Elected officials and representatives of law enforcement gave nods in favor of working toward reducing the number of youth arrests for first-time minor offenses and expanding health care in two cities but were lukewarm to proposals for dealing with mental health issues.
More than 20 churches – including First UMC and College Heights UMC in Lakeland – were represented in the crowd of about 2,000 that put questions to elected officials. The churches are members of Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment, or PEACE, which is part of the Direct Action & Research Training Center network known as DART.
Those attending cheered for the progress made in getting commitments for use of Teen Court instead of arrest and incarceration for juveniles. City officials from Bartow and Haines City agreed to work with PEACE to improve access to health care for people in need and offered lists of empty public buildings that could be considered as possibilities for clinics.
Organizers noted that mental health is a new advocacy issue for PEACE, which has been working for social justice in Polk since 2001. This week’s event was the 15th annual Nehemiah Action rally for the organization.
“This is one of the few times you see the community of faith come together to bring about change, not for themselves, but for the community,” said Rev. David McEntire, senior pastor of First UMC, Lakeland.
“It is nice to see all the churches together: Catholic, Protestant and Anglo, Spanish and African-American. That is helpful. Mental health has been and remains a major problem growing more all over the place and it breaks your heart. As a pastor, I see it all the time. It is amazing.”
Rev. Pam Carter, also attending from First UMC, said services for people with mental health issues are lacking in the county, as evidenced by the many people repeatedly being taken to the hospital and released under the state’s Baker Act.
She noted that persistence was required to get primary care or family health clinics opened in five areas of Polk, an accomplishment listed on The DART Center website as the result of 2004 and 2005 Nehemiah actions.
Follow-up each year is important, Carter said, but it takes persistence and being persuasive, not confrontational.
“The amount of people coming together strong makes a difference,” Carter said. “The stronger our voices, the better it is.”
|The Nehemiah Action idea draws on Nehemiah 5:7 in the Bible, which describes how Nehemiah called together a large meeting to address officials regarding taxes and slavery.
PEACE is one of 10 faith organizations in Florida affiliated with DART, which advocates Nehemiah Action assemblies as effective steps toward social justice.
Both Polk County commissioners who attended, John Hall and Chairman George Lindsey, agreed there is a need for mental health care in the county but stopped short of saying they would instruct the county manager to find funds to support health teams to work with severe mental health issues.
Lindsey agreed he would meet with “PEACE or anybody to identify issues in mental health.”
Part of the problem with improving mental health services is there is not enough money for it, he said. Funding reserves are available, but Lindsey advised those reserves may be needed to support health programs supported by revenue from a voter-approved sales tax if voters don’t renew it at upcoming elections.
On the issue of expanding primary health care, Haines City Mayor Roy Tyler said yes and brought proof of his support by providing a list to PEACE officials of available empty city-owned buildings that could be used for a clinic.
A volunteer clinic is available in Haines City with some free services, but some people still can’t get the help they need, said Martin Medina of St. Ann Catholic Church in Haines City.
“I know that some of you prefer not to go to the doctor because you cannot afford it,” he told the crowd in his testimony on health care. “Some people going to the doctor have come out with $10,000 or $3,000 bills that they cannot afford. I bring it up because it touched my heart.”
Leo Longworth, Bartow city commissioner, also brought a list of city-owned buildings with him and said he would be willing to work with PEACE for a health clinic in Bartow.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd gave a resounding “yes” when asked if his office would, when instructed, use the Teen Court database that is being created to ensure more young people are diverted to that alternative program for first-time minor offenses. Advocates of the alternative court say it can keep juveniles from being incarcerated and saddled with an arrest record. State Attorney Jerry Hill initially said no to the same question but changed his answer when asked if he would “encourage” use of Polk County Teen Court as an alternative to arrest for youthful first offenders.
PEACE meets three times a year. At the fall meeting, participants discuss what issues are going to be presented in an assembly for the justice ministry, said Rev. June Edwards, associate pastor at First UMC who has been active in PEACE.
“Each church has a section and a voice and they contact officials in the city and county who have a voice to solve problems,” she said. After topics are selected, a research committee gathers information from around the county, state and nation and compiles reports in preparation for the spring rally.
“At the rally, representatives of the churches explain the topics and band together to do justice, love and mercy, and walk with our God,” Edwards said.
“To do justice, we come together. This is a community of 22 congregations. At the rally, what you see are congregations who never cross paths who form relationships and bring God’s people together. We need to see more of this.”
Edwards said after the meeting that PEACE committees will follow up with public officials to try to turn support into action for the communities targeted at the rally.
— Brenda Eggert Brader is a freelance writer based in Winter Haven.