United Methodists participating in a Nehemiah Action listen for issues in their communities that need attention, then work toward solutions that can change lives.
UMC members from churches around Hillsborough County, joining with the interfaith group Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality (HOPE), focus on a few issues each year that they believe need immediate attention.
More than 1,000 people, including those from other faiths and churches, were expected to gather April 16 at Bible-Based Fellowship Church in Carrollwood for their annual Nehemiah Action. They spoke to local politicians and leaders about the issues of housing, civil citation instead of arrests for first-time youth offenders and the need for more elder services.
“For me, it’s the right thing to do. It’s the things that bother you when you see them and know they are wrong,” Donna Chastain of St. Andrews United Methodist Church in Brandon said. “I have a heart for things to be just and right in the world. It’s what your faith is all about.”
It is being obedient to the biblical command to care for those most in need.
“That’s what Jesus tells us to do. I go from the basic ideas of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you,” she said. “Help your neighbor to make things right. The issues we go into are for people that fall through the cracks because unjust things happen to them.”
Chastain said this year the Nehemiah Action focused on drawing its largest crowd yet.
“You try to get as many people out as possible to influence the decision-makers,” said St. Andrews Pastor Tim Machtel. “You could be dealing with someone in private industry, but it’s usually someone in public office,” like city or county commissioners or the local sheriff.
This year, participants planned to focus on extending the civil citation program or alternative arrest program.
“If a kid is caught for a misdemeanor, a first-time offense, the officer can give them a civil citation and they go through a program and do everything in the program or they can be arrested,” he said.
“They get this opportunity to not have a permanent record and go through a program that would cause them to rethink their action.”
As an example of how it works, he said someone brought a small marijuana cigarette to class, and it was passed to a church member’s daughter. She was charged with possession of marijuana.
“That was on her record as a minor,” he said.
Several members of St. Andrews serve on subcommittees that deal with these issues, Machtel said.
“I have a retired sheriff’s officer who said the main issue was they didn’t fully understand the program at first, so it seemed like you were trying to give someone breaking the law a slap on the wrist, versus a consequence,” he said.
The officer realized such a concept could help keep someone from being a repeat offender. What once was a pilot program has morphed into something more permanent.
“I really believe it’s a great thing for our church to be involved in because our church has always tried to be socially conscious and active,” said Rev. Anthony White of Bible-Based Fellowship Church. “We view the church as an institution of the community. It helps us not only address some of the needs of our congregation, but in doing so, it speaks to our ministry, to the entire community at large.
“As a result of our being engaged, being part of HOPE, it has engaged some members of our congregation. It has broadened, resonated with people. Their engagement in HOPE has resulted in them doing more in the community.”
It is not easy to get buy-in on every issue.
“It’s a lot of hard work, but the outcome has been very positive. We are trying to bridge the gap of some of the polarization in the community. We point to, as a key example of that, the work with the civil citation and the cooperation of the county sheriff,” White said.
“Also, being able to engage with the Tampa police chief and school board director. It has been very positive. Sometimes, it’s easier to listen to someone when you are present with them.”
The lack of affordable housing is another major issue.
“There is a lot of housing being built, but none of it is really affordable for those making a lower wage,” Machtel said. “We want to establish a $10 million county trust fund to incentivize builders and developers to build affordable housing and to help people get in.
“Right here in Brandon, they just built some new apartments and they are full. Down by our church, they wanted to build lower income apartments, and the neighborhood put up so much of a fuss they backed off,” Machtel said.
Elder care is another significant area of concern.
“We are looking to increase services,” HOPE Executive Director Sharon Streeter said.
“There are key services needed. For example, there are over 3,000 people on a waiting list to get services to help them stay independent, including meals, home care, like cleaning and personal care, like bathing and respite care. We want to help them stay healthy enough they don’t end up in a nursing home.”
The process typically begins when a pastor articulates a vision to answer God’s command to do justice.
“I’ve worked with HOPE 28 years and before that farm worker ministry,” Streeter said. “I’ve met a lot of Methodists along the way with a strong commitment for change.”