He opened the book and found the place where it was written,“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
It’s April ninth in the year of our Lord two thousand and eighteen, and it feels as if tonight, for a couple of hours, we’re enacting what MLK called the beloved community. I’m at the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM) meeting at Mount Moriah Baptist Church on Rivers Avenue. It looks like we’ve filled up this large worship space, and that suggests we’re on track to get a much bigger crowd in Mt Moriah’s main sanctuary on April 30 for our Nehemiah Action Assembly. We need the biggest crowd possible when we ask elected officials to contribute substantial funds and leadership toward the creation of more affordable housing in the Charleston area.
How did we choose this issue? CAJM researches one or two problems each year, choosing from those people have brought up most at small group “house meetings.” At a fall Community Problems Assembly, individuals share their stories of how a problem has affected them, which is powerful in itself: hundreds of people listening to members of our community who’ve faced great difficulty. If you believe in prayer, this is a good way to pray. The preacher at First (Scots) last Sunday spoke of “the fellowship of suffering.” We’re called to be fully mindful of the pain and injustice our neighbors have experienced, even when we can’t fix the problem and it makes us feel bad to realize that. It should make us feel bad. At our meeting this fall we heard tough stories related to health care, inadequate transportation, and housing. Everybody voted on which one to work on, then watched the votes being tallied. It’s democracy, people! Each problem was clearly worth pursuing, but housing was the top choice of a big majority (345 to 164 to 67). That’s a pretty good answer to prayer, if you’re looking at all the suffering around you and asking, What should we do, where should we start? Answer: this year, start here.
I’m encouraged as I look at this crowd, and proud my church is here. Although our retired senior pastor was one of the founding members of CAJM, we’ve never mustered nearly as many CAJM participants as St. James Presbyterian or Charity Missionary Baptist. Nor as many as two other predominantly white churches downtown, the Unitarian and the Circular Church; KKBE (Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim), the Reform synagogue, also usually beats us. So I’m happy that tonight First (Scots) has a respectable showing.
To tell the truth, our assigned pews are partly occupied by members of Mt. Pleasant Presbyterian who haven’t yet convinced their church to “convenant” (pledge support for CAJM). I guess we’re their closest relatives; we’re both part of the same denomination as St. James, but St. James’s CAJM team doesn’t need boosting–it’s overflowing, with people who don’t look like most of us at First (Scots) or Mt P Prez. Another reason I like working with CAJM. I believe in what we’re doing but I’m also grateful to be working with folks I’d never have met otherwise, after living over 25 years in Charleston. (20-some years ago, our son asked us why there were no people with brown skin in our church. I felt bad. “I guess maybe they don’t feel welcome,” was the best I could come up with. “But they are welcome,” he said. We haven’t really proven that yet, which may be one reason you don’t see Ben in church much. He and Julie are here with CAJM tonight, though.)
Now, as we prepare for this year’s Nehemiah Action Assembly, I’m encouraged by our numbers and even more excited when they introduce this year’s “negotiators.” These are members of CAJM who’ll stand before the Assembly and ask elected officials for what we want (the officials will know this well in advance). It’s a really important role: sometimes negotiators must clarify for the audience what a “yes” or “no” means, or try to convince the officials to say yes, or try to get a partial yes. Having had the immense and terrifying honor of being a co-negotiator for CAJM in 2014 and 2017, I know how tricky this task can be. In 2014 we had to keep asking the school superintendent why she wouldn’t say yes, so we could figure out what she might agree to. After some tense moments, she finally said yes to starting Restorative Practices at a few schools.
Easier said than done. After any Nehemiah Action, CAJM members continue our work, reminding people to keep the promises they made. It can take awhile. It’s kind of remarkable, really, that over the past three years, amid budget crises and turnover in superintendents and new board leadership, the Charleston County School District has begun to change the climate of some schools where things looked bleakest. Because we kept talking and listening to CCSD leaders and teachers and other school districts, our schools got more support, helping them lower suspension rates, improve classroom climate, and in five schools, begin an incredibly powerful program of Restorative Practices. (Speaking of the beloved community, every school should have this opportunity.) And this past November, after several discouraging setbacks, City Council finally voted, unanimously, to hire a qualified firm to do a racial bias audit of our police department. This happened not just because we asked for it at our Nehemiah Assembly in 2017 and 2016. It happened because we refused to stop showing up at City Council meetings, reminding everyone that this problem needed attention. We were at the Public Safety Committee meeting just last week when they voted on a “scope of work” for this audit, and they used all the suggestions CAJM made. This isn’t “mission accomplished”– racial bias doesn’t go away when you say it ought to—but it’s very important progress towards making things better. To be continued.
