The Talk of TJMC – Making a Change; Making an IMPACT

This is the text of the reflection I offered on April 9th, 2017.  It was for our annual IMPACT service, hopefully serving both to update people on the work that IMPACT has been doing, and to inspire people to attend the Nehemiah Action on Tuesday, April 25th, 2017.

What do Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists (of a variety of types), Catholics, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Quakers, UCCs, Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, Muslims, Jews, and Unitarian Universalists have in common?  If you’re talking about here in Charlottesville, what we all have in common is IMPACT – the Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together.

If you’ve been around TJMC for a while, you’ve heard about IMPACT.  If you’ve been around for a long while, you’ve heard about IMPACT a lot.  For those who haven’t, and those who need a refresher, IMPACT is an example of a CBCO – congregation based community organizing.  Rather than trying to galvanize people to work for change based on neighborhoods, for instance, CBCOs organize people through faith communities where, let’s face it, there are already a lot of people.  Some influence things through money; others through connections.  Community organizing is about bringing people together to generate “people power.”   IMPACT’s annual Nehemiah Action is the largest public gathering in central Virginia, and the largest interfaith gathering for action anywhere in the commonwealth!  That’s “people power.”

This Nehemiah Action – which is coming up on Tuesday, April 25th, and for which tickets are currently available – is the culmination of a year’s worth of work.  In the fall, each of the 27 member faith communities hold a series of “listening circles,” to elicit stories of the real issues being faced by real people in our community.  The various issues that are brought up in these listening circles are then looked at, linked together where such linking makes sense, and ultimately brought to a gathering of IMPACT members who vote on which issue will be IMPACT’s focus for the year.

Then the real work begins.  Teams of people analyze the problem, research possible solutions, and form a plan.  This is done by volunteers – and we’ve had many TJMC folk who have been part of such research teams – and wherever possible it’s done in collaboration with the stakeholders who are most likely to affect change – city or county government, for instance, Region Ten, UVa Medical Center … you get the idea.  After a year of work, a plan is presented – publicly – and those with the power to act on it are asked – publicly – if they will commit to doing so.  That is the Nehemiah Action, and that is why it’s important to get as many people to attend as possible, so that when those “movers and shakers” are asked for their support they will have to look out at an auditorium of people who say that they want to see changes made.  (And we know – and they know – that each person sitting in those seats represents several others who aren’t there.  When more than 1,000 people show up – as usually happens – it’s really more like 10, 000 people calling for justice.  That is people power.)

Three years ago the issue that came to be IMPACT’s focus – and I really should say “our focus,” since TJMC has been an integral part of the IMPACT family since the beginning, and there is no IMPACT without its member congregations – three year ago the overarching issue we were looking at was crime and drugs.  During the research phase, we learned that the majority of crimes in our community have drugs or alcohol as a contributing factor. Yet this is not merely an issue of enforcement; it’s also an issue of treatment.  During our research we also learned that each year about 3,200 people are incarcerated in local jails who are struggling with addictions to drugs and alcohol; we learned that the majority of these inmates who are women are also survivors of sexual abuse or domestic violence.

Our Research shows – and not just here, but nationally – that treatment is key for reducing recidivism, and that for those individuals who have been unsuccessful with outpatient treatment while living at home, residential treatment can be game-changing. There are few options for men seeking residential treatment in town, but for women there were no local options. And for women who have children, the barriers to getting the care they need have often been so large that they wouldn’t even consider treatment like this, because they would have had to leave their children and their families, and travel far from any support network they might have, in order to get the care they need.  In the end this not only impacts their life, but the lives of their children, and ultimately the health of whole communities.

I used the past tense here, though, because the “people power” of IMPACT has once again made an … impact … on an injustice in our community.  By the end of 2017 a new residential treatment facility for women should be completed next to Region Ten’s existing facilities on Old Lynchburg Road.  (Groundbreaking could begin as soon as next month.)  And this facility will allow women to bring their young children with them, so that the children can be a part of the recovery process, and so the women will feel less stigmatized for seeking help, or fear losing their children.)  The Charlottesville City Council and the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors have each pledged to provide $75,000 to the project in their preliminary budgets, and at this year’s Nehemiah Action they will be asked – publicly, in front of the largest interfaith gathering for action in Virginia – whether they intend to follow through on their pledges.  It’s taken several years to get to this point, but IMPACT – we – saw a need, developed a solution, and got the needed support to make a real difference in the lives of real people.

Last year the listening process led to a focus on issues related to elders in our community as needing attention.  There are, of course, a number of specific issues under such a global topic as “elder care.”  Our society has a terrible track record when it comes to our elders.  The dominant culture in the U.S. is, and always has been, overwhelmingly youth-centered.  The gifts, the experience, and the wisdom of elders is too often denigrated or denied.  And as we have become a less stable, more mobile society, we have increasingly lost the ties that once bound people together across generations – elders are more and more frequently essentially cast adrift.  There are a lot of issues that live under the rubric of “elder care.”

But one of the first practical, concrete things that our research teams noticed was that the various agencies in the Charlottesville/Albemarle area that work on issues of concern to our elder population were not in any kind of collaborative conversation with one another.  Helping to facilitate closer connections became an initial challenge.

And continued research revealed a serious problem around the high costs of services and housing for senior citizens.  More than 6,000 seniors in the area struggle to keep a roof over their heads, and those households pay more than 30% of their income toward housing costs; nearly 12,000 senior households in the region earn less than $35,000 annually; and it is estimated that by 2024, 25% of the area’s population will be over the age of 65, which means these issues will only become more serious and more challenging.  IMPACT is working on developing ways to make local governments prioritize affordable housing for seniors.  No specific remedy has yet been proposed, but it is essential that IMPACT – that we – demonstrate to community leaders that there is a lot of “people power” calling for justice for the elders in our community.  We want to say – publicly, loudly, clearly – that this is something that shouldn’t simmer on the back burner, but should be made a priority.

This year we, here, haven’t emphasized IMPACT in the ways we have in years past.  It has become harder in recent years to get the kind of volunteer leadership that this effort needs, and at the same time it has become harder to encourage people to get out to the Action (which has always been the most visible part of our connection with IMPACT).  These two things, together, have created a feeling of burnout among leaders, and a sense of undue pressure among congregants.  So this fall we decided to give the volunteer leaders the year off – no meetings, no phone calls, no mad push to get people out to the Assembly, the Rally, or the Action.  This doesn’t mean these things aren’t important.  They are.  Working through IMPACT is the only way available for true and comprehensive interfaith collaboration on issues of social justice impacting our communities.  Yet until fresh leadership emerges, this can no longer be one of our institutional priorities.

Nonetheless, during the Offering some folks will be going around with tickets to the Action – which is on Tuesday, April 25th.   I encourage you to take one of them if you would answer the call to be a representative of those in our Charlottesville/Albemarle area who care about women struggling with addition, and elders struggling to afford housing.  (You can take more than one so that you can share them with friends!)  These tickets allow IMPACT staff to track how many people came from each congregation, so it’s important that you bring it with you.  (On the line where it asks you to make a note of who invited you, I’d encourage you to say that you were invited by “Justice.”)  There will also be tickets available at a table in the Social Hall following worship each Sunday between now and the Action – which is on Tuesday, April 25th.

I’d asked IMPACT’s Associate Organizer, the woman who liaisons with our congregation, Ruth Berta, to say a few words about who IMPACT has impacted her, personally, and she had the last word of these reflections …

Pax tecum,


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