Lives They Lived: Denis Murphy and Asian Community Organizing

Denis murphy and Alice

Puerto Aventuras   Recently my friend, comrade, and brother, Na Hyowoo from Korea, sent me a message asking if I knew Denis Murphy had passed away. Denis was the father and founder of many initiatives in community organizing, certainly in the Philippines where he mainly lived and worked, but also in India and Asia where his work also inspired many organizing programs among the urban poor. He and his wife, Alice, also a community organizer, trained and inspired organizing in Kenya as well. Denis and Na had invited me to several meetings of Asian organizers in Manila in the LOCOA, a network of Local Organizers and Community Organizations of Asia. I had visited with him as well in New York City, where he would spent a month or so living in Manhattan near Union Square with his sister, who was a nun, just as Denis had been a priest. His organizing was old school, focused on building “peoples’ organizations” among the poorest and most powerless, so he saw many affinities with ACORN, though always scratched his head about dues, he invited me to the Philippines to tell the story and teach the model. His shadow is long over the work in Asia, and his passing will be missed, but also honored for its contributions.

Here is an obit from the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Denis Murphy: As Filipino as most of us

By: TJ Burgonio – Deputy Day Desk Chief Philippine Daily Inquirer / 01:14 AM October 10, 2016

Denis Murphy cut his teeth organizing the urban poor in the late 1960s. It became his lifelong advocacy even after he left the priesthood. He even tried to convince Mother Teresa to get involved in it, his widow said.

The founder of Urban Poor Associates died on Oct. 2 at 86, capping more than 40 years of community organizing in the Philippines and in other Asian and African countries.

In death, many remembered Murphy for championing the rights of the poor—from slum dwellers in Tondo to fishermen in typhoon-ravaged Tacloban—and teaching them to have a voice of their own.

Vice President Leni Robredo, former President Benigno S. Aquino III, Senators Bam Aquino and Rissa Hontiveros, and former Cabinet members Dinky Soliman, Florencio Abad, Teresita Deles and Carina David, among others, came to pay their respects.

But it was the community organizers from around Metro Manila and elsewhere who packed Arlington Memorial Chapels in Quezon City where his ashes were to pay him tribute.

‘Daunted by the odds’

“He had always accompanied us to dialogues. If an American was helping the poor, who were we not to help the poor?” community leader Bernadette Sabalza said in her eulogy.

“There were days when I felt daunted by the odds. But I’m holding on to my promise to Sir Denis to fight for my members. I’ll fight for our cause till my last breath,” she said in Filipino.

“Denis was passionate and committed, a true Irishman, but no less Filipino than most of us,” said Inquirer Opinion editor Rosario Garcellano.

“In fighting for better conditions for the urban poor, he was in there pitching, even during the dangerous days of martial law. He was in Tacloban before he fell ill, helping the homeless get their bearings in more ways than one,” she said.

And he was such an evocative writer, Garcellano added.

“Whether describing the misery of a coal-packing community in Tondo with its sooty sad-eyed children or the windswept cemetery where his brother is buried, the leaves turning into the colors of fall, he brought the reader to the precise, chilling moment,” she said.

Murphy first came to the Philippines with the Jesuits in the 1950s. After completing theology studies in Woodstock, Maryland, he returned in 1967 as a priest.

From that time until 1976, he served as deputy director of the Institute of Social Order in Manila and was put in charge of urban social work across the country. It was here that he became involved in community organizing.

From the ’70s onward, he helped kick-start community organizing by founding the Philippine Ecumenical Committee for Community Organization and Community Organization of the Philippines Enterprise.

He even invited American Saul Alinsky, considered the father of modern community organizing, to Manila.

Love and shared advocacy

Murphy left the priesthood in 1976 when he married Alice Gentolia. Community organizing became their shared advocacy. They have a daughter, Marifel.

He also founded the Asian Committee for Peoples Organization, an ecumenical body that introduced community organizing to India, Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia, and offered training in Pakistan, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.

Murphy also helped set up a community organizing program in Nairobi, Kenya, with COPE sending a team to train young Kenyans in organizing on such issues as garbage collection, water, jobs creation and evictions.

Journey with Mother Teresa

In his visits to Calcutta, India, he often called on Mother Teresa, according to Alice.

“He would go around. Calcutta was one of his favorite cities and Mother Teresa was there. What he did was talk to her, trying to convince her to get involved in community organizing,” she recalled.

In New York, Murphy joined the 1965 Freedom March in Selma, Alabama, led by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Alice said.

Murphy was born in New York on Sept. 18, 1930, to parents who had migrated from Cork, South Ireland, and who were members of the Irish Republican Army. He studied at the Jesuit-run Regis School in New York.

