For a look at how the people of St. Matthias Catholic church in Huntington Park live their faith, check the basement.
One recent Monday night, the downstairs room that doubles as an auditorium was filled with people from this mostly Mexican American parish of more than 5,000 families.
As six City Council candidates entered the room, it was not instantly clear that this gathering was a type of prayer meeting. But most people in the audience understood.
"I feel as connected to my faith when I am talking to candidates or asking people to get out and vote as I do in church," Lou Negrete said later.
A professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Los Angeles, he came to St. Matthias from St. Mary's parish in Boyle Heights, one of at least six nearby churches represented that night. All of them belong to UNO, United Neighborhoods Organization, a Southern California-based group dedicated to grass-roots politics and social reform, rooted in gospel values and built of member churches.
The urge to put religious faith to work by taking social action is part of life in most religious circles. As government funding for social welfare projects has decreased over the last 10 years, religious-based groups dedicated to social reform are gaining prominence and significance.
UNO, now 20 years old, claims more than 15 parishes and several local unions among its members. And there are sister groups in South-Central L.A. as well as the valleys surrounding Los Angeles. Most members are Catholic or Protestant churches.
To set the agenda for candidates' night at St. Matthias, the pastor, Father Rody Gorman, read from the Book of Isaiah, including a verse President Clinton made famous with his latest inaugural address:
If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted then shall your light rise in the darkness. . . . The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire with good things. . . . And your ancient ruins will be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.
Repairing neighborhoods by solving community problems is a spiritual exercise for members of St. Matthias. This low-income parish, some of whose members are still in the process of becoming U.S. citizens, hardly seems to be in a position to demand results from government leaders and big business, but history proves otherwise.
In recent years St. Matthias has taken on the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Chem-Clear subsidiary of Union Pacific, and government officials from Los Angeles as well as Huntington Park, always with the support of its sister parishes.
The tangible results include cutting the time it takes to process citizenship applications by at least six months; blocking a toxic waste treatment plant slated to open near a Huntington Park high school; and clearing prostitutes from neighborhood streets.
Along the way, UNO parishes have called on everyone from Mayor Richard Riordan and INS District Director Richard K. Rogers to Vice President Al Gore to meet with them. These three and dozens of others have accepted.
"I feel the church belongs in politics; it is part of loving your neighbor," says Gorman, a man with curly white hair and a gripping handshake. "If you don't help them with social problems you're not loving them."
About 10 years ago, he committed to the $8,000 annual dues for UNO membership. Each parish pays a rate based on the size of its congregation. The guarantee of help with problems and training in how to hold politicians and business leaders accountable for their actions are perhaps the main benefits.
"You develop leadership from within the parish," Gorman says. "And people begin to think of how to improve the community by working together. Basically the message is, it's not enough just to pray."
Rosalie Gurrola, a high school counselor who lives in Boyle Heights, got involved in social action when her pastor invited her to an UNO meeting more than 10 years ago.
"I saw a part of my life I needed to develop," she says. "I knew I should get involved in making the decisions that affect my community."
As a girl growing up in Boyle Heights in the 1950s, she watched her father join with neighbors to save their homes by fighting city plans to build a freeway.
"He lost that fight but he showed me that I should act on behalf of my neighbors," she says.
Her father did not take action in the name of his religious beliefs, but she does: "My church teaches me to share my gifts and talents with others. Collectively we can act for the good of our families, our neighborhoods and community."
People usually get involved because they want to fix a particular problem, but they stay for reasons like Gurrola's, says the Rev. John Coleman of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, who made a study of church-based community organizing groups across the country.