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The Story of Faith Chapel in San Diego

Bishop Roy Dixon used to own Taco Bells. Now he and his congregation at Faith Chapel own the "Faith Chapel Organizing Ministry" that, in partnership with San Diego Organizing Project (SDOP, a member of the Pacific Institute for Community Organization—PICO) is growing the church membership rolls and addressing social injustices in the community. This is not a typical "congregation meets faith-based community organizing" story—but it is a powerful one that highlights the capacity of a clergy-centered faith tradition to fully embrace its relationship with a faith-based community organizing group, align a constellation of factors, and reap remarkable results.

Bishop Dixon, so titled because he is the overseer of 30 Pentecostal congregations in the San Diego area, started Faith Chapel in 1985 in the boardroom of his business, with six people. Now 1500 people, mostly African-American, call Faith Chapel their faith home. Located in a low-income neighborhood of whites, blacks and Hispanics, this Church of God in Christ or COGIC church owns a large but modest sanctuary and has bought land jointly with a neighboring Presbyterian church to build a space for their collaborative charter school. How did this ‘miracle of church growth happen?

An Unexpected Conversion

In 1986, Bishop Dixon was converted—not to the good news of the gospel (that had already happened)—but to the radical news that it is possible for a congregation of faith to grow in membership and participate powerfully in community life at the same time. He met a faith-based community organizer At the organizer’s suggestion Bishop Dixon attended P100’s national training where he learned organizing principles and practices, like using power to influence public officials, the benefits of relationship-building, and the need for accountability to strengthen those relationships. He expanded his understanding of ministry to include "crying out" to protest the injustices that pervade community life. As a powerful businessman and pastor, Bishop Dixon broadened his role in San Diego’s political life, And people started coming to Faith Chapel. He preached that, ‘... the Bible tells me to cry, cry aloud, and spare not." And more people came. As a staunch, outspoken Republican with a commitment to the poor, Bishop Dixon was in the enviable but delicate position of having substantial influence, at the same time that he was learning about the need to develop leaders. He was convinced that in order to accomplish real congregational development and community change he needed to develop people from his congregation to lead the organizing work. This, however required a leap of faith—a paradigm shift—for in the Pentecostal tradition, pastors often assume an autonomous role in congregational life, with accountability, not to congregants, but to a Board of Trustees that has the power to hire and fire them. But Bishop Dixon was so moved by what he had learned, and so convinced of its truth, that he made the leap and began sending potential leaders to national training.

A Leap for Leaders

The leap was an investment that paid off. All four Faith Chapel leaders who were interviewed for the congregational development research study attended national training and returned to their congregation empowered to hold one-to-one meetings, to speak in public, and to hold each other and the pastor accountable. Which they did, and the ‘local organizing committee" or LOC, took on the powers that be and won their first local victory—the construction of a sidewalk for the children to use to safely walk to school. The proverbial stone had been thrown into the pond setting in motion a ripple that continues today Congregants who were not on the LOC, but participated in the public actions to obtain the sidewalk, caught a glimpse of the power and politics of change, and the power in numbers. The LOC leaders grew in confidence and political savvy and began to participate in SDOP’s citywide actions and the PICO California Project’s statewide actions, Stephanie Cut, the lead organizer for SDOP, said of leader Cookie Hassan’s transformation, "She has found her voice as a result of organizing. She has stood up at major city council meetings and at a large citywide action that we recently had on housing, and gave testimony ... she’s renewed both her faith commitment and her understanding of her value as a person participating in public life.’ This is true in Ms. Hassan’s congregational life as well, as she approaches all her roles at church with this newfound power and commitment.


A Remarkable Re-Christening

Bishop Dixon and organizer Cut forged a strong and trusting relationship. Influenced by Cut and SDOP’s integrative approach in which organizers see clergy as the spiritual leaders of their congregations and of the organizing ministry, the LOC at Faith Chapel was re-christened the ‘Faith Chapel Organizing Ministry" It is now fully integrated with all the ministries, or auxiliaries, as they are called, of the church. But even beyond the renaming, and the re-structuring, as significant as they are, something more remarkable has happened. Bishop Dixon and his congregation have embraced a new faith orientation that he sums up this way: ‘Let’s not be so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good." Leaders and clergy attribute this dramatic shift to SDOP and SDOP accepts responsibility while noting the crucial role of clergy and leaders, Cut explained the change in Bishop Dixon: "Most congregations have mercy arid charity at the center of their ministry—we suggest they add justice. Now Bishop Dixon sees it as a central tenet to who he is as a pastor and as a person of faith."

The Reward

Nowadays. leaders in the Faith Chapel Organizing Ministry continue to do one-to-ones in the congregation to build relationships, to discover the issues of concern, and because, as Bishop Dixon says, "One-to-ones just cause things to go off!" They go out into the community to evangelize and to "repair the breach." There is no separation between organizing and ministry. As leader Elder Duret Cray said, "doing this kind of work is the ministry" Bishop Dixon expressed the indisputable benefits of this integration when he said, "... the more we reach out in the community in faith-based organizing. the more people come to our church." Leaders, the clergyperson, and the organizer have aligned a constellation of factors: one-to-one meetings, holding people accountable, a comprehensive approach to CD by SDOP a strong relationship between clergyperson and organizer, an integration of organizing and faith, and active participation by the pastor—and they are reaping the rewards. Faith Chapel is now a larger and stronger congregation that has public influence at the neighborhood, city, and statewide levels.

Unfortunately, Faith Chapel’s story is not typical—yet—as there are relatively few Pentecostal congregations that currently participate in faith-based community organizing. But it is an inspiring story, which other clergy and congregations may be able to replicate. Faith meets organizing that spawns growth that leads to action, which generates excitement and more growth. It’s a beautiful cycle that this congregation plans to keep on owning for years to come.

Excerpted from "Renewing Congregations" by Interfaith Funders and Richard Wood 

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