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South Florida churches join group to tackle community issues

South Florida churches join group to tackle community issues

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

South Florida churches join group to tackle community issues

July 14, 2008   News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0881}

NOTE: A headshot of the Rev. David Range is available at

An e-Review Feature
By Jenna De Marco**

Regardless of whether or not the United States is in an actual recession or a mental one, as Phil Gramm, an advisor to Republican presidential candidate John McCain, claimed in a recent interview, people in Florida are struggling.

Photo by Brendel, Wikipedia. Photo #08-0923. Not available for reuse. Web photo only.

Time Magazine recently reported that Florida banks repossessed 620 percent more property last year than in 2006, and Miami was ranked number one in the United States on Forbes’ list of worst selling housing markets. Orlando was second and Tampa fourth. High property taxes and insurance premiums and a low average median household income — the U.S. Census Bureau ranks Florida 40th in the nation — add to the housing market woes.

Many say the state’s new budget is one more worry at $6 billion less than approved last year and education feeling the biggest cuts. In addition, state tax collections dropped $263.9 million below anticipated levels in March, April and May, according to a July 6 article in the Tallahassee Bureau. June figures were expected to be down about $100 million.

And on the health-care front, Florida has the third highest number of people in the nation who don’t have health insurance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A study of data for 2004 to 2006 found there was an average of 3.6 million uninsured people in Florida, or 20.3 percent of Florida’s 18.1 million population. Nearly 21 percent live in Miami-Dade County.

Several United Methodist congregations in South Florida are doing something about such pressing needs. They’ve recently partnered with other churches to find solutions in their communities.

Taking ‘Nehemiah Action’

Miramar, Hollywood Hills and Plantation United Methodist churches joined Broward Organized Leaders Doing Justice (BOLD Justice), an ecumenical group of congregations dedicated to improving their communities. BOLD Justice operates as the newest Florida affiliate of a national organization called Direct Action and Research Training (DART).

A BOLD Justice meeting earlier this year — called Nehemiah Action — drew a crowd of more than 1,500 people. The topic was affordable housing and dental care.

The Rev. David Range

“It’s very powerful to go from no group at all about a year ago or so … to be able to pull out about 1,500 people on a Thursday night,” said the Rev. David Range, pastor of Miramar United Methodist Church, in Miramar, just south of Fort Lauderdale. “It was very, very powerful. There (are) just so many things going wrong now in our society … now people are saying, ‘We’ve got to change things.’ ”

Range serves as treasurer for BOLD Justice and assisted with many of the logistics of launching the group.

“(In Broward) we have a lot of population and hurricanes. Housing prices and the cost of living just got so tight here, and the people who are staying are under a lot of stress,” Range said. “And we would like more stability and the ability to make a living and enjoy life here.”

Range became involved with BOLD Justice last year before the group was even named because he knew about the work of other DART affiliates and that the largely Caribbean constituency of his church would be very interested in this type of initiative. Range had also been involved in similar projects while living in Ireland.

“There are a lot of injustices that we cannot do anything about, unless we have a lot of money or you have a lot of people working for a common goal,” Range said.

DART’s mission, as stated on its Web site, “is to engage congregations in a process of building congregation-based community organizations that have the power to pursue and win justice.”

This type of organizing allows people of different backgrounds to work together on justice issues, says Holly Holcombe, associate director of the DART center.

“It’s biblically sound; it’s successful as a method; it provides a way for people to work as colleagues … where folks from very different backgrounds can be building a vision for people. And it’s not charity,” Holcombe said. “It’s pragmatic, biblical and it works. You build relationships with mutual respect across lines that don’t often happen.”

With the addition of the BOLD Justice group, DART affiliates now operate in 10 Florida cities. The Broward group was a logical place for this newest affiliate, Holcombe said, because of its rapid growth and ethnic diversity. She found support from the South East District superintendent and pastors.

“It’s certainly a large population (area); there is United Methodist interest there … and it was a natural place,” Holcombe said.

BOLD Justice’s Nehemiah Action in February is standard DART procedure, modeled after Nehemiah 5, in which Nehemiah confronts the nobles for taking advantage of the Jews by enslaving them and holds them accountable for what they are doing.

Members of the BOLD Justice initiative meet in September 2007 to report the top community needs that emerged during listening sessions held at people’s homes the summer before. Photo courtesy of Al Mizell. Photo #08-0924. Web photo only. For longer description see photo gallery.

Held at St. Marks Catholic Church in Southwest Ranches, Fla., Nehemiah Action represented the culmination of more than a year’s work by organizers and congregations. Two main justice issues emerged to be considered at the Nehemiah Action gathering — affordable rental housing and dental care.

