Losing Faith

Dallas Area Interfaith wants to give the city's poor and disenfranchised a voice in politics. But all critics see is another grab for power.

It is not just elected officials who take issue with some of Interfaith's tactics. Some principals and teachers involved in the after-school programs clash complain that Interfaith would rather ambush school leaders than engage them in honest debate. They claim the group's organizing efforts require teachers and parents to attend so many meetings pertaining to Interfaith's overall agenda that it steals time better spent educating children. Other principals say they feel intimidated--if they don't work with Interfaith, the group will work to get them fired.

And finally, critics also maintain that Interfaith manipulates the very people it claims to help by carefully controlling what they say and even how they say it. Often, they say, Interfaith's publicized consensus is achieved by not-so-subtle bullying.

Acutely aware of the political strength Dallas Area Interfaith's sister organizations have amassed around the state, particularly in San Antonio, some local leaders are determined to prevent Interfaith from gaining a foothold here.

"We were ready for them," says Lynda McDow, a school board trustee who presides over District 4, which includes Pleasant Grove and Seagoville, areas she says the school district has long neglected. The Anglo members of the school board--no slouches on organization themselves--have divided up the task of blunting the interloper's impact on the Dallas political scene. McDow, for instance, is looking into whether Interfaith violates the spirit of separation of church and state because it wades into public issues using muscle and money from its church-based memberships. Newly elected trustee Roxan Staff has been dissecting Interfaith's organizational structure and financial makeup, if only to see if it is in violation of its nonprofit status. Keever has accepted the job of publicly facing off with Interfaith--standing up to its supporters in meetings and in the media.

"We've divided this sucker up," Keever says, in his flip way that Interfaith members have interpreted as arrogant and disrespectful of their membership and goals.

Dallas Area Interfaith clearly has gotten the attention of Dallas' political leaders, though not the kind of attention it had hoped for. Yet even now, Interfaith's harshest critics agree with its overall goals and admit they're impressed with the group's passion and commitment. What they question is the group's methods and whether Dallas Area Interfaith's leadership and staff are as interested in helping their constituency as they are in simply building up political muscle.

Interfaith leaders argue that the poor and disenfranchised can't be helped without grabbing their rightful share of power. What elected leaders really fear, they say, is the balance of power shifting toward the grassroots.

Dallas Area Interfaith is headquartered on the fifth floor of a former hotel across from Love Field. The elevators rarely work, and at night, the floors above the Dallas Area Interfaith office are frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes.

In the Interfaith's dimly lit office, eight paid organizers devise strategies for teaching the city's disenfranchised how to participate in the political, social, and economic decisions that affect their lives. A huge wall map of the city dominates the conference room. The map divides the city into council districts and voting precincts, and the organizers map out on a large erasable board their activities for each day--the schools they'll visit, the religious organizations they'll try to enlist, political allies with whom their leaders will meet, and the foes they will try to convert.

The organizers see themselves as the foot soldiers of the organization. They say their bosses--the people who give the organization its power and vision--are the leaders of Interfaith's member congregations, which pay 1.5 percent of their annual operating budgets to belong. The membership encompasses a broad array of denominations from around the city, from Munger Avenue Baptist Church and St. Luke Community United Methodist Church on the east side of the city, to St. Rita Catholic Church and Royal Lane Baptist Church in North Dallas, to Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the west, and Greater Mt. Pleasant Baptist in the southern sector.

"Being based in congregations gives us an edge and a capacity to deal with issues," says the Reverend Gerald Britt, pastor of the New Mount Moriah Baptist Church in South Dallas. "It nurtures us spiritually and motivates us politically."

It's obvious from a glance at the activity board that Interfaith's work begins early and frequently stretches into the late evening hours. There's a lot to accomplish--particularly in a city like Dallas, which historically has been run by a self-appointed elite.

"The introduction of a broad-based organization that is clear about its commitment to diversity, to providing a public voice for citizens with a wide range of backgrounds, is always met with a variety of reactions--fear, astonishment, resistance," says Maribeth Larkin, a nun with the Sisters of Social Service and Interfaith's lead organizer. "In most cities, and Dallas is no exception, the democratic process gets whittled down to a small group of people making decisions for everybody. This group doesn't tend to be inclusive."

When Interfaith members try to point that out, city leaders inevitably get defensive, says Larkin, who like all Interfaith organizers is nothing if not painfully earnest. In a recent meeting, for example, Bill Keever told Britt and other Interfaith leaders that their organization was no different from the dozens of other special interest groups he deals with daily.

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