By MegAnne Liebsch
September 6, 2023 — Fr. John Baumann, SJ, is not what he calls an “upfront person.” A lifelong community organizer, he prefers to keep a low profile, whether at protests, city council meetings or press conferences. For him, community organizing is about empowering others to create change in their communities.
“Organizing is putting the people up front,” says Fr. Baumann. “One of my early mentors, he would say, ‘If you get quoted in the newspaper, you’re fired.’”
Having hewn closely to this directive over his five-decade career, Fr. Baumann is a tricky subject for a feature article. His work in founding the international organizing network Faith in Action (FIA) has helped to shape the mission of West Coast Jesuits and improved the livelihoods of thousands of people around the world. But Fr. Baumann deflects many of these accolades, crediting grassroots leadership as the key to FIA’s success.
“What impresses me most about John is that he’s in no way, shape or form flashy, and yet he’s a powerful quiet force,” says Fr. Bob Fambrini, SJ, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Phoenix and FIA board member.
Recognizable by a swooping tuft of white hair and rimless rectangular glasses, Fr. Baumann elicits reverence from those who know him. The day after I interviewed him, we both attended a community organizing conference at the University of San Francisco. Although his legacy partially inspired the conference, Fr. Baumann tucked into the less-coveted seats typically left for latecomers. Still, people flocked to him — from old friends and colleagues to strangers who professed their admiration for his work. A patrician set to his shoulders, he leaned in with his whole body to listen.
Today, Faith in Action is one of the largest Jesuit-sponsored ministries in the world, organizing faith communities in 27 U.S. states, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, Ghana and Rwanda. Since its founding in 1972, FIA grassroots campaigns have improved local education systems, increased health care and affordable housing access, and reduced community violence. While campaigns look different based on their context, each is rooted in Fr. Baumann’s organizing philosophy, which acknowledges that the people most impacted by systems of injustice are the best suited to lead the transformation of those systems.
“Community organizing gives people the tools that they need to fight for justice and work toward a more equitable society,” says Fr. Baumann. “It creates a world where everyone belongs, can thrive and has a say in decisions that shape their lives.”
Historically, Catholic clergy and lay people played prominent roles in U.S. social movements, such as labor and union organizing during the Industrial Revolution, the farmworkers movement led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, and peace activism during the 1970s. Like FIA, many national organizing networks, including the Industrial Areas Foundation and Gamaliel Network, were co-founded by Catholics. For over 100 years, organized movements have harnessed the collective power of Catholics to transform American public life, yet this historical relationship between faith and organizing is often overlooked.
Growing up the youngest of eight children on his parent’s dairy farm in San Jose, California, Fr. Baumann learned the value of community at a young age. As a family of 10, they worked together, relying on each other to keep the farm afloat. Faith was lived in community, whether at the family dinner table or at the local Jesuit church, which Fr. Baumann’s parents and grandparents had helped build. A great source of pride for the Baumanns, their church was a tangible symbol of what could be accomplished when a community comes together.
This early connection to faith and the Jesuits paved the way for Fr. Baumann to enter the Society in 1956. As a Jesuit, he expected to become a high school teacher, but while he was studying for his master’s in theology, the first documents from the Vatican II Council were released. The ideas he read in them would change the course of his life.
He was enthralled by the way Vatican II conceived of a humanistic church, a church that not only celebrated sacraments and weekly Mass but lived and responded to the challenges facing its parishioners. More than charity, Vatican II called on the church to work for justice, striving to change systems that created poverty and violence. Though the tenets of Catholic social teaching predate Vatican II, the council brought the notion of a faith that does justice to the forefront.
Inspired by these ideas, Fr. Baumann and a fellow Jesuit theology student Fr. Jerry Helfrich attended a clergy organizing seminar at the , where organizing pioneer Saul Alinsky frequently gave workshops.
“I was fascinated with Alinksy’s message about the importance of empowering people to have a voice in the community,” Fr. Baumann says.
That summer at an organizing placement on the West Side of Chicago, he worked for what felt like 24 hours a day nonstop. Observing the poor housing conditions in this Black neighborhood, Fr. Baumann convened a group of 30 community members to discuss how to address the widespread dilapidation. The attendees questioned Fr. Baumann’s authority, arguing he had no right to dictate what they needed.
“I learned quickly a basic principle in organizing: Take people where they are, not from where you want them to be,” he says. “I needed to set aside my personal ideology to really listen.”
It was a powerful lesson in subsidiarity — the Catholic social principle which argues that those closest to injustice should have a leading role in addressing it. Ultimately, community leaders decided to focus their campaign on a local apartment building riddled with code violations. By the end of the summer, they had pushed the absentee landlord to bring the building up to code.
“Chicago was really changing my whole view on what I wanted to do as a Jesuit, and I saw community organizing could be a ministry,” says Fr. Baumann. “Suddenly, theology became alive.”
Fr. Baumann began the summer with questions: How can the church respond to injustice? What am I being called to do? By the end of the summer, he had his answer: organizing.
Congregations come alive
In 1972, after several years of training in Chicago, Fr. Baumann and Fr. Helfrich returned to Oakland, California, to spearhead a local organizing movement, which they initially called the Pacific Institute for Community Organizing (PICO). Working out of a Franciscan church, the pair canvassed Oakland, going door-to-door to interview people about the issues in their community. They organized the neighborhood around everything from infrastructure concerns to abandoned houses and community safety. Most importantly, they trained community leaders to bring these issues before the Oakland city council and demand action. As the model grew more successful — amassing local participants and Jesuit volunteers — PICO began to expand across California.
