The involvement of churches is critical to the success of social justice movements around the world, a Latin America expert said here April 7, because they have the “staying power” to help produce long term social change.

Fred Goff ― who gave the annual Faith & the Common Good Lecture at San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS) ― knows this first hand.

In 1948, at age five, he accompanied his parents ― Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) missionaries James and Margaret Goff ― to Colombia at about the time that country’s civil war was beginning. It continues today.

“My father worked as a pastor, school principal and as secretary for the Protestant Council in Colombia. That job meant investigating religious persecution as the war heated up,” Goff said. “He arrived there politically and theologically conservative, but as he got to know the religious leaders in Colombia and saw what they were going through, he turned 180 degrees.”

Goff said “the lens through which I perceive things” was created by that childhood experience as a missionary kid in Colombia. “I have never forgotten that here were Christians who were willing to pay any price for their faith.”

Another lesson Goff said he learned ― and which turned into his life’s vocation ― “is the power of research as an instrument of social change.”

While his parents continued to serve the PC(USA) throughout Latin America, Fred Goff returned to the U.S. for college and became embroiled in such formative social movements as the Civil Rights struggle and the largely student-led anti-Vietnam War campaign. But his heart was still in Latin America, where U.S. foreign policy was having a devastating effect, particularly on the poor.

In 1966, he joined the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) and shortly thereafter became its first paid staff member. NACLA, which in its early days was comprised mostly of academics and missionaries, was dedicated to changing U.S. policy in Latin America through research, publishing and education.

For the last 40 years, with Fred Goff as its head until his recent retirement, NACLA’s “Report on the Americas” has become the most widely-read English language publication on Latin America in the world.

Then, as now, Goff said, “You couldn’t talk about social change without talking about social justice. We provided the faith community and the public with research that they couldn’t provide themselves about the economic, social and political situation in Latin America.”

NACLA’s research started with the sugar industry and U.S. efforts to maintain control of it throughout Latin America, including the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. He recalled visiting the U.S. State Department in Washington to talk with the head of the “Dominican Desk.”

“I was getting nowhere with this guy,” Goff said, and in the course of the conversation learned that the official had previously been a top Capitol Hill lobbyist for the sugar industry. “In an unguarded moment he looked at me and smiled,” Goff said, “and said, ‘That tells you about all you need to know, doesn’t it?’”

From that encounter on, Goff said, NACLA developed a research methodology “to help people know or find out how these agencies and corporations worked, to find the weak points in corporations so that corporate engagement on the issues could occur.”

Churches and faith communities were becoming increasingly engaged in their own communities, so NACLA began applying the lessons it was learning about grass-roots organizing in Latin America in the U.S. In 1977, Goff helped create a new organization, DataCenter, based in Oakland, Calif.

DataCenter provided research and research tools to grassroots organizing efforts in poor communities in the U.S., particularly communities of color. “People working for change need to know the issues, the arguments and the players they are dealing with,” Goff said. “Research and information is a very powerful tool for change.”

NACLA’s and DataCenter’s research and tools have been used effectively to help taxi drivers, restaurant workers, farmworkers and domestic workers gain improved wages and working conditions. 

Last summer, New York State adopted the first domestic workers “bill of rights” ― legislation organizers attribute in part to NACLA/DataCenter. “There are now similar campaigns in 18 other states,” Goff said, “and we’re working on a national network of domestic worker organizing groups, led by the daughter of a domestic worker who graduated from the University of California-Berkeley.”

“It is really important for faith communities to engage the issues of the day in many ways,” Goff said, “because here and in Latin America the churches are the strongest institutions in many communities.”

Social change is “very difficult and long-term work,” Goff said, “and faith is important for staying power. The really big social movements in the U.S. have come out of the churches.”

The Faith & the Common Good Lecture series is sponsored by the John S. Hadsell and Virginia T. Hadsell Endowment Fund at SFTS, where John Hadsell is an alumnus and professor emeritus. It honors and lifts up the intersection between faith and vocation.