Thursday, April 11, 2013

Abraham's Stars

St. Paul's Memorial Church is one of the founders of IMPACT, an interfaith coalition of 27 congregations -- Christian, Jewish and Muslim -- working together on community issues in Charlottesville.

We will soon gather at the John Paul Jones Arena on April 29 at 6:30 pm to hear our proposals for a coordinated effort to reduce homelessness and create new entry-level jobs for young adults. I hope you will come.

The other evening I gave a reflection for IMPACT leaders from our congregations, and I used the occasion partly as a refresher on how IMPACT does what it does. Roughly one-third of our congregational leaders are new to this, so it was a good moment to pause and reflect on how we got where we are and the accomplishments we have so far achieved. Here is the text of my talk:

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Abraham’s Stars

Genesis 15:1-6
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great…” He brought him outside and said, “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
I want you to look around – look at each other tonight and count the stars among you, for you are Abraham’s stars. The Lord has reckoned you as righteous and good and beloved. Do not be afraid, God told Abraham, and God tells us: Do not be afraid. You are Abraham’s stars.

Tonight I want to spend a few minutes talking about IMPACT, what we are, how we got here, what we’ve accomplished and why we do what we do the way we do it.

So let’s have a little refresher on IMPACT.

We were founded in 2006 by a group of congregations who came together wanting to make a difference in our community.

Many were already involved in ministries of mercy like PACEM and the Salvation Army. They wanted to see if they could change the system so that ministries like PACEM and the Salvation Army would no longer be necessary one day.

The group affiliated with a training organization based in Florida called DART that began showing our congregational leaders and clergy how to create a listening-based community organizing structure that would tackle tough issues in Charlottesville.

Rabbi Dan Alexander of Congregation Beth Israel came up with the acronym, IMPACT, which stands for: Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together.

IMPACT’s method is based on listening to members of our congregations to find out what issues are most on their minds and hearts.

We do that every year in our congregations. In my congregation we have a series of house meetings. From there we narrow the issues. In the fall, we hold the Annual Team Assembly and hear presentations on the problems we’ve heard about from you.

Everyone in our congregations is invited, and we vote to narrow the issue to one or two for the year.

Then members of our congregations volunteer to serve on research teams to find out all we can about the issue for the year.

They come up with proposed solutions, and they meet with decision makers to further refine these solutions. Our goal is to not blindside anyone.

That’s where we come in tonight – to hear about the progress on the two issues we are working on this year: youth unemployment and homelessness – and how we are pushing for action with decision makers in our community.

You will hear more on these topics soon.

Then comes the Nehemiah Action where we ask you to bring at least three people with you to fill the John Paul Jones Arena.

We ask that the decision makers who can make changes in the system come to the Nehemiah Action and appear in on stage.

We ask them if they will commit to the solutions. We will applaud them for positive answers and remain scrupulously polite at all times.

We do this in public because this is a public process we are engaged with. We ask they make their commitments in front of you, the people who have raised these issues and worked on finding solutions.

We ask that you bring as many people as possible to show that there is support in our congregations for these solutions.

This is about grassroots support for realistic solutions, but that also can make some people very uncomfortable because it may not be the way they are accustomed to conducting business.

There is another level to this that I want to talk to you about.

What we do with IMPACT is to share the influence that we have together – power that we have by being together rather than working apart.

We are being asked to come together to share our collective power especially with those in our community who are not accustomed to having much influence or having their voices heard, like our unemployed young people or the homeless.

And IMPACT is remarkable for another reason: In world torn apart by religious differences, we come together looking for what we have in common as heirs to Abraham.

That may make some of us uncomfortable for many reasons. But this is not about our personal comfort. You are being asked to be uncomfortable by standing with those who don’t have much influence on their own.

All of us are being asked to stand up with one voice, to use our voice, and to use keep standing together to change our world.

And you know what? We already have, right here in Charlottesville. Let’s count our successes in the last four years:
* In 2007, IMPACT won new bus routes serving low-income neighborhoods so that people can get to school and work, or go to the grocery store. 
* In 2008, IMPACT won approval of a free dental clinic serving thousands of people who have no dental insurance. 
* In 2010, IMPACT won approval from local law enforcement agencies to develop translation services for non-English speaking people who encounter the Justice system.
Many of our successes take more than one year.
* It took two years to win expansion of pre-school education programs.

* It took two years to win approval from the city and county for the healthy transitions program for the mentally ill. 
* It took three years to win approval of an affordable housing trust fund and the refurbishment of hundreds of housing units for low-income people.
And now we are engaged in the most difficult and complex issues we have ever engaged with: jobs and homelessness.

The outcome of this year’s Nehemiah Action is still uncertain. You will hear more on these issues a little later, but let me underline this year – more than ever – it especially important that you bring as many people as you can to the Nehemiah Action on April 29.

Last spring, we brought 1,537 people to the Nehemiah Action to speak with one voice and have an impact in our community, and that got us part of the way on our issues.

But we still have a long distance to go. We will not get there without you.

If we were to bring the equivalent of one day’s average worship attendance we would have 4,000. Think of the impact we would have with that many voices and the bigger issues we could tackle in the years ahead. Think of what we might accomplish together.

Tonight we are on a journey like our ancestor Abraham. We are walking together on a road with many bumps and curves. We will make our share of mistakes and a wrong turn or two.

But know this: This same God, the God of Abraham, the God of Moses, the God of Jesus, the God of Mohammed is with us, and will guide us, and will bring us safely through. Do not be afraid, God told Abraham. Do not be afraid, God tells us.

You and I are Abraham’s stars.

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

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