Hoping to burst out of the sphere of neighborhood politics, an activist coalition of 20 Portland churches is attempting to build the largest grassroots organization in the region.

The group once known as the Portland Organizing Project is rallying labor unions, schools, a variety of religious groups, neighborhood associations, health institutions and environmental groups.

The new citizens' organization would tackle major social ills such as lack of affordable housing, limited access to health care, stagnant wages, shrinking school funding and rampant consumerism.

Leaders are giving their group an interim name - the Metropolitan Broad Base. By June 2002, they hope to have major members in place, announce a new name, and begin a revived mission for justice and action.

Activists call their dream 'organizing for the 21st century.'

Invitations have gone out to the three Oregon counties that make up the Portland metropolitan area, as well as Clark County, Wash., just across the Columbia River. Discussions have been ongoing since June. So far, a suburban Portland Catholic parish and a synagogue have agreed to join as exploratory members.

Organizers expect churches to remain as the core members.

Similar coalitions are in operation in Chicago and Boston, where both cardinal archbishops have given support and blessing. Portland will be a test case of how such an organizing effort fares in a smaller city.

For years, the Portland Organizing Project - composed mostly of Catholics - has found support in major grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Over the past two years, the project has received $60,000 from the anti-poverty program.

Formed in 1985, the organizing project initially took on issues in its home-base - the inner city of North and Northeast Portland. The small assembly of congregations fought for cheaper sewer rates and the survival of a major grocery store in the neighborhood. In the late 1980s, the churches launched campaigns to clean up derelict properties and find alternative activities for youths who might be drawn into gangs.

By the mid 1990s, the group was confronting larger issues, such as the crisis that resulted when Portland's housing costs soared but wages stayed relatively flat. Members began researching the plight of low-income households in detail and offered proposals to city hall, county commissioners and even the Oregon Legislature.

One method was to visit the offices of elected officials with scores of members, from lawn-chair-toting nuns to homeless people without shoes.

The church group had some success in city politics, but discovered their relative powerlessness when it came to the larger halls of government and business.

'I am excited mainly by the potential this has to give us more people power,' says Judy Rau, an organizing project leader from St. Andrew Parish in inner Northeast Portland. 'It became quite clear that we didn't have the strength to move beyond very local or neighborhood issues. Things families were saying to us about a lack of affordable housing and lack of living wage jobs led us into some big arenas.'

The very scale of politics and economy has changed, say Rau and other organizing project leaders. Rather than being local, it is now global. Members of the church group cite the absentee ownership of major corporations doing business in the Portland area, including banks. Such an economic structure, activists say, calls for a powerful presence that will counter the tendency for citizens to be identified as merely 'market share.'

The major question for the project in Portland is this: How can such a large disparate group avoid being unwieldy and divided? As 18 churches from the same part of town, the members of the organizing project have so far had a natural affinity.

'Trying to find what is best for the community; that goes across a lot of boundaries,' says Valerie Chapman, an organizing project leader from St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Southeast Portland. 'And on any given day, if someone was going to ask our congregation who is affiliated with a union or public schools or health care, most of the congregation would stand up. People are not just Catholics or Christians and do nothing else.'

Like the movements in Chicago and Boston, the Portland effort has focused on building relationships among members before leaping into campaigns. That effort, the primary job for the next four years, is expected to give the large group unity and muscle.

The strategy is a hallmark of organizers from the Industrial Areas Foundation, a group founded by the late Saul Alinsky 48 years ago. The IAF, as it is known, is helping 65 groups around the country in various stages of development.

In Chicago, Cardinal Francis George praised organizers for seeking a biblical sort of justice, one that 'restores right relationships.' The cardinal also experienced such organizing efforts in the Northwest, where he was bishop of Yakima, Wash., for six years and Archbishop of Portland in 1996 and 1997.

The possible inclusion of environmental groups such as the Coalition for a Livable Future or even the Sierra Club is a particular Northwest twist to broad-based organizing. In general, conservationists have tended to be wary of religious groups. But a Northwest-led fusion of churches and environmentalists is changing that.

The Coalition for a Livable Future has been holding seminars at churches and even has a Catholic parish - St. Ignatius - in its ranks. The environmental group lobbies to prevent urban sprawl and increase the use of bicycles and public transportation.

Sometime in 2001, the members will decide how to fund the organization. Now, the 20-member churches pay dues.

'I was not sure how this would fly at a big suburban parish, but it has,' says Leslie Wheary of St. Pius X Parish. 'A year ago, I thought it was three people who were really active in these issues. Now, there are 50 to 100 and that could easily be expanded.'

Wheary has helped lead her parish - one of Oregon's largest - into position as an exploratory member of the new broad-based coalition. She says the move made sense to a parish that had plenty of social services, but no way to get at what she calls 'the root causes of poverty.'

The congregation of St. Pius X has a long-standing friendship with a rural camp of migrant farm workers. Now, the church is looking forward to starting advocacy for the workers as well as bringing food and clothing.

'People have had this sort of inner need - you could say they're moved by the Spirit - to do more than they have been doing,' Wheary says. 'But people are also seeing that for something larger to take place, they need to build up relationships in their own institution. Once you ask someone, 'What are your passions?' they are happy to tell you, and you know them in a completely different way.'

Even if the large broad-based coalition gets established, however, St. Pius will continue smaller, more local ministries, Wheary says.

Havurah Shalom synagogue in Northwest Portland took more than a year to decide on exploratory status. The congregation of 290 households is breaking new ground for the Jewish community's involvement with Christian churches and social action.

'How does one do social action?' asks Rabbi Joey Wolf of Havurah. 'Do you stick a check in the mail? Do you do something for a month? Drive across town for a day?'

Religion and ongoing social action go 'hand in hand,' says the rabbi, answering his own questions. He hopes membership in the fledgling coalition will give members of the 20-year-old Northwest Portland synagogue a 'keener awareness' of social problems.

In one way, says University of Portland political scientist Jim Moore, the new coalition might not be broad enough to succeed.

'There is potential that they can succeed, but all the groups involved sound like Democratic groups,' says Moore. 'If they can't break out of their partisan identity as Democrats, they will only be influential when Democrats are in power.'

Moore predicts that the initial challenge for the budding coalition will be harmonizing the different 'cultures.' The sticking point may not be disagreement about issues, but how to work on the issues. For example, unions and some environmental groups may be more confrontational than the churches want to be.

'The Portland Organizing Project is not just about social justice,' says Moore. 'It is a way of getting at those issues.'