Edmond Ortiz for the Rivard Report
Local leaders of different faiths are working together to tackle challenges related to homelessness, affordable housing, and gentrification across San Antonio.
More than 50 representatives of the Interfaith San Antonio Alliance (ISAA), comprised of leaders of San Antonio’s Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh communities, gathered atop the San Fernando Cathedral Centre Café Wednesday to outline the new initiative’s projects and goals.
The alliance began developing one year ago, inspired by New York University’s Religious Leadership the Civic Engagement Project (RLCEP) that aimed to unite various faith communities to benefit the city as a whole through humanitarian missions.
ISAA board member Samuel Stahl, rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth-El, said San Antonio for generations has suffered an intertwined crisis stemming from homelessness, lack of affordable housing, and gentrification.
“A large percentage of our population lives in poverty and squalor,” he said. “More than 115,000 San Antonians occupy inadequate, unaffordable dwellings.” The alliance will work closely with Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who attended the event Wednesday, to “correct this social malady,” Stahl said.
ISAA leaders have already begun collaborating with Nirenberg’s Housing Policy Task Force, whose recommendations City Council recently accepted. In a May 30 meeting, task force officials and ISAA leaders discussed a timeline for the alliance to address the affordable housing development policies that are to be implemented, among other things.
At a Sept. 26 luncheon, alliance members heard a presentation by Veronica Soto, the City’s director of neighborhood and housing services, and participated in group discussions about how addressing affordable housing, gentrification, and homelessness could benefit their faith communities and the city, according to an alliance news release.
Stahl and Rabbi Steve Gutow, co-director of the RLCEP, are spearheading the alliance’s formation. The group has talked with other local faith leaders such as Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, Rev. Leslie Hollon of Trinity Baptist Church, Oak Hills Church Pastor Max Lucado, and business leaders such as Lukin Gilliland Jr.
While they were unable to attend Wednesday’s press conference, García-Siller, Hollon and Lucado endorse the alliance and its mission, Stahl said.
The alliance is a nonprofit with an executive director, Rev. Wyndee Holbrook, a Baptist minister, and office space at Alamo Heights United Methodist Church, a news release stated.
The Rev. Lawrence Christian, vicar general for the Archdiocese of San Antonio, gave the innovation for Wednesday’s press conference.
Christian said local faith leaders are rallying to “stand in solidarity with the thousands of people in our community who need a decent home – those living in the streets, those living in substandard, overcrowded conditions, those [who] can’t afford even a humble dwelling to call home.”
The Rev. Ann Helmke, the City’s community faith-based liaison, spoke of the long history of San Antonians helping each other in times of need. She recalled local faith leaders rejecting racially segregated dining facilities in the 1960s and the beginnings of Christian Assistance Ministry in the 1970s and SAMMinistries in the 1980s.
Local faith leaders rallied to address gang violence in the 1990s, Helmke said, and after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, they rejected prejudice and fear of certain races, ethnicities, and spiritual communities. San Antonio was also the first city in the world to host an interfaith-driven Habitat for Humanity build, she added.
“So we are today coming together, learning together, gathering together, relating and creating together, building together, speaking together, standing together,” Helmke said. “Alone, there is no community. There is no sharing of common humanity, and that’s what brings us together today.”
Imam Omar Shakir, resident imam of Masjid Bilal Ibn Ra’bah, said he felt a duty as an American and a human being to “speak out for the less fortunate.”
“I don’t see any contradictions between having a civic duty and a religious duty, knowing our founding fathers established this great nation on belief in a creator,” Shakir said.
G.P. Singh, leader of Sikh Dharamsal, said his religion teaches that all people are divine and are deserving of love.
“We are called upon to be loving to everyone and everything around us,” Singh said. “It is this creation of love and dignity that we share especially with those who have less than us in this world.”
Nirenberg said he is heartened by the creation of the interfaith alliance and its charge, adding it is further proof that San Antonio is a city of neighbors helping one another.
The mayor recalled the City Council passing a resolution last year in support of San Antonio becoming a Compassionate City, one of more than 70 recognized worldwide.
“San Antonio is a city that comes together when our neighbors are in need,” Nirenberg said, pledging support for the alliance and his commitment to making sure “everyone in San Antonio, regardless of where they live, who they are, the color of their skin, the faith they adhere to, when they got here, can live in dignity.”