Martha Arguello, in her article “Sisters, Brothers, Young Lords A Common Cause: 40 Years of Struggle and Remembrance,” reflecting on the occasion of the 2008 DePaul’s Exhibit Radicals in Black and Brown, made the following comment, “[B]efore leaving Chicago, I revisited the photographs displayed at DePaul. The decades old images reminded me that the issues we so vehemently fought for 40 years ago, still matter; the just society we envisioned is yet to come.” For those invested in justice work and social justice education, engaging in critical retrospective practices should simultaneously affirm the ongoing importance of being committed to communal liberation and empowerment and also encourage mining the past to inform future work. The thinking anew fomented by reflecting in the history, contributions, and limitations of social movements highlight the importance of those episodes of unrest and organizing not as part of the particular accepted communal narratives, but as an utopian cartography foreshadowing spaces for future interventions. Just as the past imprints but does not precondition the present, the future starts taking shape in the now. Personally, my own rethinking of past events in Latino/a religious history has lead me to consider the Brown Power Movements, and in particularly the Young Lords, as an area in need of engagement and of critical import for the study of Latino/a religious traditions.
In this essay, my efforts are directed at teasing out what I take to be potential contributions of the study of Latino/a radical groups like Young Lords Organization/Young Lords Party (YLO/P) for the study of Latino/a religious history. The legacy of radical social movements remains contested terrain in which memory, archives, and witness contribute rich materials for interpretations. To date the field of Latino/a Religious Studies has given prima consideration to those social movements with strong ties or direct association with religious traditions. In prioritizing the study of the histories of social movements closely linked with religious tradition, the people that build them and the communities they served have left the non-religious Latino/a social movement histories largely unexplored. The argument that I will be putting forward affirms the need to continue the task of analyzing religious Latino/a social movements and their contributions to Latino/a religiosity while it also seeks to emphasize the need for contributions that seek to theorize la lucha as lived by secular Latino/a Activism. Furthermore, I wish to call attention to how these radical movements can also provide resources for the theorization of social action as a radical spiritual praxis. My aim then is to reflect on the insights that can be gained from engagements with an organization that has been highly critical of Latino/a religious institutions. These critiques, presented below, were directed at what the YLO/P understood as a gap between what religious institutions claimed as their goal and what the radical organization understood to be the actions of these organizations—the proverbial dissociation between theory and praxis. In a curious turn of events, the strategy the YLO/P employed sought to model how to be a radical church for the people. For the YLO/P this meant that the work of a church, in addition to religious ritual, ought to be an active participant in political education, the arts, and the meeting of everyday needs like adequate nutrition, child care, and health care as integral components. The People’s Church was a utopian experimentation of the liberating possibilities of a religion untethered to binds of the status quo.
Who were the Young Lords? And why did they think it necessary to carve out a space within the confines of two local churches to give raise to churches for the people? At the closing of the 1960’s, it became clear that the Civil Rights Era, in spite of victories in many fronts that promoted increased civil rights like voting, a measure of upward mobility to some segments of marginalized communities, and a modicum of improved educational access previously barred by segregation-era politics, was to be superseded by a different kind of political mobilization. In the face of the conservative backlash against the Civil Rights Era mobilization, simmering political strategies not invested in, and suspicious of limited integrationist politics, bubbled up to shape the political landscape of the incoming decade. These rising organizations understood, through watching how their predecessors were treated, that racism and capitalism fought back non-violence with aggression and opted to push back by other means if necessary to maintain white power and supremacy. In particular, the police arm of the state aimed most of its blows to people of color and impoverished communities—the threat to prosperity and order was attributed to the unrest of communities of color in need of reminder of who was in charge. The power of the ballot gained by people of color did not upend the use of the bullet against the marginalized communities. The death throes of the Vietnam War in the Eastern front shifted their geography to the United States of America. Coming to terms with the overrepresentation of men of color in the war effort, the rates of drug addiction as direct result of the war, and betrayed promises to returning veterans, solidified the suspicions that the full integration of people of color into the democratic dreams of the United States of America was more mirage than reality. But it also meant that new knowledge gained through military training would also be put to militant used. It is against this situation that, the Black Panthers Party emerged as a revolutionary vanguard from which other organizations like the Brown Berets and the Young Lords took leads in the efforts to organize within their communities.
