Posted on September 8, 2004

Pastors Urge New Citizens To Vote

Emily Bazar, Sacramento Bee, Sep. 7

Grass-roots community organizers are partnering with churches and mosques across California to convince immigrants that they have a religious and moral obligation to register to vote.

The campaign, called “Faithful Citizenship” by the Catholic Church, is accelerating in Northern and Central California as the deadline to register for the presidential election approaches.

Pastors and imams, activists and educators are hustling to get as many Latinos in Arbuckle, Pakistani Americans in Lodi, Hmong in North Sacramento and Filipino Americans in Lathrop — among others — onto voter rolls by Oct. 18.

They’re telling eligible immigrants that civic participation is their responsibility, and that they can’t be complacent about improving their lives and communities.

“Jesus was sent by God the Father to save the world,” said the Rev. Dean McFalls, the pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Lathrop. “The saving is not just to extract us out of the world to be saved in heaven, but to transform the world while we’re here.”

About half of McFalls’ congregation is made up of immigrants, primarily from Mexico and the Philippines, he said. Of those who are eligible, he estimated, 30 to 40 percent are not registered to vote.

As part of the effort to get them registered, McFalls plans to place voter registration tables outside of church. In the coming weeks, he said, he will make civic responsibility part of his homilies.

Although other religious denominations are involved in the effort, the Catholic Church has been the leading voice. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued an official statement urging American Catholics not to “abandon the church’s important role in public life and the duty to encourage Catholics to act on our faith in political life.”

The Pacific Institute for Community Organization (PICO), a coalition of churches and community groups, felt compelled to join in the campaign after reviewing a recent statewide study that showed immigrants vote far less regularly than non-immigrant whites.

The study, conducted by the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California and released earlier this year, concluded that 60 percent of eligible white voters consider themselves regular voters, compared to 38 percent of Latinos and 39 percent of Asian Americans. The researchers found that voting among first-generation immigrants is particularly low.

Jim Keddy, PICO’s statewide director, said the data served as a wake-up call. He knows that politicians often respond to the needs and demands of their most politically active constituents. As long as immigrants don’t vote, he said, their needs won’t be met.

“Our elected officials use polling to determine priorities and decide what to work on and what not to,” Keddy said. “When they poll, they call frequent voters.”

PICO has partnered with 10 Catholic dioceses statewide, representing about 85 parishes so far. Most of the parishes are heavily Spanish-speaking and largely Latino, he said.

Each parish is handling the campaign differently, Keddy said. Some pastors send voter registration cards to every church member. Some are analyzing public voter registration lists to see what percentage of their congregation is registered. Some churches are arranging classes on how to use voting machines.

The goal, he said, is to register 1,000 new voters.

But Keddy, like all involved in this effort, stressed that it’s completely nonpartisan. As church leaders and neighborhood organizers work to register nonvoters, they’re not telling them which party to join or candidate to support, he said.

Church leaders are urging their members to use their religion to inform their voting habits.

The Catholic Church opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and the use of embryonic stem cells for research, all themes espoused by the Republican Party. But it also opposes the war in Iraq and the death penalty, issues that are more aligned with Democrats.

“As a Catholic community, we are probably as divided as the rest of the country,” said Rich Fowler, executive director of Catholic Charities in Stockton. “I think the bishops are saying we start with our faith and we try to come to our conclusions by what we believe.”

In Stockton, Fowler said, organizers are focusing on 10 to 12 parishes in areas with the lowest voter turnout.

In other parts of Stockton and Lodi, organizers are working with Protestant churches and a local mosque.

There are about 3,000 Pakistani Americans in the Lodi area, said community organizer Nasir Shah. Beginning at this Friday’s prayers, he and others will visit the Lodi Muslim Mosque to talk about the importance of registering to vote.

Shah believes it has become even more important for Muslim immigrants to get involved in the political process since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“We want to show (other communities) that we are living as faithful and good citizens in this area,” he said.

In Arbuckle, off Interstate 5 in Colusa County, Mariana Huerta attends Mass at Holy Cross Mission. The 21-year-old community leader estimated that 98 percent of the parishioners there are of Mexican background. Of those, she has already identified 13 who are citizens who aren’t registered.

One of them is student Noemy Mora, 25, who planned to register to vote after Mass. She and her family came to the United States from Mexico 12 years ago to join her father, who was already here as a farm worker.

She became a citizen in 1996, but has never registered to vote because she said she didn’t know how. Nor have her close relatives who are citizens. “I didn’t know where the election places were,” said Mora, a business major at California State University, Sacramento.

Mora hasn’t decided which party she will join or whom she will vote for in November. But she said she’s convinced it’s important that her voice be heard.

“One vote counts a lot,” she said.