There they stood, about 200 parishioners of Santa Rosa Catholic Church in San Fernando, clapping their hands and chanting "raise our voice, raise our voice" as hundreds filed into an auditorium for the inaugural assembly of a new grass-roots organization.
Even after 1,200 people had packed the Cal State Northridge auditorium, the Santa Rosa contingent cheered the loudest. In many ways, they had the most to be proud of.
It was their church, which is home to the largest Latino congregation in the San Fernando Valley, that initiated what has grown into a large church- and synagogue-based organization committed to improving the quality of life in the Valley.
"Our people have been waiting for an opportunity to get involved," said Yvonne Lovato, a Santa Rosa parish leader. "What is important for us is that we are learning to be leaders for the first time. We're proud that our parish is now working with other churches all over the Valley."
The group, Valley Organized in Community Efforts (VOICE), has become a sister organization to one of the largest and most respected grass-roots groups in Los Angeles--the 11-year-old United Neighborhoods Organization, based in East Los Angeles.
After seeing UNO's success in teaching churchgoing people how to deal with issues such as cleaning up barrio supermarkets and fighting for better police deployment, the pastor of Santa Rosa church began a drive in 1985 to create a similar Valley organization.
"I saw that our people were on the fringes. They lacked the confidence to help themselves because of their situation in society," said Father Thomas Rush, the former pastor.
VOICE claims membership of more than 20,000 families from San Fernando to Tarzana. Their goal, as one church leader said at the inaugural rally in November, is "to organize the powerless."
The majority of members are poor and blue-collar Latino families from five east San Fernando Valley Catholic churches. However, the organization has reached out and enlisted membership of 10 other Catholic, Protestant and Jewish congregations from middle-class and affluent neighborhoods in the western and mid-Valley areas.
"We stand together as people of faith, as people of values," said the Rev. Curtis Page, pastor of Kirk o' the Valley Presbyterian Church in Reseda. "We have cut across religious, ethnic and economic lines and joined together as one organization."
It is an organization that has been given a strong send-off by its allies.
VOICE has collected $187,000 in first-year funding to hire professional organizers and set up an office. The money comes from membership dues and grants from other community organizations.
The group has the blessings of Archbishop Roger M. Mahony of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese; Rabbi Paul Dubin, executive vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, and Bishop Jack Tuell of the United Methodist Church.
Since their inaugural assembly, VOICE members have been meeting to develop a strategy to work with police to stop blatant drug dealing at several neighborhood parks and the sale of liquor to minors at several corner liquor stores.
Eventually the organization intends to become involved in transportation issues and to devise programs to steer youths away from gangs and to fight religious and racial discrimination. In their first action, group leaders in January handed Los Angeles City officials a list of abandoned vehicle sites in the eastern Valley, demanding that the cars be removed.
"We know that we cannot take on every problem. But we will set goals that we can win," said Miguel Balcaceres, of Sol del Valle Christian Reformed Church in Sun Valley. "What's important is for us to take our first steps forward."
Along with United Neighborhoods Organization, VOICE joins two other church-based organizations in Los Angeles County--the South Central Organizing Committee, and the younger East Valleys Organization, which represents the San Gabriel and Pomona valleys.
These sister organizations share a progressive agenda that has used confrontational tactics to pressure politicians and business owners to tighten city laws on liquor stores, reduce Eastside auto insurance rates and secure $1 million in surplus Olympic funds for youth programs.
The groups' strength lies in the large number of people they represent and in the highly organized way they mobilize and train ordinary people to confront community power brokers.
It is not unusual, for example, for UNO or the South Central Organizing Committee to call out more than 1,000 people to an assembly in which a politician or business owner is asked to clean up a street or supermarket.
VOICE intends to carry on its allies' tactics, adhering to the philosophy of a movement fathered by Saul Alinsky, the late radical social reformer and labor organizer who rallied Chicago's Irish working poor in the 1930s. In its present-day form, the movement is continued by a group called the Industrial Areas Foundation, a nonprofit foundation of professional community organizers.
Jose Hernandez, a professor of urban studies at Cal State Northridge, said VOICE "is a first" because it offers Valley Latinos the chance to join forces with other neighborhoods in the area.
And that declaration gives the new community crusaders of Santa Rosa Church even more reason to shout out their determined call to "raise our voice."
"Now we are prepared to tell everyone what we intend to do for our community," Lovato said.