The Young Lords’ activities during the late 1960s to mid-70’s led to the establishment of various chapters in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. From its tough and humble beginnings as a turf gang in the cold streets of Chicago, the Young Lords emerged as an electrifying movement that captured the social imagination of community members during their times and continue to energize Latino/a activism today. Through door-to-door organization, direct action initiatives, and community service programs, the Young Lords were able to instigate life-giving options for Latinos/as communities at the edges of power. Their actions were directed at combating the establishment’s lack of response to the plights of communities in various barrios across the United States of America. Through their community organizing, translation of Black Power ideology to the service of Latinos/as, and incorporation of political education drawing from Puerto Rican freedom fighters like Don Pedro Albizu Campos, the Young Lords sought to radicalize the Latino/a communities at various urban centers, located mostly in the USA Midwest or East Coast, and largely of Puerto Rican descent. The Young Lords not only embraced Latinos/as of other ethnic, national, and/or racial origins, but they also counted among their members a significant number of African-Americans. This practice of opening membership to other ethnic/racial communities was not only a reflection of the ethnic/racial composition and level of interculturation with African-Americans in the cities with significant Latinos/as presence, but also pointed towards the internationalist dimensions of Black Radicalism.
I am a researcher focusing primarily in the intersections of sociology of religion and cultural theory, with a particular interest in social movements. To this end, the Young Lords offer an interesting counterpoint to the rhythms of the nascent liberation theologies emerging at the time in which they were active. The rise of liberation theology and the Power Movements coincide in the social, political, and intellectual scene. More than a coincidence or curious phenomena, this intersection bears witness to a time of heightened social struggle and pushes against the structuring of a society promoted by capitalist forces and ensuing militarization of society. While their tactics and the ways in which they give shape to communities differ, Liberation Theology and Power Movements can be said to have a shared concerns for the “least of these.” This essay is an initial contribution reflecting on the intersections between these two streams of radical thought and revolutionary living. It presents an opportunity to deduce possible strategies to think anew about the interconnection between religious commitments, spiritual practices, and civic engagements. Analyzing the trajectory of the Young Lords from a religious perspective allows for one to tease out the reasons why they were both critical and affirming of the potentials of religious communities. Even if the Young Lord did not fully identify with Latino/a religious practices, one can understand them as offering a religious humanism opened to the influence and importance of religion in peoples’ lives, yet not fully bounded to doctrinal questions and participation. The religious humanism I see present in the Young Lords was one focused instead on popular forms of religiosity, a central theme of Latino/a religious scholarship, and source of radical spirituality that prompted political actions. Latino/a religious scholarship recognizes the political dimension and transgressive potentials of popular religiosity.
A study of the Young Lords in connection to religion presents some interesting possibilities of which I will name three: 1) a way forward beyond the Western inspired secular/religious divide; 2) the fruitfulness of religious signifiers to operate outside of their particular religious tapping into larger webs of significations, and 3) the contribution of Power Movements to inspire religious dimensions to activism. This last possibility assumes that religion is not something existing in-and-of-itself out there, but perhaps may be better as sets of practices that incorporate multiple traditions and worldviews that undergo continual transformations. Of these three, this essay addresses the third point through an analysis of Young Lords’ initiatives that gave rise to two distinct People’s Churches: the Young Lords’ People’s Church in Chicago and New York. I will then offer my comments, based on social movement theory, of the potential lines of inquiry this may open.
The Young Lords’ People’s Church
For those of us interested in the scholarship of Power Movements and in the Young Lords in particular, the last few years have been exciting. A renewed interest in the decades of the 60’s and 70’s have brought works to light that lift up otherwise undiscussed dimensions of movements, like the central role women played. Among my favorites treatments that engage the Young Lords are Kamozi Woodard’s Do you Want to Start a Revolution, Maylai Blackwell’s Chicana Power!, Laura Pulido’s Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left, and Cynthia Young’s, Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of the US Third World Left. A number of important articles have also been published like Darrel Enk-Wanzer’s reflections on the Young Lords’ Garbage Offensive and the analysis of the rhetorical power of “the people.”
