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Manatee churches come together for racial and social justice

Manatee churches come together for racial and social justice

Missions and Outreach Social Justice

The problems of poverty and injustice in communities across Florida don't have a one-size-fits-all solution. These issues didn't materialize overnight, and they won't simply disappear without a concerted effort across the board to address their root causes.

That's especially true in the fractured times in which we live, but as Christians we are obligated to bridge political and theological divides. It requires listening, planning, and action over an extended period until real change comes about.

And that's why Black and White churches in Manatee County came together as one to begin the process of moving toward equality for all. Leaders and members will follow the DART program -- Direct Action & Research Training Center.

"I am so glad to see Black and White congregations coming together to address systemic racism in our community," said Rev. Edward Barthell, pastor of St. Stephens AME Church in East Bradenton and co-chair of the workshop. 

The initial workshop over Zoom attracted 130 people. It drew expressions of support from various denominational leaders, including Kenneth H. Carter, resident Bishop of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. 

People come together on a Zoom meeting to learn about DART.

Additionally, Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin commended the Manatee Biracial congregations in their recent and continued efforts to form a coalition of spiritual leaders working with civic leaders to implement the DART model.

"These United Methodist congregations become the most recent among Conference congregations to partner with DART and community leaders as they address the historical injustices in their communities," she said.

"The office of Connectional and Justice Ministries was pleased to honor a request for financial support during the inception of their organizing efforts."

Austin and Clarke Campbell-Evans, both Conference Directors, are long-time participants with DART affiliates and have undergone the DART training.

Austin has worked with several DART affiliates and supported their applications to UMC General Boards and Agencies for additional funding.

The workshop laid out the core principles of DART. Participants first learn to listen deeply to what people in their communities identify as their biggest obstacles to equality. After spending up to a year gathering that information, they research ways to address the problems.

It culminates with a meeting called a Nehemiah Action Rally.

All church members involved in the process are urged to attend, along with community leaders, law enforcement, and other interested parties.

Rev. Michael Pestel

"We present the issues and ask them to hear what we have said to you and what you plan to do to respond. There's not a lot about it that's quick. It's put together to be transformational," Rev. Mike Pestel said.

He is the co-pastor of Harvest United Methodist Church in Lakewood Ranch and co-chair of the workshop.

"Over the next ten months, we'll have these listening sessions in churches," he said. "The DART model suggests there will be one issue that rises above the rest. When that happens, we come together as a group and say, OK, this is what God has been speaking to us about."

There are DART programs in many Florida United Methodist churches and other states.

DART was founded in 1982 and has grown to a national network of 23 grassroots community organizations. It is designed to bring people together across racial, religious, and socioeconomic lines to pursue justice.

Approximately 10,000 community leaders and 150 professional community organizers have been trained through the program.

"I had never known of DART until I was approached for this by another pastor," Pestel said. "There's a real need for people to know this exists. Once you hear about it, it's really powerful.

"As a church, we can feed more people. Help more students, and those are good things. But once we got into it, we realized DART is much more transforming. We realized it's much more than a mercy ministry."

Rev. Kim Uchimura, the pastor at Emmanuel UMC in Bradenton, worked with a similar program at St. Andrews UMC in Brandon.

"I was very taken that the work happened between the government and a variety of people of faith," she said. "They had Hindus, Muslims, Jews, all manner of Christians, traditional, liberal, and everything in between.

"The particular items they focused on that year included getting dental services to people who can't find employment because their teeth are so bad. They provided support at parks for those in the 6th through 8th grade. They traditionally age out of daycare by 6th grade, but they can't be on own until they're 13."

The initial meeting attracted 11 churches, and the hope is that number will grow as word spreads about the initiative.

"I think our first meeting went really well," Pestel said. "At the end of these gatherings, they ask participants to say in a word how they feel about the meeting. They had 130 on this zoom call. Over and over, the word that came up was 'inspired.' That's how I felt, too."

--Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for

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