Faith in action: True North Organizing Network aims to make the world a more livable place

Members of local faith- and values-based nonprofit True North Organizing Network gather at a regional assembly where they outline a course of action for environmental and social justice campaigns in the county. (True North — Contributed)
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In the Book of James, a first-century letter written to an early Jewish Christian audience scattered outside Palestine, the author instructs his readers to accompany faith with good works. His was a readership dealing with religious and political persecution, including power imbalances between the rich and poor and the internal challenges — doubt, discouragement, disengagement — that such external threats posed on the spiritual lifeblood of a burgeoning community.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead,” the author of James wrote.

Such is also the gospel of True North Organizing Network. An interfaith- and values-based nonprofit situated in Eureka, True North aims to raise awareness of issues concerning water and the environment, immigrant rights, police accountability, mental health and homelessness, and public education in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. It does so with the stated intention of pressuring lawmakers to enact laws that are fair and just for underserved and underrepresented populations in the region.

True North members strive “to make a world that works for everyone,” said the Rev. Kathryn Dunning, True North leader and pastor of Eureka First United Methodist Church.

Currently, it is engaged in a regional effort to address the issue of homelessness in the area, kick-started with its May 18 town hall, “Changing the Face of Transitional Housing: Moving Toward a Solution,” at Christ Episcopal Church Eureka. Grounded in the group’s five-pronged organizing model of “encounter, disruption, reimagining, action and reflection,” the event highlighted models of outreach in the county that actually help integrate individuals back into society.

Dr. Ashley London Bacchi, a seminary professor at the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California and a local leader in True North who helped coordinate the program, said the Eureka “local organizing cluster” — one of three in the region including in Arcata and McKinleyville — conducted nine months of research in preparation for it.

Dr. Ashley London Bacchi, True North organizer and a coordinator of a recent town hall on transitional housing at Christ Episcopal Church Eureka, speaks with an attendee concerning ways Eureka is addressing the issue of homelessness. Pictured in the background are Betty Kwan Chinn, left, and Nancy Woods, a local business owner whose Thrifty Supply Company sits near Chinn’s Blue Angel Container Village. (Rob Peach — The Times-Standard)

In the process, the cluster networked with city council members, the Betty Kwan Chinn Foundation, the Eureka Police Department, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, the North Coast Veterans Resource Center and the city’s planning commission.

“You try to get as wide a perspective as possible,” Bacchi said.

During the course of these conversations, she said the organizing cluster discerned the housing crisis in the county requires a community-wide shift in attitude regarding the homeless and those in transitional housing. Of primary importance, she said, “was really creating a sense of awareness and empathy” in light of the “not-in-my-neighborhood” stigma attached to the homeless and the housing options available to them.

“So, we decided we wanted to launch a ‘changing the face of homelessness’ campaign that would destigmatize the notion of housing,” Bacchi said. “Out of the event came a common thread: the importance of relationships, emphasizing that we’re one community and that the first step to any solution is acknowledging the dignity that we all deserve.”

Galeladi “G” Runningbrook was a guest speaker at the town hall who shared her story of addiction, recovery and transition. She is struggling to make ends meet in life after the streets, where building a rental history is hard. Runningbrook is making it, but living on a fixed income with a disability doesn’t afford her and her husband — who, like her, works full time — much space, let alone money, for leisure.

“When we were putting the program together, since our main goal was creating a sense of empathy, we wanted to focus on personal testimony,” Bacchi said. “Another important thing that came out of the discussion with all of the speakers was the importance of meeting people where they are. And when we do meet people where they are, there’s more that unites us than divides us. … Maybe that makes us feel uncomfortable, maybe we’re uncomfortable acknowledging that, but … what hurts one part of the community, hurts all of us. It’s not just about getting a roof over everyone’s head. The solutions need to be holistic.”

An attendee at the recent town hall on transitional housing, hosted by Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka and organized by True North, signs a pledge of commitment to address homelessness in Humboldt County. (Rob Peach — The Times-Standard)

This means legislative action.

The organization is currently pushing lawmakers to repeal Article 34. An amendment to the California Constitution added in 1950 by the city of Eureka, it states no low-rent housing project can be developed by the state until a majority of qualified voters representing the city or county for which a development is being proposed approve it through an election.

According to organizers, a repeal would give authority to designate low-income housing projects back to the state, safeguarding the homeless from a potentially biased electorate. Bacchi said True North focused on the repeal as an action item at the town hall because “it would be redemptive to lead the charge in reversing it” considering its roots in the city.

A campaign of compassion

Though not a church community, True North has found venues to map its message under shelter of worship spaces around the region — Christ Episcopal Church Eureka, Eureka First United Methodist Church, Arcata United Methodist Church, Church of the Joyful Healer in McKinleyville, Temple Beth El in Eureka, to name a few.

Inside and outside those walls it has congregated a diverse population spanning multiple cultural and religious traditions to embody “church” broadly speaking. It hinges on what Bacchi calls a “common ethic of equity” — a decision “to take care of each other.”

Dunning spoke similarly of True North’s makeup.

“We recognize in each other that we are all about those things — the human dignity of all persons, that no one should be left out, and that we need to care of the natural world,” she said.

What lies at the heart of the organization is compassion. Dunning said it is fundamental to the various perspectives, including those from outside of a specific faith tradition, represented in True North. And all are welcome.

“Recognizing that compassion is a shared commitment, we work together,” she said.

Speaking to his involvement in True North as a member of the Karuk Tribe, executive director Terry Supahan noted two primary principals stand out as instrumental to its mission: “personal storytelling” and “building power through relationships.”

“It’s fundamentally important to me to be engaged in this kind of work because it’s a healing process to me,” Supahan said, referring to the intergenerational trauma of living down the legacy of Native genocide on stolen land.

“And when we speak our truth, when we talk about what’s important to us, whether we’re living on the streets, whether we’ve suffered abuse from law enforcement or first responders … it’s an opportunity to heal. It’s an opportunity for this generation to make it better for the next generation. The more we talk about these things I have to believe that’s better for my children,” he said.

For more information on True North and how you can participate, visit http://www.truenorthorganizing.org/.

Rob Peach can be reached at 707-441-0503. 

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