EPISO: Division of Church and State?

Author: Theresa Caballero

On October 7, 2002, El Paso Commissioners Court held its weekly meeting. One of the items slated for action was consideration of how the county would dispense with some of our tax dollars. Naturally there were several groups and individuals present asking for funds for their particular projects. One of these groups was the Roman Catholic Church.

The Church, in the person of several priests and nuns, was there as a member of the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, otherwise known as EPISO. The Church was there to ask for money for training programs it sponsors. The number discussed was $350,000.00. The audience was peppered with people holding “Project Arriba” signs, a project under the auspices of EPISO. This was nothing more or less than the Catholic Church, a non-tax paying, entity, asking for tax dollars. In the opinion of this writer, this was an open, unabashed display of unconstitutional intermingling of Church and State.

We hear about EPISO. We read about EPISO. EPISO supports many noble sounding endeavors, like worker retraining. We see priests and nuns standing before public podiums asking for tax dollars for EPISO projects. It all looks so good, or at the very least innocuous. But what really is EPISO? Who are its leaders? What do they want tax dollars for? What is EPISO’s platform? What are the priests and nuns doing there? What power does EPISO have over our politicians to ask for tax dollars? Before one can pass an opinion as to whether this religious based group should be given a share of our finite tax dollars, it is imperative that we try and answer these questions.

Saul Alinsky, more than 50 years ago founded the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). There are more than 40 IAF institutions across the country, many operating under different names. The San Antonio group, the oldest group, is called Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS). In El Paso, the name used is EPISO. The Catholic Church is the dominant force in EPISO. Literature about the IAF networks focuses on the education system in this country, and the movement of masses to recreate democracy. Ernesto Cortes, Jr., an IAF supporter wrote in 1994, “IAF organizations hold ’actions’—public dramas, with masses of ordinary people moving together on a particular issue, with a particular focus, and sometimes producing an unanticipated reaction.” Cortes wrote that IAF groups are organized in the following way, “Cops, like all IAF organizations, is primarily a federation of congregations, connected to institutions of faith and agitated by their traditions. In this context ‘faith’ does not mean a particular system of religious beliefs, but a more general affirmation that life has meaning…COPS also serve as ‘mini-universities.’”

Who are the organizers of these groups or “mini-universities”? Cortes, in his own words writes, “IAF leaders begin their development in one-on-one conversations with a skilled organizer…IAF organizers see themselves as teachers, mentors and agitators who constantly cultivate leadership for the organization.”

This does not really answer the question as to who the “organizers” or “agitators” are, but if one LOOKS at the leadership of EPISO, one sees men wearing Roman Catholic collars and Catholic nuns. For example, it was priests in collars who organized the Arriba/EPISO crowd at Commissioners Court, and it was they in their collars, before the podium asking for tax dollars.

One of the tenets of COPS is “Living by the Iron Rule—‘COPS and the IAF have won their victories not by speaking for ordinary people but by teaching them how to speak, act, and engage in politics for themselves.” The question becomes again, who is doing the teaching? What is the intermediary between the individual and the government. In El Paso, it is EPISO. What is EPISO? It is the Church.

Next week: a lay out the platform of EPISO.

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