Leader Spotlight: John Claassen

John Claassen is a long-time resident of California and is the new chair of Gamaliel affiliate, Genesis. He had a wonderful five years as a teenager attending Ryan Prep College, the Diocese of Fresno minor seminary staffed by ten great Jesuit priests. John felt it was here that he was able to live the vision of the Church that Pope Francis is sharing with us.  He became involved with Genesis through his parish, Corpus Christi in Oakland, CA.  John received the St. Pius X award from Bishop Montrose for religious education ministry and was a founding Board member of Stockton Shelter for the Homeless that housed 150 homeless per night.  Additionally, John is a Rotarian and was elected from 1992-1997 to work with a lobbyist to represent US broom manufacturers.  John was also part of a grassroots movement to support and uplift skilled craftsmen making brooms in an industry that was severely harmed by NAFTA.  John retired in January and believes that Genesis is uniquely postured to be a vital part of Pope Francis’ vision.

How did your work with Gamaliel begin?
About four years ago during Lent, long time Gamaliel organizer, Mary Gonzalez, made a presentation about Gamaliel and the work being done within the organization. I believed in everything that Mary was saying and I knew how powerful community organizing was.  About a month later there was a notice in the bulletin for a “come and see” event and I opted to go.  I thought this was something I could get behind.  I was frustrated with the political process in our country and I knew I had to take a stand to protect our communities because our politicians were not.  I knew that Gamaliel and Genesis was our hope as a country and community.  We need to build up our faith community and I believe community organizing can do this.

How does Gamaliel align with Catholic Social Teaching?
What we do at Gamaliel is inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  We are in the right place at the right time, doing what we need to be doing.  Our new Pope is focusing on the plight of the poor, just as we do within Genesis and Gamaliel.  Now is the time for faith-based organizing.  This is the time it will explode and we really need to get people more involved.  We need to bring this into the community.  Based on my own experience, faith based organizing is going to save our democracy.  Prior to my new position at Genesis, I took a six month course from the Diocese of Oakland on the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church where we studied the Papal Encyclicals.  I knowthat what we are doing within the Gamaliel network aligns with the social justice history of the Church.

What is Corpus Christi doing that aligns with the Fire of Faith Campaign?
In our parish we have all been involved with the Renew Program during Lent.  The Renew Program is a nationwide program that allows for time to discuss important social justice issues.  This is one of the ways we are inspiring the parish to make our communities better.  As a community, there are issues outside of immigration reform like healthcare and a bus pass program for community youth.  Our bus pass program is unique and exciting and will allow all children to get to the school of their choice without financial constraints.  Youth will then have opportunities to attend after school programs, youth groups, or sporting events because they will have a way to get back home at the end of the day.  We are very focused on youth at Corpus Christi because youth are too often victims of crime. We have to keep our children focused on succeeding in school and restore their hope for the future. 

What has been your most rewarding experience in community organizing?
An ATU 192 bus driver told me that he went back to Mass after twenty years because he could see that we were living our faith.  He knew firsthand what a great difference we were making in people’s lives and he wanted to be a part of that type of great community change.

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