More than two hundred people crowded into a hall at the United Methodist Church of Merced on Wednesday night to hear testimonials by locals about myriad problems besetting Merced: foreclosures, unemployment, lack of health care, lack of public safety and a hurting school system.
"Everyone in this room knows there are problems in Merced," said Pastor Bill Ruth of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Livingston, one of the event's organizers. But, he added, the point of the meeting and the organizing efforts around it is to collaborate with those in government to help solve the community's problems.
The town hall-type meeting, which included county, state and school officials, among others, was the first public effort of a new faith-based community organizing effort in Merced -- the Merced Organizing Project (MOP).
MOP aims to address some of this county's problems by organizing people and teaching them how to make change by working with and pressuring government.
The creation of MOP was a collaboration between local religious groups and a national faith-based community organization called People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO).
PICO, which was founded by a Jesuit priest in 1972, has 53 affiliates in 150 cities and 17 states. According to its Web site, "Community organizing is a systematic approach to addressing the root causes of social problems. It is a process by which people investigate and act together to change their communities and society."
In Merced's case PICO sent two full-time community organizers here to help start the local chapters with the aid of religious organizations.
The local organizing, said Barbara Hill, one of the MOP's participants, is centered around religious congregations that act as the base for what are called community organizing committees. Those committees, goes the model, form around specific issues that need to be addressed. Those issues have been everything from getting crosswalks and street lights to increasing access to public health and improving public safety.
Aside from the participating congregations, two full time organizers paid by PICO are in Merced to aid locals in their efforts.
Homero Mejia, one of PICO's organizers in Merced, said he is here to teach people how to organize themselves so that they can solve their own problems.
To contact MOP, call Bill Ruth at (209) 769-5454.
Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or firstname.lastname@example.org.