resources in the community to address those concerns.

“People look to us to get help,” he said proudly.

Pastors of the West End parishes agree that the community organizing training and work has helped to create a sense of unity during a fractious time.

“Organizing will keep pushing us and reminding us that we have to keep working this out together,” said Father Ed Gomez, Pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Chino. “[It] gives a chance for the parish to do what it is meant to do from the beginning: to be the heart of a living community.”

Fr. Gomez and others see a connection between the spirit of community organizing and the current Synod on Synodality, which emphasizes dialogue and questioning as a means to bring the Church together. At Sacred Heart, Rancho Cucamonga, the community organizing ministry developed with ICON linked directly to the parish synod team and listening sessions.

“Organizing is helping me to see how this shift of mentality in the whole Universal Church can be doable – starting with me and my own parish,” said Maria Eva Hernandez, Ministry Coordinator at Sacred Heart. “Even though it sounds overwhelming, it can be done.”