In the run-up to Valley Interfaith’s 25th Anniversary Convention, which took place on Sunday, October 12, 2008, at the McAllen Convention Center, the Guardian ran a three-part series on the group, featuring the recollections of former Valley Interfaith leaders.

In one part, Sister Judy Donovan, lead organizer of the group from 1997 to 2003, offered her views of Valley Interfaith. Valley Interfaith celebrates its 30th Anniversary with a delegate’s assembly at the Pharr Events Center on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013.

Sister Judy Donovan
Sister Judy Donovan

October 12, 2008

McALLEN, RGV : “Valley Interfaith is my university where I learned that we can lead in our community and not just follow. We can teach public officials and not just wait for them to act.”

I had been an organizer with Valley Interfaith for just a few days when a long-time leader gave me that description of what the organization meant to him and his parish. As an organizer and then lead organizer with Valley Interfaith from 1997 to 2003 I came to understand – and experience – what he meant. The leaders of Valley Interfaith became my university, too, and what they taught me most was how to learn, how to fight, and how to celebrate.

How to learn:

Valley Interfaith leaders were always eager to learn -and then teach others- about their own reality. Over one summer, 60 leaders met weekly in ‘train the trainer’ sessions to craft and practice workshops on the upcoming state legislative session. In the fall they spread across the churches and schools of the Valley to lead these training sessions and kick-off house meeting campaigns in each institution. By the time the legislative session started in the New Year, over 750 Valley residents had gone through trainings on the state budget and the workings of the legislative process and hundreds more had participated in house meetings to identify additional leadership, educate themselves about the upcoming session and identify issues that were important to them. A blue-caped army of nearly 200 Valley Interfaith leaders then got up at 2am one day in early February to travel to Austin where they disembarked from their buses to join their Texas IAF sister organizations who were pouring into the state capitol to do public business. The Valley Interfaith delegation was armed with the signatures of 36,000 Valley voters who supported their action agenda and were ready to put their votes on the line. ‘Where do you stand on the Valley Interfaith Action Agenda?’ was the refrain heard around the corridors of the State House as small clusters of Valley Interfaith leaders found and engaged their elected representatives in conversations about their issues. ‘What do those people think they are doing?’ sniffed one annoyed staffer to the other as the Valley delegation intercepted their boss before he could slip into an office. ‘It’s called democracy!’ excitedly replied one of the leaders, as she turned to engage her senator.”

How to fight:

Valley Interfaith leaders had already had impressive success with getting water and sewer services to the colonias and with putting hundreds through training for living wage jobs with VIDA by the time I became Lead Organizer. Now they were turning their attention to the structure of voter patterns and electoral districts that favored the wealthy and diminished the voice of hundreds of voters. They were beginning to research the need for single member districts in the City of McAllen. I remember when their interest turned into a fight. Three pastors and I met with a key city official who, after praising Valley Interfaith for bringing water to the colonias and helping hundreds get living wage jobs, cautioned the group to stick with ‘helping those people’ and to leave the governing to the experts. Leaning forward for emphasis he said in a grave tone, ‘I’m telling you, this is none of your business.’ When they would not back down he told his pastor-one of the three- that if they were to move forward in support of single member districts Father could just forget about the monthly check he wrote in support of the parish school. Father straightened himself up and replied, ‘It would be a shame if you stopped supporting your own community, but if your lack of support means we have to close the school, I’ll close the school and keep preaching the Gospel.’ It was a powerful moment. The leaders knew they were on to something. They completed their power analysis of what it would take to win, negotiated an agreement among the member institutions on the work to be done and the fight was on. It was their fight and they would use their time, talent and treasure to win it. Those months of voter education, research, collecting the requisite signatures to get the issue on the city ballot, organizing voter district block captains and finally get-out-the-vote efforts were not just a fight to create a more just and equitable city government, but a fight for Valley Interfaith’s life. Our opponents had decided that we had indeed gone too far and they announced that they wanted to destroy Valley Interfaith. In a David vs. Goliath struggle of big money, sophisticated media campaigns and intimidation vs. civically educated and organized Valley Interfaith institutions and allies, Valley Interfaith had indeed put their finger on long-held systems of power in this south Texas city and had said they could be changed. In a victory of organized people over organized money, Valley Interfaith won the vote and were gracious in victory by calling their opponents within minutes to acknowledge the tough fight and propose a plan for unifying the city and moving forward. Valley Interfaith taught me how to fight by teaching me what is worth fighting for: dignity, full participation in public life, and a better future for their families and community.”

How to celebrate:

Every organizer and leader knows the ‘doxology’ of organizing: plan/act/evaluate. Well, Valley Interfaith added a fourth: celebrate! Teachers, laborers, construction workers, truckers, cafeteria cooks, home health aids, homemakers, lawyers, fishermen, social workers, small business owners, farm workers alike would come from long days and many family and community commitments to engage in workshops, take days off without pay to travel to Austin, sit in endless city council or school district meetings, organize their kids and spouses to support their leadership roles and negotiate with other leaders in their institutions’ when life made the above impossible. Because they worked so hard at creating a dignified public life for themselves, they also knew the value of creating space and time for the ‘joy of public life’. Whether with an elaborate meal, a simple song, a mocking skit or a Mass of Thanksgiving, Valley Interfaith leaders know how to buffer the hard work of leadership with a deep enjoyment of each other and their families. The dignity of the joy they modeled stood in stark contrast to the humiliating culture of ‘pachanga politics’ that manipulated Valley voters’ hope and good will for generations. Thanks to Valley Interfaith, Valley voters today are more likely today to ask, ‘Where do you stand on Valley Interfaith’s agenda?’ when approached by a candidate promising a trinket in exchange for their precious vote.”

What you pay for, build yourself, and fight for- you value. Valley Interfaith leaders have paid for, built and long fought for their organization. In doing so they have taught thousands – including me – what it means to learn, fight and celebrate. Que Vive Valley Interfaith!