At first, PICO focused on neighborhood-based organizing, but as it grew, the staff realized that community leaders in this model were prone to burn out. They pushed from campaign to campaign without building relationships that could nurture their work during challenging campaigns.
The staff at PICO began to wonder: What if we organized through congregations?
“I thought, I can help implement Vatican II and what my Jesuit spirituality was all about — how God’s present in the community, and how I can respond to what God would like to see happen in the community,” Fr. Baumann explains.
PICO began developing a faith-based model, working first with pastors, priests, rabbis and imams, who could bring together core groups of congregants to work on community issues. PICO developed trainings for these leaders to conduct one-to-ones in the community — not just with other congregants but with neighbors, too. One of PICO’s first faith-based campaigns included an action and a town hall meeting with the Oakland chief of police to discuss community violence. One thousand people attended.
After the actions, PICO and the community would gather for reflections. “Congregations came alive,” says Fr. Baumann, “People were saying, ‘Yeah, this is what church is all about.’”
Power is the product of relationship
Energized by this faith-based model, PICO quickly grew into a national organization, eventually renamed Faith in Action. It now works with over 3,000 congregations across 34 denominations, and since 2006, FIA has expanded internationally. In the U.S., FIA groups helped pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which expanded Medicaid access in 34 states and currently provides health insurance to 40 million Americans. FIA is also a close collaborator of U.S. Bishops and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which strives to break cycles of poverty through advocacy and nonprofit grantmaking.
While each FIA federation focuses on different issues according to local needs, broadly put, FIA organizing works to dismantle systemic racism and socioeconomic exclusion. By uniting faith voices on issues such as health care, immigration, education and property foreclosure, FIA harnesses the power of interfaith collaboration to achieve change.
“It is very powerful when you have people across races, across religious faiths coming together,” says Fr. Baumann. Where some might see doctrinal differences as a source of irreconcilable division, Fr. Baumann sees the shared experience of religion as an opportunity for transformative encounter.
At the center of FIA’s interfaith collaboration is Fr. Baumann’s credo: “Power is the product of relationship.” Faith provides a common language of values that unifies disparate congregations. Shared concepts of human dignity, the common good and love of neighbor are the cornerstones from which communities can build relationships and justice. What’s more, Fr. Baumann argues, is faith congregations share a radical belief in transformation — that change is not only achievable but also sacred.
“Working in a faith context brings a capacity for perseverance and hope, and a protection from cynicism and despair,” he says.
More than policy change
Situated in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, Dolores Mission parish is a prime example of how organizing can strengthen a faith community. Since the Jesuits arrived in the 1980s, Dolores Mission has fostered a spirit of activism in parishioners, frequently partnering with the local FIA federation, LA Voice. While pastor at Dolores Mission, Fr. Scott Santarosa, SJ, remembers attending one event where migrants and clergy members affiliated with LA Voice stood on the steps of city hall and called on elected officials to protect migrant families from deportation.
After the protest finished, Fr. Santarosa clambered onto the bus with other parishioners. One undocumented man turned to him and said, “This was a special day. I feel like I already have my documents.”
For Fr. Santarosa, this was a poignant reminder that organizing is not just planning actions or achieving policy changes. It can also return dignity to those who have been robbed of it by unjust structures. “Even though we didn’t really move any issues that day, the process itself can bring people dignity,” he says. “It can remind people they’re worthy.”
Theology in the real world
For Fr. Baumann, organizing is the lens that clarifies the Jesuit dictum to find God in all things. “Theology is about the real world — it interacts with people,” he says. “If we believe that God is among us, how can we allow divisions based on ethnicity, religion or background to create animosity, injustice and violence?”
Annie Fox considers herself a “disciple” of Fr. Baumann. She was an organizer for Faith in Action in California before being hired as the Jesuits West Assistant for Justice, Ecology and Organizing.
“I believe in a God that calls on us to encounter each other, that changes our assumptions, that leads us to prophetic imagination,” she explains. “There’s nothing that I believe more deeply than that God envisions a kingdom that is better than what we have, and that we do have the power to achieve it if we’re willing to have faith in each other.
“That,” she adds, “is all John Baumann.”
Fr. Baumann’s quiet ethic has shaped what it means to live Ignatian spirituality in the U.S. With the growth of FIA, Fr. Baumann became a key advisor for leaders of the Jesuits West Province, strengthening the Jesuit commitment to social justice work in every sector. He helped hire Fox, tasking her with growing the province’s organizing efforts, such as the Jesuits West Collaborative Organizing for Racial Equity.
“Now, the whole notion of social justice is much more integrated into the life of the province,” says Fr. Fambrini. “John was an absolute model of this.”
As a leader focused on the walk rather than the talk, Fr. Baumann’s career and vocation offer a concrete model for putting contemplation into action. That style of leadership is a delicate balancing act, according to Fox. She admits that a lot of organizers, including herself, like to think of themselves as charismatic. They enjoy the limelight.
“If we’re honest, we fight for space at the front of the room,” Fox says. “John Baumann is the greatest example of servant leadership. What he really cares about is the leadership of others. He sees every individual as a potential leader and as someone who is going to be part of achieving God’s kingdom on earth.”
MegAnne Liebsch is the communications manager for the Office of Justice and Ecology at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. She holds a master’s in media and international conflict from University College Dublin and is an alumna of La Salle University. She lives in Washington, DC.