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Nehemiah Action focuses on unemployment

Nehemiah Action focuses on unemployment

Like many suburban Christians, Bill Tone seldom rubs elbows with people who find themselves in need of advocacy or justice.

But recently he joined the Justice Ministry Team at St. Andrew’s UMC in Brandon and became involved with the work of Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality, or HOPE for short.

Bill Tone of Brandon
Bill Tone of St. Andrew's UMC, Brandon, talks about a Nehemiah Action to help the unemployed.

“Jesus said: ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!’” Tone said, quoting Matthew 23:23. “’You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.’”

He found himself hooked. “We do a fair job at mercy,” he said. “We welcome, we love, we teach about faith and we do a fairly good job of being humble and worshipping. But where do we do justice? I don’t see it.”

Today Tone serves on HOPE’s board and helped draft the “First Source and Fair Hiring Practices Ordinance” presented last spring to members of Tampa’s City Council in a move the group terms a “Nehemiah Action,” based on the biblical prophet Nehemiah’s use of such a forum to insist on justice for the people (Nehemiah 5:7). The council recently scheduled a workshop on the proposal for September.

Under HOPE’s proposal, companies receiving tax incentives or city contracts would be required to consider unemployed local residents before expanding their search.

“We stumbled across this ‘first source’ opportunity when we researched what can be done for the unemployed,” Tone said. “We found that Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Portland, Boston, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Denver and many more cities have first source ordinances.”

Tone’s team researched why the unemployed are chronically passed over for jobs. 

“The unemployed are not hired because they have a criminal record, or they’re over 50, they have bad credit and - unbelievably – because they’re unemployed,” he said. “Businesses post advertisements that say, ‘Unemployed need not apply.’ It’s blatant discrimination.”

Tone cited studies that show people with criminal convictions are seven times less likely to offend again when they have a job.

Sharon Streater has been lead organizer at HOPE ( since 1990.

Unemployment office “Currently we have 16 member churches and one mosque,” she said. “HOPE was formed in 1988 and is built around the idea of putting people face to face with decision-makers.”

Each fall, a justice issue is identified. Then, after months of research, a Nehemiah Action brings members face to face with those who have the power to effect change.

Past actions have resulted in progress and equality in education, homeless services, public transportation and more.

“We are very diverse,” Streater said, “but we unite our values around justice and we are grounded in our faith.”

HOPE’s  proposal for the Tampa ordinance includes:

• providing an opportunity for qualified unemployed in Hillsborough County to have the first look at new jobs created through tax dollars.

• giving qualified unemployed, including qualified ex-offenders, the opportunity for an interview before running background or credit checks.

• creating linkage between the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance (TBWA) and employers to focus on jobs funded by taxpayer dollars.

• creating a cost-effective linkage between prospective employers and TBWA that will benefit employers when hiring new employees.

Tone has no doubts about the value of the proposed action.

“It’s win-win,” he said. “If they [Tampa City Council] are willing to read the research, I don’t see how they cannot do it. It’s a win for the unemployed. It’s a win for the employer. It’s a win for the council.”

HOPE receives organizational support and training through Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART) and has sister organizations throughout the state, including PACT in Miami, FAITH in Volusia County, FAST in Pinellas County, and ICARE in Jacksonville (

In Sarasota, a similar organization, Sarasota United for Responsibility and Equity (SURE), has made jobs creation a Nehemiah Action project this year.

“This is something United Methodists could and should get involved with,” Tone said. “HOPE has a budget of around $85,000 and it’s not difficult to launch. Usually it’s just the minority churches who are involved, but we need to change that.”

Tone turned to Methodist history to underscore his point.

“Justice isn’t an option, it’s everyone’s command. I believe that, and John Wesley certainly believed it.”

He believes such initiatives challenge the Methodist comfort zone.

“When we had the Nehemiah Action, it was a rainbow coalition sitting in that church,” Tone said. “But the people there adopt you, guide you, and welcome you. You find that we have 100 percent in common.

“Individually, we have no political capital. But the more seats we can put in the chairs for a Nehemiah Action, then the more powerful we are. We need more people, more congregations, more numbers – more United Methodists.”

For more information on Justice issues, visit the following:

- Justice and Outreach Ministries Contact Rick Bennett, interim director,

- Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality

- DART affiliates in Florida