Roughly 2,000 clergy and laity gathered at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center for the Charleston Area Justice Ministry's second annual "Nehemiah Action" on Tuesday, April 29. That massive assembly bore positive results.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley agreed to develop a new policy that will increase access to entry level jobs through publicly funded construction projects for young adults ages 16-24, and Charleston County Councilman Henry Darby agreed to enhance what the county is already doing to create good jobs for young people.
Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy McGinley agreed to work to lower suspension rates in 10 schools by implementing Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support and implementing a pilot program of Restorative Justice in two schools.
Five school board members (Todd Garrett, Craig Ascue, Michael Miller, the Rev. Chris Collins and Elizabeth Moffly) agreed to support Dr. McGinley in her commitments.
Those agreements are the latest achievements by the Charleston Area Justice Ministry. Following last year's Nehemiah Action, the Ministry worked with local law enforcement to create clear and equitable guidelines for juvenile detention and with the Charleston County School District to expand the district's child development program. Those massive events resulted from considerable dialogue, planning, organization and research by the Charleston Area Justice Ministry. The Ministry began nearly three years ago with conversations among clergy on how to make our community a better place for all citizens.
Those conversations expanded into events involving those clergy and the members of their congregations to explore community concerns and find common ground on which issues can be addressed. The strategies presented to elected and appointed community leadership for implementation at the Nehemiah Action Assembly are the result of that process, of interviews with those elected and appointed leaders and with "stakeholder" organizations, and of research into what has worked well in other communities.
The Charleston Area Justice Ministry embraces justice and compassion as shared values of our faith traditions and seeks to develop a culture of accountability by holding public institutions accountable to address local community issues of concern. Our doing so has generated understandable concern and some discomfort among some elected and appointed community leaders, especially when it comes to the Nehemiah Action. That assembly is not a routine opportunity for leaders to address the community, but a new way of presenting strategies agreed upon by those present and asking for brief - and hopefully agreeable - responses from those leaders. This can understandably lead to tension and discomfort - both for those who are asked to make clear and concise commitments, rather than general statements, and for those of us who are unaccustomed to pushing for such commitments.
Yet we believe that this is fundamentally a democratic process. When officials do not make necessary commitments, we negotiate (not with small groups in their offices, but in the presence of hundreds of citizens in an open assembly).
The process may be unfamiliar to Charleston, but the track record in our community and in other communities across America that follow the same process shows that it can lead to new progress, new cooperation and new accountability. Although the process seems new, it's actually a centuries old process first employed by the Nehemiah of Christian, Jewish and Muslim Scripture. While rebuilding the City of Jerusalem, Nehemiah found that some citizens were subjected to inequitable treatment. He called the leadership of the community together so that they could answer to the citizens and indicate whether they would operate in a more equitable and fair manner - and they did so.
The story of Nehemiah also shows that the road to positive change and community renewal can be bumpy at times. Those in power who embraced the "status quo" initially ridiculed Nehemiah, later labeled him as a danger to the public order when he made tangible progress and then tried to get him to stop working and negotiate with them in a small, private setting. Nehemiah rejected those efforts and stayed the course until things changed for the better.
The Charleston Area Justice Ministry walks in those footsteps, and we invite all clergy and congregations in our community to join us and stay the course in doing so.
We can then be faithful to the admonition of Micah - who is also embraced by Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions - "to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God" to improve the quality of life for all of those in and beyond our congregations.
Father Dow Sanderson of the Church of the Holy Communion and the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III of Charity Missionary Baptist Church are co-presidents of Charleston Area Justice Ministry. Seventeen other clergy members, including the CAJM Board of Directors, signed this column.