His brother Ned was also a former Jesuit priest and sister Margareth was a nun. Their brother Tim was a soldier who served in the Korean War.

Murphy wrote a novel, “A Watch in the Night,” short stories and commentaries for the Inquirer.

Respect well-earned and gratefully given!


Alinsky in Japan

New Orleans   My friend and colleague in Japan, Ken Yamazaki, is a researcher and scholar in addition to being an advocate for community organizing.   Before, during, and after visiting Tokyo and speaking there at his invitation last fall, he often asked me if I had any information or proof that Saul Alinsky visited Japan.  My only answer was always that I knew from many visits and conversations with organizers in the Philippines and Korea that he had visited those countries, but that I had never heard that he visited Japan, though it seemed possible that he might have done so.

Recently Ken sent me several links to various documents more than 30 years old which he felt established that Alinsky had visited his country.   Reading them though, I’m still left with the same conclusion that it’s possible, but Ken still doesn’t have the evidence he’s looking to find.  We can get to the heart of the matter though, and I’ve emailed Denis Murphy, the real evangelist of community organizing in Asia, to get a definitive answer, but my last email to Denis bounced back, so until we can settle this once and for all, I’ll share what Dr. Yamazaki has unearthed, which is interesting in its own right.

Ken had found a reference to Alinsky visiting Asian countries in an article published by “Cross and Circle” in 1982 that referenced the 10-year anniversary report of  the Asian Committee for Peoples’ Organizations (ACPO) founded in 1971.  ACPO had first been ACCO with the “CO” standing for Community Organization.  The Urban Industrial Mission officials had met with the Jesuit Provincial in Asia and he had dispatched one of his priests, Denis Murphy from New York City, a Jesuit at the time based in the Philippines, to visit various Asian cities to evaluate the work within their network and to determine the interest of Catholic groups in those locations in participating in a wider organizing network.  In a meeting in Kyoto, Denis delivered a report on his visit that reaffirmed the initial proposition based on his travels, and subsequently ACPO was founded to support such community organizing initiatives in Asia.

Ken focuses on these two parts of the report, first, that a Japanese priest was appointed as the initial chair of the effort:  “ACPO was formed in March 1971, we had four officers, Masao Takenaka (Chairman), Oh Jae Shik from EACC-UIM and Denis Murphy and Jose Blanco from CASCO (Catholic Asian Committee on Community Organisation).”  And, then secondly, that early in ACPO’s history they invited Saul Alinsky to visit Asia:   “In fact ACPO invited Saul Alinsky to Asia. In 1971, he visited some of the urban community networks in Asia.”  This is the visit often mentioned by organizers in Manila and Seoul where “peoples’ organizations” did evolve with the hard work of Murphy and many others and the initial spark of Alinsky and follow-up by Herb White.  Who is to quibble?  The evidence produced still doesn’t say Alinsky went to Japan, and I’ve never heard that he did, but it still is logical that if he visited Seoul and Manila for certain, that he would have passed through Tokyo as well.

More interesting to me from the “Cross and Circle” story were the summary conclusions of the organizers after a debriefing session with Alinsky.

(1) In Asia so many countries are experiencing the closed society under strong government control, sometimes even under the military rule. This makes it very difficult to apply straightaway the CO method which is relevant to the open society where free democratic discussion and action are maintained. We have to seek to find the Asian way to organise people.

(2) One of the key concerns of organising people is to understand and utilise the local culture of the people. For instance, use of humour is a very important factor. This means understanding of Asian sensitivity and local language. Religious and social practices of the people are very vital factors in organising work.

(3) We cannot talk about Asia as one unified entity. In reality Asia has so many diversities and differences. Therefore, we would like to have at least one solid training programme in each Asian country. We are still striving to reach this goal. After all, the most significant characteristic of Asians is found in the people who embody Asian sensitivity and Asian spirit.

The realization by all involved that marginal political freedom would alter the organizing models developed in the United States, that local cultures were critical to the success, and that each country would pose different challenges and adaptations, seems right on the mark and challenges frequent critiques of community organizations being able to apply a “cookie cutter” approach.

Ken Yamazaki, having reviewed the literature more deeply, believes he has the answer for why community organizing did not develop from these encouraging beginnings in Japan in the 1970’s as well, regardless of whether Alinsky visited or not.

…I also found other papers explain the reason why community organizing diminished in Japan. It says Japan had a different tradition to save poor people especially homeless or day laborers. That activity is advanced and more developed. But I don’t support the idea. I think real reason is [that the organizing was] too close to the religious institutions. If the origin of the organization in Japan was closer to labor related organizations, I think [it would have been more successful].

As we talk more about community organization’s future in Japan, all of these insights are invaluable.

Alinsky in Japan Audio Blog