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Church Alliance Gains Support by Offering Solutions : Activism: Group once had bad reputation among some Anaheim officials. Now it gets attention in fight against social ills.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years they were a thorn in the side of city officials, an ever-present group who harangued leaders to do something about the problems of youth violence and gangs.

But opinions of the Orange County Congregation-Community Organization have changed.

The grass-roots group, which consists of some of the city’s oldest and largest churches, has been using its broad-based membership, religious foundation and the discipline of an army not only to bring attention to social ills--but to suggest and fight for solutions.

A breakthrough came last fall when the Anaheim City Council approved more than $250,000 worth of after-school programs for which the group had been lobbying long and hard throughout the summer. Although OCCCO has been around for 10 years, that victory symbolized the group’s growing legitimacy at City Hall, where they once had a reputation for doing more complaining than problem solving.

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“We have managed to articulate basic community needs, and the people in the positions of authority recognize this,” said Father John Lenihan, pastor of St. Boniface Catholic Church in Anaheim. “People are realizing that the problems facing cities cannot be solved unilaterally but have to involve teamwork.”

Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly, who once considered the group “strident and demanding,” now says he welcomes its input because it is offering specific solutions instead of merely pointing out problems.

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“I think their emergence is one of the best things to happen in Anaheim in a long time because they are motivated by what is best for the community and what is best for the neighborhoods,” Daly said.

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The group consists of 17 churches countywide and claims more than 50,000 families as members, 23,000 of them in Anaheim.

The group encourages its members to become community leaders and advocates with the goal of combining religious and family values with a civic spirit. They offer workshops and training sessions in civic involvement, with a annual budget of $180,000 and two full-time staff members.

Their efforts have focused on Santa Ana and Anaheim, where they have identified the most pressing needs. They have pushed for community-based policing and have helped create a community center in Anaheim’s Jeffrey-Lynne neighborhood.

“They are really making their presence felt,” Daly said. “In a city as large as Anaheim, there has to be a way for all voices to be heard.”

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Recently, the group surveyed hundreds of church families in Anaheim and held 54 meetings with experts in education, law enforcement and crime prevention to try to get to the root of the city’s youth problems.

“We talked to our families, and they told us that our city doesn’t have anything for our youth to do,” member Dianne Horn said.

OCCCO brought their findings and a list of ideas to the city last June and, for the first time, began working in direct partnership with officials to give low-income children an alternative to drugs and gangs.

It is this approach that appeals to Councilman Bob Zemel, who met with members last week to discuss their goals.

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“They are taking responsibility for their community,” Zemel said. “They are not saying that the city has to do these things all on their own. They are asking the city for help, and I think that’s the way communities have to respond to social problems. We can’t just expect government to fix everything.”

Ultimately, a third of their ideas received city funding. They included: the addition of sports activities to the Kids in Action anti-gang program; the hiring of an outreach worker to work with female gang members; expansion of a recreation program at George Washington Community Center from summer to year-round; the addition of a sixth day at the city’s boxing club, and the scheduling of at least eight special events at the George Washington Community Center focusing on human services, employment and the arts.

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Despite this success, members were disappointed that the city did not fund its entire slate of ideas and will return to the council this month to lobby for more funding.

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Mindful of the county’s budget crisis and the effect it might have on Anaheim, members plan to emphasize only what they feel are the most pressing needs: the funding of computer labs and teen centers at Anaheim High School and Sycamore Junior High School and some staffed homework centers in the city.

Lenihan and others say their worst fear is that the county bankruptcy will prevent the city from being able to fund more youth programs, which they feel are crucial in keeping kids out of gangs and trouble.

“If we don’t do something, then we are going to have even more serious problems to worry about than whether Disney decides to build Westcot,” he said, referring to the proposed expansion of the Anaheim theme park.

Lately, there have been signs that OCCCO is taking a more prominent role in the political arena in Anaheim. The group sponsored a candidate forum during the City Council elections last fall and has pushed hard for the council to fill a vacant seat with Shirley McCracken, who finished third in the Nov. 8 election.

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Only two council members were voted into office because of an election quirk that arose when the city changed the way it elected its mayor.

At the city’s last council meeting, Lenihan--who had been invited to deliver the invocation--started by asking that the city and council be blessed, then added, “Shelter (the council) from petty, personal politics and help them to be concerned for the greater good of all.”

To many in the room, Lenihan’s prayer was a gentle way of urging the council to reach a consensus on the vacant council seat, which must be filled by Jan. 29 or a special election at a cost of $100,000 must be held.

Lenihan later returned to the podium and publicly endorsed the selection of McCracken. He was immediately blasted by one of his own parishioners, who criticized the priest for discussing the issue during Mass two days before.

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“I noticed people shaking their heads,” an angry Bill Fitzgerald said to the council. “The church is interfering with governmental matters, and (Lenihan) is way off base.”

As OCCCO gains visibility, Lenihan said, he is getting used to such criticism.

“There’s always going to be that problem where people will find it difficult to see a man of the cloth in the forefront of political issues,” he said.

Group members, who said they worked so hard for the $250,000 for the youth programs, are upset at the prospect of the city spending nearly half of that on an election.

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“To me, it’s a miscarriage of justice,” said Horn, the OCCCO member. “To spend that kind of money on an election would be irresponsible.”

With newfound respect and their growing effectiveness as group, leaders say their work has just begun.

“We will continue to be standing up there hollering,” said Stephen Mathur, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Anaheim. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Our issues may not be as glamorous as keeping the Rams, but we’ve been squeaking enough to bring to the forefront needs that have to be addressed.”


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