And tonight, something else important is happening as the negotiators step to the microphone. Roy and I are thrilled to see that one of them is our friend Claire Curtis, from KKBE. And CAJM’s co-president this year, the legendary and wonderful Arthur McFarland, will be working with her. “The dream team!” Roy says to me. As Claire introduces herself, she reminds us that the problem of affordable housing goes beyond finances, as people leave neighborhoods that were home for several generations. Gentrification, she says, has resulted in changes and losses for many lifelong Charlestonians. “I moved into my neighborhood, on Felix Street, almost 20 years ago,” Claire says. “Our house was built next to the historic Brooks Motel”–people murmur in recognition—”and at the time we moved in, only one of the original residents of the street still lived there. Since that time, seven new houses have been built on Felix Street and over 20 new houses are being built in what was Dereef Park, behind our house”—more murmurs from people who know what Dereef Park once was and is no more. “We were gentrifiers,” Claire says. “And more came behind us. I can certainly rationalize our move. It was a house we could afford, close to work and with ready access to a park for our kids. And yet, multiply this same story and experience across decades and you can begin to understand the pain behind the topic of housing.”
We were gentrifiers. Hearing the truth spoken, with so many people listening, is powerful. I’m still absorbing the impact of Claire’s honest self-appraisal when Arthur McFarland introduces himself, saying, “Being from Charleston, I’ve seen a lot of people like Claire who have come to town. While there are many positives from growth, my people have been the recipients of many of the negatives. Historically black neighborhoods and businesses are gone and along with them went many affordable housing options.” Truth. Tell it, y’all. And yet, as Claire and Arthur go on to explain what happens at the Assembly, reminding us to be prepared for possible tense moments with the elected officials, they stress that they’ll be working together to negotiate an agreement.
I feel more hopeful than I have in a good while. The truth Arthur and Claire are speaking is painful, much more so for some than for others. Some of us are paying higher rents or taxes and insurance, while some people have lost the neighborhoods of their great-grandparents, and some families can’t find anyone to accept their Section 8 vouchers after being put out of a housing project that may never reopen. (BTW, 3660 people in North Charleston were evicted last year, making it the highest-evicting city in the country, with Charleston coming in at #32.) And while we’re speaking that painful truth, we’re explaining how we’ll work together.
“I hope you feel with me the significance of this opportunity for change,” Arthur concludes. “The weight of an unjust history will be with us on the stage. Actually, that burden is always present, but on Nehemiah night, we’re going to call it out. Generations of intentional wrong, and the complicity of silent leaders, and also silent congregations, have led us to this year of action.”
Now it’s time for all the congregations and groups to caucus and tally the number of people we expect to bring. As each group’s name is announced, participants cheer. Brother Ed Bergeron, seated with other CAJM officers on the podium, fist-pumps and says “In the house!” when St. John Catholic in North Charleston is called out. Lots of happy enthusiasm. The pale Presbyterians on our side of the balcony are fired up. The Rev. CeCe Armstrong, of St. James Presbyterian, enters the pulpit to close out the evening. She reminds us to bring at least 3 people to the Action on April 30, noting a Bible story (Mark 2:1-12) in which four people climbed through the roof of a house, lowering a paralyzed man down where Jesus was. These people were “bound and determined to take their mutual friend before the one they felt had the authority to make a change.” Confident that Jesus could heal, “the four friends organized,” she says, smiling. [If you view her remarks online, you’ll hear the recorder encouraging her at this point, “Come on now.”]
People applaud as Rev. Armstrong says, “We collectively must lower this issue before our elected public officials. . . . Sometimes we as individuals believe we have to do this all ourselves. But you’re only one of the four. Bring the other three with you. April 30.” Now she has us on our feet, singing, I woke up this morning with my mind, it was, stayed on justice. . . . After four verses, she dismisses us: “May the one called love bless you, keep you and hold us all, now and forevermore.” Everybody chimes in as she says, “Amen, Amen, and Amen.”
This is what the beloved community looks like.
So much power ringing through the room. It almost scares me, the way I’m letting myself feel this hopeful about what we might do together.