An Interview with Ernesto Cortes


Ernesto Cortes, the Southwest regional director of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), is widely regarded as the most effective grassroots organizer in the nation. Working with congregations and faith communities to improve public life has long been a hallmark of his organizing strategy. Congregations thrive, he says, when they forge relationships with other community institutions and demonstrate “how people of faith can draw from deep reservoirs of inspiration and understanding and translate their tradition into meaningful public policies.” On February 20, 2001, the day that the White House officially opened its new office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, he spoke with RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY information editor Missy Daniel in Washington, D.C.

MISSY DANIEL: How does civic involvement affect the congregations and faith communities that participate in the IAF and in community organizing?

ERNESTO CORTES: The way I would put it is that IAF does institutionally based organizing, not community organizing. Our focus is always on institutions — congregations, churches, synagogues, Muslim mosques, and also schools and unions. Our focus is to work within those institutions that want to be, frankly, disrupted and challenged — by identifying and mentoring and developing new leadership, which then can connect with other institutions, which then can build a critical mass, an infrastructure of these institutions, so then they can reach out and connect people to a larger strategy.

I have seen people in churches find a strategy and a vehicle for power that enables them to act on their values, that gives meaning and significance to the traditions they believe in. Not that those traditions didn’t have meaning before, but rather that it gives them concrete ways to express those values, to act on those values. It enlivens and enriches and gives them stories to talk about and celebrate and reflect upon, which then builds the symbols of the tradition, if you will. I don’t think we transform churches. I think what we do is identify a natural leadership, which gives them the ability to revitalize and connect to their traditions.

DANIEL: But you have figured out how to draw on the scriptures and stories of faith communities in important ways.

CORTES: What’s powerful about scriptural stories, whether it’s Moses and the Burning Bush, or Esau and Jacob, or the Feeding of the Five Thousand in Luke’s Gospel, or Matthew 25, or First Corinthians — all of these enable us to grasp some very concrete and important ideas. The ideas are not abstractions — the concept of the body of Christ in the Christian tradition, for example, which is about the interconnectedness of us all. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians begins to have meaning when you talk about “he who eats and drinks without recognizing the body eats and drinks his own condemnation.” Paul is referring to the Corinthians’ humiliating poor people, humiliating those who have nothing. When you tell that story or reenact it with people of faith, that story has meaning. They don’t see the story as just happening in Corinth, they see it happening in Los Angeles or Claremont or Dallas or Fort Worth. The stories have the capacity to give meaning to the context in which they were told, but they also have the capacity to transcend that context and give some meaning and significance to our own situation.

DANIEL: Can this happen across denominations and faith traditions? How do you transcend the particularity of a religion so that the stories mean something and appeal to those in the public realm, perhaps outside the particular faith tradition?

CORTES: The word “religion” comes from religare — to bind together that which is asunder. And all religions are about that — helping us to restores the bonds of community and relationship. St. Paul says, “Without love I am nothing.” Love implies relationship. It requires reciprocity. If you’re not reciprocal, if you’re not mutual, then you’re nothing, which means you lose a dimension of your humanity. All religions are about that, it seems to me: How do we begin to reconnect with other human beings and create that solidarity, that mutuality, that reciprocity that makes us human?

DANIEL: What’s missing so far from our current public discussions about faith-based social services?

CORTES: A recognition that faith-based institutions ought to be about revitalizing and connecting and enabling us to live out the values of our traditions in the public square, not just about “providing services” competently and effectively. Faith-based institutions can do that, but my concern is that there is a larger role for congregations and churches. Just because organizations are faith-based doesn’t mean that they’re competent. The presumption of competence is not necessarily accurate. And I don’t know that I want the government deciding who is a legitimate faith-based institution or not. That bothers me a lot.

DANIEL: Do you think the new government initiative is a distraction from the larger public role of churches?

CORTES: I worry about that. I don’t know if it is or it isn’t. There is a presumption that there is going to be new money out of the surplus for this, rather than an effort on the part of the administration to say, “there is this pot of money, and now we want a competition to ensue between faith-based organizations.” Given the growing needs that we have, the suffering that people will undergo, I think that it is, unfortunately, a considerable distraction. Nobody [in the administration] has talked with me about it. I’m always open to it. I think politics is about conversation and engagement in relationships. To the extent that that’s what we do, we’re always willing to talk to people, to engage them and debate them, as long as it can be vigorous and have some integrity.

DANIEL: Some people still feel the absence in our public life of figures like the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who could really speak to a broad audience. Who are the theologians that you find helpful?

CORTES: There’s a Catholic theologian I like a lot — Donal Dorr, who wrote OPTION FOR THE POOR and MISSION IN TODAY’S WORLD. Schillebeeckx I still like. I like Pannenberg. I like Moltmann. I like Howard Thurman.

I suspect that what’s different are the times. People found Niebuhr useful when we were trying to figure out what to do about Nazism and the Second World War, and to engage an evil such as Nazism we needed some theological tools to begin to grapple with those kinds of questions.

I love David Tracy. His book PLURALITY AND AMBIGUITY speaks to me about the importance of conversation and of recognizing the plurality of our own selfhood. The Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor writes very interestingly about that — that there are multiple dimensions to our own selves; that I’m not just Mexican and Catholic. I’m also Native American and European and African. You make a big mistake when you indulge in the imagined community of nationalism and project yourself into that, instead of recognizing that there are other, stronger links to our selves than …

DANIEL: Than identity politics?

