Since first convening in 2006, the social change advocacy group IMPACT (Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together) has held its so-called Nehemiah Action every March. While the meeting is conducted under the auspices of requiring social justice from local government leaders, the gathering always has a festive feel.
This year, the mood was perfectly captured at the March 30 mass meeting at U-Hall when City Councilor Holly Edwards strode to the microphone and recited the hymn, “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it.” The crowd of 1,700, made up of people from local congregations, roared in support.
About 1,700 people, seated by religious congregation, showed up to the March 30 IMPACT meeting at University Hall.
At the same time, the action is largely called to demand social change from local government leaders, and for those who respond in a less celebratory fashion, the atmosphere can be daunting. Last year, former mayor and current councilor David Brown followed his fellow councilors who had all agreed to pledge city funds to affordable housing with a qualified response.
He would agree, yes, but only if the county were also asked to contribute fiscally. It was not, and Brown’s response was ruled a no. Unlike the applause and cheers that greeted the others, the silence was conspicuous.
This year, David Brown did not participate. While his fellow councilors were seated in a filled University Hall, Brown was satisfying a prior commitment. Regardless, he says, “I’m not sure I would have gone anyway.” In a March 26 e-mail he sent to IMPACT, Brown explained why, outlining objections to the group’s Nehemiah Action.
“First, I believe that IMPACT is missing a great opportunity by limiting its activism to lobbying public officials to spend money,” he wrote. “It would be much better if IMPACT also challenged the congregations to roll up their sleeves and open their wallets on these important issues.”
Father Dennis McAuliffe, IMPACT’s co-president and pastor of Holy Comforter Catholic Church, objects to this line of thinking, pointing out that his church alone fed 9,000 people last year through their work with the food bank. Holy Comforter also runs a soup kitchen and puts up the homeless in partnership with PACEM.
“Find out what we’re doing before you make a statement like that,” he says. In his e-mail, Brown acknowledged the work of some congregations with local issues, but concludes: “I still believe a great chance to make a tremendous difference in our community is being missed.”
Brown continued: “Second, I think some of the tactics used by IMPACT are, to me, distasteful, such as the theatrics of the meeting.” IMPACT’s Nehemiah Action is structured so that both city councilors and county Board of Supervisors are asked a series of questions.
As in years past, this year’s focus was on issues of affordable housing for those families in our region earning 0-30 percent of the area median family income (the group has also worked on transportation and dental issues, with education on the way). A 2007 housing report estimates that there are at least 1,000 more low income houses than affordable rental units for them to live in.
The format of IMPACT’s meeting only allows for unqualified answers—a simple “yes” or “no.”
“That irks me to no end,” Brown says. “To ask a nuanced question and reduce it [like that]. If I follow their rules, I can’t give a truthful answer.”
“That’s putting up a smoke screen,” says McAuliffe, sweeping away the criticisms. “That’s the ploy of the politicians. At some point in time, you have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
On March 30, neither Brown’s objections nor his absence dampened the event. Last year, the county supervisors largely declined to support IMPACT’s requests. This time around, however, they were nearly unanimous in their acquiescence.
Even so, Supervisor Sally Thomas sympathizes with Brown, at least in part. “They ought to act more directly on these issues than simply pressuring their elected officials,” she says of IMPACT. “What if each of the churches picked up a family or two to help?”
Still, she mitigates her commentary with praise for the group. “I think IMPACT is doing a very admirable job of getting [their members] to look outside of their own congregations.”
When the Supervisors finished their responses, they were followed by the four city councilors present who ecstatically threw their support behind IMPACT’s requests on affordable housing. “Your enthusiasm is contagious,” Julian Taliaferro said, and then thanked the applauding crowd for keeping the issue on the front burner.
Despite his objections, Brown acknowledges the group’s efforts. “I do feel like they’re having a positive impact,” he says. “That many people gathered together is a remarkable event in itself, and to make their member churches pause about important issues is significant.”
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