LARGO — The line outside First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks started forming a half-hour before the doors opened Monday night. All the people were there for a gathering of 35 interfaith congregations collectively known as Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST.
By 7 p.m., more than 2,000 people of all faiths, colors and creeds had filled the cavernous fellowship hall to discuss ways to make their communities better. Among their priorities: reducing student discipline problems in Pinellas County schools, expanding opportunities for affordable housing, and ending neighborhood drug and crime activity.
"We're here to do some very important business tonight, the work of the Lord," said Joe Magri, a parishioner of St. Cecelia Catholic Church in Clearwater, whose remarks came at the start of FAST's fifth annual forum. "We come not to complain, not to blame. We come here as people who have power because we have numbers, and because we have done our homework."
Since it formed in 2004, FAST has become increasingly vocal on social justice issues. The group's methods include holding public officials accountable and demanding that they give "yes" or "no" answers to questions about their level of commitment to the community.
At Monday night's event, the group extracted a promise from Pinellas deputy school superintendent Harry Brown to send a district liaison to report to FAST regarding the expansion of school discipline programs. Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch committed to support a countywide plan for a phone system to provide better access to available affordable housing.
And Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats pledged to work with FAST to develop inmate re-entry strategies to decrease recidivism by meeting the literacy, housing and transportation needs of inmates sentenced to the county jail.
FAST representatives say that calling on school, city and county officials to take stands on issues such as affordable housing and crime in the presence of community members is the best way to create change. They credit themselves for creating more transportation opportunities for the elderly, expanding prekindergarten programs, and persuading the school district to implement more discipline programs.
"We are the watchdogs guarding the territory of justice," the Rev. Ron Williams of Mount Olive AME Church in St. Petersburg told this year's gathering. "God has a way of taking even the smallest of our efforts and blessing them, expanding them, and using each of us to help."