Since 1979, Interfaith Community Services, “the social service arm of the local faith community,” has been asking—and answering—the question: “what are the needs to be met and how can we meet them?” When diverse faith communities realized they shared similar goals when it came to meeting the needs of their underserved neighbors, leaders decided to combine efforts to create greater impact. Jason Coker, then ICS’s Director of Development, explained, that faith communities “naturally want a place for funneling their religious values in helping those who are afflicted so we become the place where they spend their money, their time, etc. for expressing the practical outcome of their faith.” Together, they are stronger change agents than apart. ICS’s mission has changed very little since its founding. The organization seeks “to promote mutual understanding and respect among the member faiths; to deal with issues which affect the religious community; to share the members’ concern for these problems; to voice these concerns when, by common consent, the members feel that moral leadership is needed; and to implement programs for basic needs, social services, counseling, and economic development which will empower the disadvantaged in our community.”
From its humble beginnings, ICS’s has expanded from their bustling, vibrant headquarters in Escondido, CA to include centers in Oceanside, CA, allowing the North County area of San Diego to be divided into zones that can more effectively be served by these different branches, especially when it comes to offering food to those who are hungry. The Escondido office is a constant hum of community members dropping off food for distribution, clients awaiting various counseling and employment appointments, and receptionists answering a barrage of phone calls from faith groups and people in need. ICS takes on a variety of challenges facing the San Diego community, issues affecting the city’s sizable homeless population in particular. ICS programs are organized into five main areas: nutrition and basic needs, employment, self-sufficiency and supportive services, behavioral health and recovery, and housing. ICS is successful “because [it] operates a whole host of social services, [and it] does something professionally that faith centers could never do by themselves.” At the same time, the organization remains adaptable enough to respond to those in need whose voices are often silenced.
Interfaith Community Services draws membership from four hundred local faith groups. While, Coker notes, many communities are mainline Christian, support for ICS is increasing among San Diego’s religious minorities, especially the Sikh, Sufi, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist communities. Interfaith Community Services seeks to cultivate these relationships and appointed Mary Ferro as the organization’s Faith Liaison Coordinator. Ferro is charged with reaching out to faith communities not already involved in ICS’s work and for building and maintaining bridges between different faith communities who are already on board, a role that complements the organization’s largely social service-focused goals. Like most organizations that draw together diverse supporters, Interfaith Community Services faces the ongoing challenge of choosing issues that speak to all its members. Taking sides on a hot button issue may cause the organization to “become a real lightning rod in the community…”; the added political charge would likely cause ICS to “lose support from a lot of people.”
Despite an ever-growing demand for social services, a difficult economy and volatile political climate, the faith communities of the North County region of San Diego—through Interfaith Community Services—continue to lend a hand to their neighbors in need. Coker credits collaboration and creative thinking as two ways the organization maintains its relevancy. The foundation of service to others emphasized by the faith community members is likely to continue to inspire Interfaith Community Services to feed and shelter the city’s vulnerable because, as Coker asks, “who can argue with that?”