May 18, 2023
It was 1995 the last time the Pajaro River flooded this badly. Local clergy
responded, organizing charitable efforts to help those affected. But when we
showed up to meetings where key decisions would be made, we were
dismissed and sent back to our places of worship.
We were shocked and confused. Those of us in leadership of congregations
and other civic institutions know intimately about the needs of our people and
we are called by our various faith traditions to work towards the common good.
So we acted. We contacted the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the nation’s
oldest and largest community organizing network, and asked them to help us
build a broad-based, multi-issue organization with the power to impact local
The result of this partnership is COPA: Communities Organized for Relational
Power in Action. Founded in 2003, COPA represents 25 member institutions
from Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. The power that built COPA and has
sustained 20 years of organizing work is relational power… the work begins in
hundreds of conversations within and beyond our member institutions.
Relationships are formed, we move out of our bubbles, and we learn about
each other. In these conversations we begin to hear about each other’s needs
and concerns, and we develop the trust necessary to act together. When these
are widely felt, they become the issues that COPA works on.
COPA leaders have worked to keep libraries open in Salinas, get affordable
housing built across the region, and to pass school funding measures. COPA
helped create Esperanza Care, a full-scope healthcare program in Monterey
County for nearly 5000 undocumented residents. And as the COVID
pandemic tore through our region, disproportionately affecting our most
vulnerable residents, COPA helped pass renter protections in Santa Cruz
County and to create Project VIDA, a Monterey County program that employed
over 100 Community Health Workers to get people tested, vaccinated, and
connected to isolation resources to enable our economy to reopen.
Recently, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on “an
epidemic of loneliness,” explaining:
“When we are less invested in one another, we are more susceptible to
polarization and less able to pull together to face the challenges that we cannot
solve alone — from climate change and gun violence to economic inequality
and future pandemics.” This epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been
building for decades, fueling individual and collective problems that are literally
killing us and threatening to rip our country apart.
In many of our faith traditions, the idea of Covenant provides a template for
understanding the way COPA thinks about our work. This means going above
and beyond the social contract that establishes the state, government, and
laws that bind us…by widening our circles of attachment across income,
social, cultural, religious, and racial divides––and creating moral commitments
to one another, with shared values and ideals that compel us to work together,
despite our differences, for the common good.
In other words, covenants exist between people who understand they are part
of one another, making vows sealed by love. In the ancient Hebrew story, from
the Book of Ruth, though they were from different backgrounds and religions,
and had lost their legal relationship with the deaths of their husbands, Ruth
nevertheless promised her mother-in-law, Naomi, “Where you go, I will go.
Where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
Our work with COPA helps our diverse institutions widen our circles of
attachment – by joining in covenant with one another and COPA – to form
meaningful public relationships, forged in one-on-one connections, house
meetings, shared public actions – and a commitment to work together for the
When the Pajaro River flooded again this year, COPA leaders from Mujeres en
Accion and Assumption Catholic Church were immediately on the scene.
County officials sought out COPA’s help to convene residents to better
understand the needs, and COPA is currently negotiating with officials on the
short and long-term responses. Some of this negotiation will occur on May
20th, when more than 500 COPA leaders will assemble at the Golden State
Theater in Monterey. Besides dealing with relevant issues like the Pajaro
flooding, affordable housing, renter protections, and quality jobs, COPA will
celebrate 20 years of working together and will renew our Covenant with one
another for the work ahead. For more information about how your institution
can be part of this Covenant, contact COPA.IAF1@gmail.com.
Rev. Vicky Elder, COPA Leader, Unity of Monterey Bay
Rev. Jim Lapp, COPA Leader, St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in Santa Cruz