As it pertains to the Young Lords and religion, my own article about the Young Lords in the Hispanic Encyclopedia of Religion (2009) presents how the actions of the Young Lords before and after the People’s Church provide resources to nudge Latina/o ethics in a direction of dissent. I pursue this direction more fully in the writing of my dissertation, Raised Fists in the Church! Afro-latino/a Praxis among the Young Lords Party. There I suggested ways in which I understood them contributing to ongoing development of Latino/a Christian ethicists. In his Latina/o Social Ethics: Moving beyond Eurocentric Moral Thinking, Miguel De La Torre also makes reference to the Young Lords. In his readings, he proposes that the Young Lords are important to how Latinos/as think about Christian ethics, yet he does not look deeper into their historical significance for Latino/a religious history. Far from exhaustive, this list is but a small sample of the academic work that has taken up the task of reflecting on the significance of these movements for the formative image of who we are as a nation.
In the past, the scholarly imagination emphasizes the events related to the Young Lords’ chapter in New York City, overlooking the take-over of McCormick Seminary and the Armitage Street Methodist Church. Previously, I had followed the same path. This time, however, I will begin with the take-over of McCormick Seminary and the Armitage Street Church.
Young Lords, McCormick Seminary, and The People’s Church at the Armitage Methodist Church
Wednesday, May 14, 1969, the Young Lords took over the Academic Administration building of McCormick Seminary! The Young Lords, alongside other community groups made 10 demands the previous week on May 7th. They demanded: funds for low-income housing and priority renting for poor and working class folks; a grant for community leadership program; and a Cultural Learning Center and funds for a Children Center. These demands came at the heels of an unfolding urban development projects by McCormick and DePaul, or as the Young Lords termed it, “urban removal program.” The demands were met with a negative response. In the YLO paper vol. 1 no 2, we find the following words: “It is probably the first time in recent years in the USA when community residents, poor and working people, have seized and held a major community institution like McCormick for the purpose of gaining the fulfillment of a list of political and economic demands.” Power Movements routinely practiced take-overs and walk-outs as a way to challenge the ruling organizational powers of community control.
The Young Lords’ took over McCormick Seminary in an act of refusal to give in to the systematic erasure of the presence of Latinos/as in the surrounding Lincoln Park area in a time in which gentrification was pushing away low-income residents. Moreover, it was a push to hold accountable an institution whose basic role was to educate future clergy and challenge them to deal with everyday needs of the community where they existed. These daily needs included but were not limited to: affordable daycare for children, a soup kitchen for those struggling with access to adequate nutrition, affordable housing, and the curbing of gentrification as a preferred mode of expansion. Looking back, it should strike us as ironic that these once labeled revolutionary ideals by Power Movements are still serious needs today.
In the end, several of these demands were met, as the Young Lords secured McCormick’s commitment for a more responsible communal investment. Among these commitments were: 650k dollars to be invested in low-income housing; 25k to open a free health clinic and other funds to support legal support; and cultural preservation and promotion activities. Nevertheless, the most important outcome of the take-over was that it served as a reminder to what people working together can achieve.
The establishment of the People’s Church in the Armitage Street Methodist Church followed a different path than the McCormick Seminary take-over but was motivated by similar communal needs. In short, the Young Lords and the Methodist established a relation that allowed for a partnership invested in community development. In the People’s Church one will find more than cultural events, health clinics, food and clothing programs. More importantly, grass-roots education programs aiming at political and historical conscientization about the place of Latinos/as in the United States of America will be found here. The correspondence between the Mid-North Association and Bishop Prior during the months of June and September, McCutcheon’s letters from the City Council of Chicago of September 2 and 17 of 1969, and various letters from community supporters and detractors show a high level of contestation taking place between politicians, church structures, and community members. Various questions were raised. Should suburban dollars for missions be spent on subsidizing “gang related activities”? Does revolutionary art cheapen a church wall and transforms it from a space of peaceful spiritual cove into a space to be feared? Should a church, otherwise empty during weekdays, use its space for community service? What is the role of a church in a local community? These among other challenging questions pepper these letters. Carl G. Mettling, at the time Superintendent of Chicago Northern district, Northern Illinois Conference of the Methodist Church wrote, “The Church has an unavoidable responsibility to the youth of Chicago on which it dare not turn its back, a responsibility to give not only the cup of cold water in Christ’s name, but to aid in the search and struggle for a more humane society for all.” Although the Armitage church was returned within a few months, the relation between the church and the Young Lords lasted for several years. The church was a center of leftist politics in the area. Moreover, Cha-Cha Jimenez, the Young Lords Chairperson led various forms of programming in the Armitage Church for various years.
