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FAST alliance of churches challenges local officials

The Old Testament leader Nehemiah once called a public assembly to rebuke the people for their treatment of the poor.

That's why the name of the gathering to be held Monday night in Largo is the "Nehemiah Action Assembly."

In our modern version, though, the people, something like 3,000 of them, will put their leaders on the spot.

This annual gathering is the work of a group called Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, an alliance of 38 congregations of various faiths in Pinellas County.

The striking thing about FAST is the group's emphasis on specifics, and its practice on putting elected officials on the hook. Will you support X? If not, why not?

In fact, FAST has put off some local officials who complain that things Aren't That Simple. Some develop, you know, a schedule conflict.

The Rev. John G. Tapp of Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Petersburg told me this criticism is a convenient excuse. FAST tries to meet with local officials to discuss approaches for months in advance. It's no ambush.

Neither, Tapp says, is this some top-down agenda decided by a few insiders. FAST develops its priorities based on what members say they care about the most.

"We would hope," Tapp says, "that elected and government officials would listen to that."

Each agenda item for Monday's assembly contains a subheading that says, "What We Want." Here are the specifics:

• From the county government, a commitment to apply money from the Penny for Pinellas sales tax to relieve the foreclosure crisis. FAST proposes a community land trust that could take direct ownership, renegotiate terms and keep people in their homes.

• From the Pinellas schools, a specific program targeted at 20 troubled schools with a low percentage of students reading at grade level.

• From Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats, an all-out push to find money to bring back some of the "re-entry" programs he has had to cut back for inmates about to be released.

• From the Legislature, a bill that gets more drug offenders into "drug courts," which focus on keeping them from reoffending.

• From St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council, an ordinance saying that any city contract that creates jobs (say, rebuilding the Pier) must require 50 percent of the hires to be local.

I can understand why elected officials would squirm. And yet the fact so many thousands are so involved is important, maybe even a harbinger of change. I take it as a good sign.

The Nehemiah Action Assembly will be held at 7 p.m. Monday at the First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, 12685 Ulmerton Road, Largo. For information call (727) 823-9197 or e-mail [email protected]

FAST alliance of churches challenges local officials 04/09/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 10, 2011 3:09pm]
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