CORTES: Exactly. That there is a plurality to our selves that goes beyond being Mexican or gay or male or female or whatever it is. We are multiple persons.

DANIEL: What do you make of the new era in Mexican politics and the potential public role of religion, particularly with the new president’s very public Catholicism?

CORTES: There is going to be a public role for churches in political life in Mexico, but I wouldn’t necessarily ground it under President Fox. Maybe not a new role — there’s always been a role. I think there’s some new energy emerging … There are lots of other people on the ground who are making it possible for Fox to do what he’s doing, giving him the space. I mean, if you didn’t have that kind of organizing and involvement and engagement of the people in Mexico, I don’t think that Fox would be possible. I don’t want to take anything away from him, but not only do we make history, we are also shaped by history. And the way in which we are shaped by history has to do with what other people do.

DANIEL: Can you put your finger on what it is that draws you in your work to churches?

CORTES: I grew up as a Catholic. For me, it’s just that the tradition and the faith have meaning and significance. The words have always been very powerful. They’ve helped me understand what makes sense to me — the words, the liturgy, the Scripture, the stories, the ideas, the people who are part of it. I’ve had moments of doubt — long moments of doubt. But it’s a combination of Pascal’s wager and the fact that the people who are in [churches] help me understand what I think is important.

DANIEL: What are you reading? What do you think President Bush ought to be reading?

CORTES: I think he ought to read Charles Payne’s I’VE GOT THE LIGHT OF FREEDOM. I don’t think he will, but he ought to read it. It talks about the heroic struggles of the civil rights movement and the importance of civic culture. He ought to read parts of BAND OF BROTHERS by Joseph Ellis, about the people who made the American Revolution and Washington — John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton, Burr, etc. — and their essential politicalness, their relationality. They were willing to engage each other, confront each other, argue with each other, and maintain their relationships … The president would be well-served to read that book. But he also ought to read THE POWER BROKER, Robert Caro’s book about Robert Moses, because it’s important for a president to understand how some of our problems in cities occur. It’s no accident the kind of difficulties we have in New York City. They were man-made. Powerful forces and financial interests contributed to the decline. I think it’s important for a president to understand the difficulties that ordinary people have. He needs to be much more connected to their struggles, to their pain, to what’s going on. He also ought to have an appreciation for the importance of civic culture and civic institutions. It’s important for him to understand the role unions and churches have played historically in the development of American political and social life. That’s why I’d ask him to read those kinds of books.

DANIEL: Is this a hopeful moment in our public life?

CORTES: I don’t know if it’s a hopeful moment. I’m hopeful. You go through moments of frustration and exhilaration and anxiety, but I’m pretty hopeful because I see an awful lot of very powerful local organizations and IAF organizations — whether it’s in East Brooklyn or Baltimore or Los Angeles or the Southwest — emerging and creating the kind of leadership infrastructure in congregations and unions and other institutions that can create the meaningful local politics that I think is really what American democracy is all about, in Tocqueville’s classic sense of creating “mediating institutions.” The revitalization of that kind of local political participation gives me some hope. What is discouraging to me is it’s not on the radar screen of most of the people who write in the national media. They’re not too interested in the development of local institutions and that process. They get caught up in the large debate about public policy inside the Beltway.

I can’t tell you how many people want to talk to me about the president’s faith-based initiative. Well, I’m not that interested in it, to be quite honest with you. I hope it works, and I hope it’s successful. I have some questions about it. But I’m much more interested in how we create the kind of civic culture in Los Angeles or Houston or Detroit that enables ordinary people to actively participate in the life of those institutions they care about.

DANIEL: Can the federal government help foster that through an office of faith-based and community initiatives?

CORTES: Well, I’m not sure that government can be effective in creating civic culture. Just as I might have some problems with the Cuban government organizing civic culture in Cuba — because it then becomes governmental — I have the same problem with the United States government doing the same thing. That’s kind of an oxymoron — that the government creates civic institutions. Those have to emerge [independent of government].

My sense of this faith-based initiative is [that it’s] not to support the creation of civic institutions. It’s, rather, to support those civic institutions that choose to deliver what were heretofore governmental services. That can distract those faith-based institutions that were involved in creating civic culture, so they say, “maybe there’s no payoff in doing that, and what we ought to be doing is delivering services” — which is not bad, in and of itself, but if people say, “we should not create civic institutions [because] that’s not where the energy is,” then I think we’re making a big mistake as a country.

DANIEL: How do you see the connection between what happens on Sunday at Mass or a worship service and what happens in our civic culture the rest of the week?

CORTES: Ideally, the Mass or any worship service is a celebration of the work of the people — that’s what the concept of worship is all about. It’s a way of coming together and celebrating our relationship with God, and recognizing that our God is a God of power — and love, which means that presumably there’s some responsibility, some challenge, and vision we take away from it that enables us to go out and do the work of the church, which is not just “church work.” The work of the church is to bring about the vision and values of the kingdom — justice, peace, concern for those who are strangers, those who are vulnerable, and to create the kind of community that enables that to happen. In the Hebrew tradition, it’s the notion of justice at the gates of the city. In Christianity, it’s Matthew 25: “I was a stranger, and you took me in.” That means to make people a living part of the decision-making of the community. How do you do that? How do you create that kind of vibrant understanding of our responsibility to one another and to ourselves? How do we understand that we don’t become human without being connected? That’s the challenge of Sunday morning.