“In the case of dental care, all of the various authorities (were) there representing health-care providers in Broward County,” Range said. “They agreed that we all need to work with that. There will come a time when there will be programs in place to help people.”

On the issue of housing, Mayor Lois Wexler of the Broward County Commission attended the meeting and invited the group to attend a county housing workshop. About 100 people from BOLD Justice accepted her invitation to the early April meeting.

Range believes their presence made a difference and said BOLD Justice members hope the commission will implement a “good plan” for housing that has been in the works for a couple of years. At the minimum, BOLD Justice would like at least 10 percent of the plan’s recommended number of affordable housing units built.

“We’ve explored very carefully what the issues are around (this area),” Range said. “(The) immigrant population is quite strong — Caribbean people, Haitian people — they are finding it difficult to live. The wages haven’t kept up with the housing, and such a high percentage of their pay goes to rent and housing. They are having to work two or three jobs.”

Creating the foundation for change

Before the research on which issues to pursue began, an organizer was hired in January 2007 by the Broward Interfaith Sponsoring Agency. In March 2007, about 30 clergy from the area met for an orientation. This was followed one month later with a lay leader orientation conducted in English, Spanish and Creole and attended by about 450 people. Those leaders then held house meetings throughout the summer, which were listening sessions of about a dozen people at a time, where issues were identified. About 900 people participated in the house meetings. In September the entire group reconvened, adopted an official name and bylaws, elected officers, narrowed the issues to housing and health care, and made a covenant to work together.

Al and Mary Mizell, lay members of Hollywood Hills United Methodist Church, became involved with BOLD Justice after being invited to learn about it through a discussion given by one of its organizers. They also attended the lay training meeting.

“It sounded like it was something that was really worthwhile and there were so many people in such need, and this was an opportunity to bring back some dignity to those most in need,” Al said.

Concerned church leaders meet to begin organizing the BOLD Justice initiative. Photo courtesy of Al Mizell. Photo #08-0925. Web photo only. For longer description see photo gallery.
The Mizells held a house meeting, inviting people who were not members of their church. They also attended the Nehemiah Action rally in February. Although they were pleased the dental care initiative is moving forward, they hope to see more action from the commissioners on the housing problem.

“They (DART) have been very successful in getting results from the politicians … so we know the process will work,” Al said. “It’s just going to take a little time.”

Although the BOLD Justice group has momentum right now, Range says the work has just begun.

“Some people think that by having a meeting we’ve done a job,” Range said. “These are big issues that are not easily disposed of, and we are going to continue to maintain pressure on these issues, and in September we’ll be choosing at least one new issue, and over the years we’ll be continuing this.”

A collaborative effort

The Rev. Tim Smiley, pastor of Plantation United Methodist Church, decided to work with BOLD Justice after talking with Holcombe and finding an interested lay member in his church to help coordinate the church’s efforts. His church is among the more than 25 churches that participated in the covenant agreement.

“There’s no question as Broward County becomes more diverse and sees a bigger influx of immigrants … certainly the (housing) need increases,” Smiley said. “And it’s driven by a service economy, and people are living on the margins … it’s a right time for churches to become engaged, and it’s part of God’s timing.”

Range also encourages other United Methodist churches to join the effort, and a financial support drive is now underway. Range said donated funds will go directly to BOLD Justice, with some also paid to DART for training expenses and salaries for organizers. He says the relationship between BOLD Justice and DART is “terrific.”

Holcombe said contributions Florida United Methodists have made to DART over the years have been significant.

“It’s probably fair to say that in all 10 (Florida) organizations, there has been strong United Methodist involvement both from local pastors and district superintendents,” Holcombe said.

Holcombe praised all levels — local churches, district superintendents and conference staff — for their support of time and finances. By being involved in a DART affiliate, individuals will be able to do much more for justice issues than possible alone, Holcombe said.

“If they are members of congregations, then the organization provides their congregations with a very effective method to do justice to meet the biblical requirement to do justice. By that I mean addressing systems and systemic changes,” Holcombe said.

The Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder, former director of connectional ministries for the Florida Conference, was a member of the DART board of directors while serving as director of Miami Urban Ministries and completed DART’s training for pastors and leaders in the 1990s.

Burkholder said the conference supports DART affiliates in several ways.

“The conference has historically given verbal support and on occasion financial support, as they are starting up,” she said. “We have given moral support because we believe that this form of organizing is a great way for churches to become engaged in their communities through ecumenical efforts around issues and problems that are pertinent to all.”

Burkholder also said DART and some of its affiliates have received funding in the past from the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church.

Anyone interested in more information about DART or BOLD Justice may visit the DART Web site at or contact BOLD Justice organizers at 954-987-6595 or

Tita Parham contributed to this report.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.