Let me give you a glimpse of a particular occasion, the celebration of the life and death of Reverend Bruce Johnson and his spouse Eugenia, a couple supportive of the Young Lords and tragically assassinated in 1969. During the funeral, the liturgists Sergio Herrero and Robert Wulff took those in attendance the following antiphonal reading of which I include a portion below:
A new people have emerged. The church is renewed. Not sometime. Not tomorrow. The victory is now…The Gospel is recovered, the laity are rising up. The task is coming clear. The People’s Church is being born…
At a later point of this service we also witness the following reading:
The process of city justice continued to declare that poor people are a violation as they continue to harass the People’s Day Care Center. …We Stand open to the wholeness of life. We weep with those that weep. We rejoice with those that do rejoice. Lord we meet you as you were present in a man in the world…in the city…in the people…to you we offer the joy and sorrow of this day for transformation.
The Young Lords, NYC’s People’s Church
In December 1969, the Young Lords Organization, New York chapter, later the Young Lords Party, took over The First Spanish Methodist Church in Spanish Harlem. They occupied the sanctuary for two weeks. During this time, the organization established The People’s Church. For this nascent organization, this happening proved a defining moment in their activism. For the community of El Barrio, this event brought to the larger public of New York and the nation the plight affecting their daily lives, capturing the attention of communication media and celebrities like Jane Fonda who visited the People’s Church. It also marked a shift in the community’s support for the radical organization that sought to champion the cause of the struggling community, and joining a tradition of radicalism in a time of the resurgence of Black Power. That most of the muchachos/as were from el barrio, second generation, largely Puerto Rican, and intercultural with the African-American community, exemplify the particular diasporic contours to this movement. Unlike the Armitage Street Church, the People’s Church in NYC was short lived, lasting no more than a few weeks. Before the take-over, the Young Lords attempted to enter into conversations with the church to use the facilities during the times in which the church was not being used to run a daycare center, a soup kitchen, a free health clinic, and a host of other Serve the People Programs—which were routinely denied. Most of the church’s membership was upwardly mobile Latinos/as who were able to leave the barrio, and who held a clear anti-communist/socialist stance. The relations with the Young Lords, a radical socialist organization, could only be but tense. In December the organization decided to take-over the building. After several days and tense stand-out with the police authorities, the Young Lords left the premises of the First Spanish Methodist Church. Nevertheless, the take-over was a catalyst in galvanizing community support for the Young Lords.
These two People’s Churches, in spite of the similarities in aim and scope, namely, the service of the people and pushing local congregations to engage more actively within the community, present the distinctive ways in which ideas take root among particular communities. Although the NY chapter achieved more notable victories that were recorded in the national media, the Chicago chapter had a more lasting impact because of its more cultural and political savviness in their work with religious communities. Outcomes like this forces those of us who reflect in Latino/a communities to continually deepen our analysis of the intersections of race, geography, timelines, local histories, etc.
Reading the People’s Church through Social Movement Theory: Some Considerations
Nineteen sixty nine proved an auspicious year for religious and theological studies. This year served as the birthdate of sorts for what some may consider liberation theology’s break into the scene in the United States of America, continuing the push initiated by radical activism during the post-civil rights years and radical activism. The decades of the 1960’s and 70’s saw the publication of foundational texts to the movement that went on to be known as liberation theology(ies). Among these texts figure Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), Mary Daly’s Church and the Second Sex (1968), James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power (1969), A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), and Gustavo Gutierrez’ A Theology of Liberation (1971). Among the themes that entered into and transformed the theological and religious discourse during these years are those of the preferential option for the poor, concientization, a nascent critique of sexism and patriarchy within the religious bodies and in society at large, and the rethinking of God as Black.
Locating the take-over of the Armitage Street Church and The First Spanish Methodist Church attempts not to inscribe the event as part of historiography of Liberation Theology. Although the possible theoretical provocations such an attempt might stir may prove a tempting exercise, it would be disingenuous and dismissive of the drastic changes which took place in the 1960’s. It is because of the wave of liberation movements unfolding during this time, and in light of the way in which the Young Lords Organization justified the creation of the People’s Church, as a way to teach the church how to be church, that calls for attention to it alongside the history of Liberation Theology in general and Latino/a Theology in particular.
