Improving public schools and addressing the needs of senior citizens are the first two items on the Oklahoma Sponsoring Committee's agenda. Not exactly the items you'd expect on the to-do list of '60s-style radicals. Depending on whom you believe, the Oklahoma Sponsoring Committee (OSC) is either a part of a nefarious socialistic plot, or they are a group of concerned citizens who, in their own words, want "to make Oklahoma City a great place for all families."
The OSC formed more than a year ago and has conducted a series of structured conversations at churches around the metro. The first large-scale meeting to bring all the congregations together was at Fairview Baptist Church on May 16.
"I remember the date because it was worst hailstorm in Oklahoma history," said Linda Clark, a member of the OSC and St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church. "We had 350 people show up in spite of the hailstorm, more than 20 congregations from around Oklahoma City."
The common thread that united the congregations from disparate traditions " including Missionary Baptist, Unitarian, Presbyterian (PCUSA), Nazarene and Catholic " was a belief that social justice and charity are connected.
"The Catholic Church has a rich social justice tradition," said the Rev. Tim Luschen, the new priest at St. Charles Borromeo, "and what the committee wants to do is help congregations mine their own faith traditions and work in accord with those traditions."
Mark Christian, senior minister at First Unitarian Church, said the OSC is in year two of a three-year plan. "The first year, we met with congregations and nonprofits," he said. "We had structured conversations to hear what the needs of the community are. We've identified the needs and the member congregations, so we're now moving toward our founding convention sometime in 2011."
At the founding convention, the organization will choose its name and set its agenda. To move toward that founding, the OSC contracted with the Industrial Areas Foundation last year for training and technical assistance. It was that relationship that generated the controversy and the accusations of Marxism/socialism. It led to Archbishop Eusebius J. Beltran writing a column in the Sooner Catholic that clarified the role of the Catholic Church in IAF locally.
The accusations surround connections between IAF and the late Saul Alinsky, the founder of IAF and author of two seminal books on community organizing. Alinsky is credited with developing the methods of community organizing later used by many organizations, including ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
Lisa Schnorrenberg, a St. Charles Borromeo member, is an outspoken critic of IAF. She, along with friend Mariam Daly, another Borromeo parishioner, set up a website to oppose the formation of IAF within the network of Catholic parishes in Oklahoma.
"This is a socialistic-type organization," Schnorrenberg said. "They take from hardworking people and give to the poor. I don't have a problem with them organizing or doing what they do; I have a problem with them being involved with the church."
Helped by a radio campaign by late local celebrity Mark Shannon, the opposition grew to the point that Beltran felt compelled to address it.
In a March 22, 2009, letter published in the Sooner Catholic, Beltran wrote: "I have had numerous conversations regarding a movement based on the (IAF). These were calls, letters or personal talks with many of you who support the IAF and many of you who condemn the IAF. Some of you have asked for my approval and support of the local IAF movement while others requested that I ban it from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City."
Beltran, who had no comment, wrote that he would neither recommend parishes join, nor request others to withdraw: "I and the Priests Council will monitor this matter so that we can be more objective and more accurate in our judgment."
Luschen said the Priests Council is a body of local clergymen voted on by brother priests or appointed by Beltran to provide feedback and consultation about the life of the archdiocese.
"The decision has been made," Luschen said, in reference to parishes being involved with IAF. "We're going forward."
The accusations are particularly difficult when directed at involved priests, because some material disseminated by opponents accuses IAF of involvement in abortion rights and gay rights activities, accusations Luschen calls completely false.
"We specifically included a non-violation of faith tradition clause when we incorporated," said Luschen, who recently left Edmond's St. Monica Catholic Church. "If any activity violates the faith tradition of another member community, any member of the committee can veto the proposed activity. We have never and would never work areas that violate the conscience of our members."
What they do propose to do is educate members of faith communities about their traditions of social justice and their ability to solve their own problems.
"Sometimes, our faith traditions are the best-kept secrets in town, even from our own members," said Jim Rowan, the president of the committee and member of Holy Angels Catholic Church.
Kris King, the lead organizer from IAF, said, "Once people learn that problems can be solved at the local level, once that's explained to them, I don't know anyone who thinks it's a bad idea."
Dan Junkin, a pastor at Hillcrest Presbyterian Church, said that he had only heard nonpartisan issues in the meetings and conversations. "It's things like neighborhood blight, stop signs, education " real day-to-day issues."
"What it comes down to is allowing people the dignity of owning their own issues," said Christian. "Greg Horton