Leader Spotlight: Michael Okinczyc

Michael is the Lead Organizer of VOICE-Buffalo. In addition to his full time work as an organizer he is attending Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, NY and pursuing an masters degree in Religious Philosophy and Political Philosophy. He grew up in San Diego, California. Currently, Michael is living in Buffalo, New York. Michael moved to Buffalo, NY in January of 2012, where he became the Joint Regional Organizer for VOICE-Buffalo and the Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope (NOAH), which today is also known as Gamaliel of Western New York. In 2013 he was promoted to Lead Organizer of VOICE-Buffalo. He attends several congregations in Buffalo which include: Our Lady of Hope RC, St. Joseph’s University Parish, and Pilgrim St. Luke’s UCC.

What is your relationship with Gamaliel and how did it begin?

My relationship with Gamaliel began in Oakland, CA where I met Mary Gonzales and then shortly thereafter attended National Leadership Training at Sonoma State. It was in Sonoma that I met Louisa Pacheco who was then Director of VOICE-Buffalo and now is Director of Gamaliel WNY. I received a call from Louisa a few months later and she asked me if I was interested in working in Western New York. I told her I was despite the cold weather and took a trip in December of 2011. I quickly connected with the staff and leadership and felt this was a committed and ambitious organization with a strong national network that I wanted to be a part of.

How has your Catholic Background influenced your work in social justice?

I spent the first few years of my life growing up in the Catholic Church. As someone who is Mexican and Polish I was born into the Catholic Church! I have recently been feeling drawn back to the Catholic Church in many ways because of the leadership of Pope Francis. I have been heavily influenced to commit myself to this work by both Catholic and Protestant Theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez, Walter Rauschenbusch, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr and Saint Augustine. I have also been influenced by religious pluralists such as Mahatma Ghandi.

How do you see the Fire of Faith campaign align with Catholic Social Teaching?

I believe the Fire of Faith Campaign aligns directly with Catholic Social Teaching. The Fire of Faith campaign is aimed at rekindling our Democracy, Congregations and Economy. At a time in our country when civic engagement is so utterly low and the gulf between the rich and poor grows ever wider, it is imperative that we work with our faith communities to respond to our current crisis and follow our faith teachings. The imagery of fire resonates deeply with me as it was the sign that caught the eye of Moses. Despite his initial resistance, Moses stood with the oppressed and trusted in God despite all the overwhelming odds against him and his people. I believe the tradition carries on today and that the symbol of fire continues to represent God’s call to us, and present involvement in the drama of our time.

What community issues have you been recently addressing? 

Currently I am working with a group of talented and dedicated leaders and staff on a campaign to establish a Restorative Justice Center that will become the intermediary institution between the community, criminal justice system and schools. Our jails and holding center in Erie County present a horrific reality that we are striving to change by engaging congregations and forcing a conversation about alternatives to punitive measures. We envision the RJ Center working to redirect low-level non-violent offenders away from the courts and to the RJ Center. We also see an opportunity for congregations to become deeply involved by becoming Restorative Justice Hubs that work in unison with the center by focusing on conflict resolution and discerning deeper issues in their neighborhood. In addition to this, VOICE-Buffalo is taking a bold stand on public education and public transportation. Louisa Pacheco, Shaketa Redden and our leadership organized a powerful effort that recently led to the prevention of two historic Buffalo schools from being shut down by the state commissioner of education.

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