I read both of these instantiations of the People’s Church through a conceptualization of dissent derived from sociological studies of social movements and contentious political studies. To understand this, I present a notion of dissent that will help navigate a way forward. What I see at play in both of the People’s Churches is the creation of political actors and activation of contentious politics that branch into different paths. What is dissent and why is it helpful in thinking the importance of the People’s Church? I see this notion of dissent primarily as being composed of four elements, although other configurations are possible. These elements are (1) oppositional consciousness, (2) framing, (3) political actors, and (4) contentious politics. Dissenters come to know the world in ways that interpose a different understanding of reality to current situations, are open and searching for new forms of knowing, and act in ways that challenge the status quo. The term “oppositional consciousness” names this understanding, and refers to a subjective dimension in which subjects from oppressed groups develop mental states (cognitions) in response to their oppressive realities that motivate them to challenge and undermine systems of oppression. In the case of the Young Lords, we can see these elements at work when they encounter particular social needs that religious organizations may be equipped to provide, often say that they will, but do not fully engage the community in meeting said needs.
Framing stands as an intermediary process between oppositional consciousness and the becoming of political actors. It refers to the practices by which individuals, groups, and/or communities use ideational and emotional resources to offer an account of particular events and to encourage certain actions. As an intermediary process, framing facilitates the transition into political actors of potentially dissenting subjects who understand their world through an oppositional consciousness. The coming together of these two elements encourages the political actors to emerge. We can see the process of framing at work in the juxtaposition of the People’s Church and the local church. Who is the church supposed to serve if not the people? The framing of a local church in said matter then ups the stakes of the work needed to be done and who is going to do it.
Belonging to a minoritized group is part and parcel of the stratification of societies in which practices of domination assist the organization of society and the partition of its resources. Therefore, oppositional consciousness requires that individuals identify themselves as belonging to a group negatively affected by a dominant group that subjects them to asymmetrical relations and distribution of social goods. There are various ways in which identification with an oppressed group takes place. Identification with oppressed groups may be either imposed, chosen, or mobilized as one of the individual or group possible constitutive identities. These various forms of identification, whether through external imposition, self-choice, or an appropriation for political mobilization, point to the understanding that identities are fluid social constructs subject to modification and mobilization as individuals and groups see fit. Specific circumstances and contexts allow for an element of unknown possibilities that may be actualized through the unfolding of various encounters. Ultimately, identities are not fully under the control of individuals or groups. There are usually surprising developments that may influence the shape of particular identities.
Fueled by indignation over the experience of injustice, oppositional consciousness may lead individuals and groups toward becoming political actors. It is important to keep in mind that we need not assume a direct link between oppositional consciousness and political action. When an individual or a group feels indignation over their subordinated status and therefore moves to identify, condemn, and critique (a private as opposed to a public critique) the practices of the dominant groups does not necessarily mean that the individual or group would act politically. In fact, the group may restrict its actions to the civic arena without engaging in overt acts of dissent. When combined, oppositional consciousness and acts of framing birth political actors. In political actors, we have individuals or groups that develop a political identity that will move them to act contentiously. Political actors, therefore, collectively make and receive contentious claims that bear their interests and those of others.
When political actors, bearers of oppositional consciousness (applied through various framings and frames), engage in contentious politics one sees the coming together of three elements of social life, elements that Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow describe as follows: (1) contention—making and receiving claims, ranging from requests to demands, that impact someone’s interests and the distribution of socially available resources; (2) collective action—namely the process of coordination efforts in support of a shared interest, which is not necessarily but may be contentious in nature; and (3) politics—through the interactions of claimants with governments.
As this pertains to the Young Lords, we can see that they reframe the meanings of “church” in social environments in which, as institutions, congregations were not fully active for the benefit of the people at large. It is important to keep in mind that the Young Lords did not see their actions as supporting or promoting Christianization; rather, they saw their actions as living out what they understood as the radical meaning of the Christian message: the bringing of good news of salvation and liberation. Moreover, the People’s Church welcomed the real necessity of wading through multiple, and at times competing, interpretations toward revisioning. The mission of the People’s Church in Armigate Street and later in Lexington and 111th Street in NY was to serve the people free of charge: to care for children, to provide meaningful education, to make available food and medical service.
DePaul University, “The DePaul Community Collection,” http://libservices.org/contentdm/community.php
*These collections make available important Lincoln Park Neighborhood materials. In addition, the Young Lords Collection at the DePaul offer access to the Young Lords Newspaper, Pa’Lante as well as other resources.
Grand Valley State University, “The Young Lords in Lincoln Park,” http://www.gvsu.edu/library/specialcollections/young-lords-in-lincoln-park-22.htm
*This digital collection makes available a wide range of oral histories.
[This article was translated into Spanish by Néstor Medina.]