Power to the Parish

Father Jose Luis Menendez of Wynwood takes the church to the people and the people to the streets

In the Corpus Christi parish, "Yes or No" became a similar catch phrase, an encouragement for the small to take on the big, which grew out of the PACT town meetings of the late Eighties and early Nineties.

The number of attendees from the neighborhood was growing, but Menendez had seen that the participants, who generally were poor and lacked high levels of education, had difficulty articulating their problems; visiting public officials, meanwhile, simply made pretty promises that weren't kept. "We work with people that can be confused with too many words," the pastor explains. "Then they come before the politician, the lawyer, the priest -- these are people who know how to talk -- but at the end we don't have any commitment."

To strip away the camouflage of verbosity, Menendez began instructing politicians and bureaucrats to answer every question with either "Yes" or "No." It was an emboldening move for the neighborhood, which often made its guests squirm with chants of "Yes or No!" and 600-strong renditions of "Glory, glory hallelujah/ PACT is marching on."

Early on, all the Miami commissioners and then-Mayor Xavier Suarez were invited to attend a meeting. Only the mayor and Commissioner Miller Dawkins showed up and they were promptly set upon by the vocal crowd. "It was a very hard moment," Menendez remembers. "A funny thing, on that occasion Commissioner Dawkins looked to me and said, 'You have prepared for us a kangaroo court.' I made a little [mental] translation: He has called me a kangaroo; I didn't know what a kangaroo court was. Later I understood. I realized how many misunderstandings can happen. But since then we have worked together. They know if they do something we don't like, there's going to be opposition. We are not like other groups with only three old ladies that a politician brings with him to a meeting; when we say something, we back it with hundreds of people."

Among the community's notable victories: Last year residents took on the Dade County School Board, which planned to raze a block of houses in order to construct a new Buena Vista Elementary School in Wynwood. Rather than allow the county to displace a rare species -- homeowners -- residents took it upon themselves to find an alternative site. They suggested a defunct Coca-Cola bottling plant on NW 29th Street, and about a month ago the school board agreed to build the school there.

Xavier Suarez describes the PACT town meetings as "a process where you got pummeled and at the end you got embraced." He adds that he wasn't convinced such "shock treatment" was the most effective way of dealing with politicians who cared enough to show up in the first place. But regardless of the method, Suarez admits, sometimes the results were unarguable. After a series of meetings to protest the proliferation of crackhouses in the area, says the former Miami mayor, "we had to come up with a whole new approach -- a system of code enforcement and a nuisance-abatement board which found so many violations that ultimately we would obtain a court order allowing us to go into the property [and shut it down].

"Jose Luis Menendez," Suarez concludes, "stands as an example of the activism of people who live and work and share the living conditions of Miami's poor neighborhoods. I have to acknowledge that the city has not been responsive to Wynwood over the years."

Says Menendez: "When we give up our power, the politicians do whatever they want. This isn't Latin America, where the mentality is to ask for a favor before you do anything. In the United States you only have to believe and make the system work."

However rosy the outlook in certain areas, the priest cannot forget that belief is not something that comes easily to his parishioners. He tells of a time shortly after arriving at Corpus Christi, when he went to see the school's volleyball team compete in a tournament against other Catholic schools. He was immediately struck by the color-coordinated T-shirts and shorts worn by opponents, a sharp contrast to the mismatched clothes of the Corpus Christi squad. After watching his team lose all but one game, Menendez rounded up donations to purchase new uniforms and sneakers. He even recruited a new coach. At the next tourney, the spiffed-up team racked up an identical series of losses. Afterward Menendez asked the coach what went wrong. "'They play better than the other teams,'" Menendez recalls the coach replying. "'But after the first time they lose a point, they give up and lose all of them.'

"I realized then that it's another mentality," says the priest. "Through an unconscious way you are a failure if you have a bad self-image given by family traditions or society. You must be allowed to trust in yourself. I was in a wealthy family, my parents gave me an education, but at the same time many people don't have that blessing. Then I have the right to more? No. What I would like is to offer to the poor the same possibilities the rich have."

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