Last March, a teeming Martin Luther King, Jr. Performing Arts Center was the site of an impressive show of numbers. Nearly 200 people stood outside while inside a packed house of nearly 1,300 local church members waited to hear what their city councilors and county supervisors would have to say when pressed about the issues of transportation and affordable housing.
"We don’t want to sit around talking about problems," says Father Dennis McAuliffe, IMPACT co-president and pastor of Holy Comforter Catholic Church.
Hosted by the Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together (IMPACT), the so-called Nehemiah Action was the first public evidence of a group that had been in the planning stages since 2003 by different area pastors and clergy leaders. One of those was Stanley Woodfolk of Evergreen Community Church, the recently elected co-president of IMPACT, who remembers meeting four years ago with a representative of the Direct Action and Research Training (DART) network out of Miami, Florida, about "how we could get together in a collaborative effort with other faith traditions to combat social injustices and social inequities," he says.
That eventually led to the formation of IMPACT, a conglomerate of 27 different churches. Mostly black and white Protestant congregations, IMPACT also counts Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim groups in its membership. "It’s amazing that it’s comprised of so many faith particularities," says Woodfolk, attributing the harmony to the fact that "we don’t try to convert each other religiously or spiritually. We all have the same mindset of combatting social injustices and serving the needs of humanity."
That harmony led to the March forum, and what seemed like immediate results. Bus service was extended to Sundays, the time in between bus stops was shortened, and a route was extended out to the County Office Building on Fifth Street, near where Pastor Woodfolk lives. "Every time I go by and see that bus stop, I think, ‘My church had a part in that,’" he says.
IMPACT’s direct role in bringing about that change is perhaps debatable, since the Nehemiah Action was held when the city and county were actually finalizing their budgets. "I’ve encouraged them to change their schedules so that they can influence the budget when it’s being developed, instead of coming in at the tail end," says City Councilor Dave Norris.
"It just so happened that you had some councilors pushing for the same things," Norris says. "Having said that, the fact that they had 1,300 people in a room sent a very strong signal to elected officials and the community at large that these are issues we have to address."
Because of that turnout, next year’s Nehemiah Action will be held on March 10 in a much larger venue, University Hall. Like last time, affordable housing will be on the agenda. By then, a regional committee—made up of UVA, county and city officials, including Norris—will have convened to jointly address the issue of affordable housing for those on the lowest end of the economic scale. "I give IMPACT total credit for creation of this committee," Norris says. Indeed, IMPACT will actually have a member sitting on the joint housing committee.
"We don’t want to sit around talking about problems," says Father Dennis McAuliffe, IMPACT’s other co-president and pastor of Holy Comforter Catholic Church. "We need them to be resolved."
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