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FAST finds power in faith and in numbers

The acronyms hint at a mission: PEACE in Polk County, HOPE in Hillsborough and FAST in Pinellas.

Each represents an interfaith group, allied with almost two dozen others that agitate for social justice by prodding elected officials into action.

In Pinellas, FAST — the letters stand for Faith and Action for Strength Together — has parlayed the clout of hundreds of Christian, Jewish and Muslim supporters to successfully lobby officials.

Consider:

• Persuading public school officials to establish a disciplinary program that reduces suspensions.

• Persuading the Metropolitan Planning Organization to create a hotline to help seniors with transportation.

• Getting money for low-income children to attend full-day prekindergarten.

• Pressing county commissioners to establish a housing trust fund that created 1,469 units for poor families.

• Campaigning to get law enforcement to clean up more than 60 drug and crime "hot spots."

It was at Pastor Manuel Sykes' Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg that the first countywide, traffic-snarling gathering — an amalgam of races, ages, cultures and religions — took place in the fall of 2004.

The idea for the group had evolved over time, Father Robert Schneider of Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor said. That night, supporters gave the group its name, he said, drawing inspiration from the book of Isaiah: "This is the fasting that I desire, that you do justice.''

In the years since, they've taken on a series of knotty issues.

"Education, drugs and crime have sort have been continuous,'' Sykes said.

With each issue, elected officials are asked to commit to a prescribed FAST solution, in front of a crowd that recently numbered 3,000.

The catalyst for their efforts is spiritual, participants say.

"In our tradition, it's based on our Catholic social justice teaching … to make things right in society, to transform society over all," Schneider said.

For members of Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg, who had been involved in another grass roots organization that folded, FAST offered an opportunity to recommit to a new interfaith effort, Rabbi Michael Torop said.

"There is a tremendous amount of power that comes when members of a community organize themselves to pursue a shared vision,'' he said.

FAST, which has 38 congregations, uses much of its $280,000 budget to employ four organizers. Dues for congregations can range from $1,000 to $10,000 a year, Sykes said.

The group's strategy requires that team leaders assemble groups within their congregations, which then multiply for a show of force that greets officials at what is known as a Nehemiah Action Assembly. The annual gathering gets its name from a biblical leader who called authorities to account.

The annual assembly marks the culmination of a yearlong effort that begins with congregations determining what issues to confront. At the Nehemiah action, officials are asked to commit to proposed solutions.

"Our goal is always to get the 'yes,' " Torop said.

"Those who are hedging or refusing are doing so in front of a pretty large group,'' Sykes said. "There is no booing, hissing or anything. It's just silence. Then, of course, the speaker who is sharing the questions with them might try to get them to commit to some type of middle ground."

Most officials honor their commitments, Sykes said.

"But you have to keep working with them. You can talk to a council person, but then he has to deal with city staff,'' he said.

A Nehemiah action on Monday netted a couple of victories, but also a disappointment. In front of 3,000 people, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri agreed to reinstate an in-jail rehabilitation program. But in an interview with the Times, Gualtieri downplayed FAST's influence.

"I've been committed to it all along,'' he said. "I'd be doing this regardless of FAST."

That evening, four St. Petersburg City Council members pledged to work for an ordinance that would require city contractors to hire Pinellas residents first. FAST fell short of its goal of having the school district adopt a teaching method known as "direct instruction" that the group says improves reading scores.

FAST isn't the first local interfaith organization to focus on social justice. For about 10 years, Congregations United for Community Action, or CUCA, led antidrug marches, confronted lending institutions and challenged the School Board. The group fizzled around 2006. Like FAST, it was organized by Direct Action and Research Training Center, or DART, in Miami. John Calkins, DART's executive director, attributes CUCA's demise to staffing and financial problems.

"We have really taken a lot of steps in the last 10 years to bolster the capacity of local organizations to raise money,'' he said.

Key, as well, is providing training to help the people in the pews to accomplish their goals.

"Fundamentally, it's stimulating people's sense of fairness and justice and it's getting them to believe that they actually can do something with that feeling,'' Calkins said.

"Then the power comes with the numbers.''

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

FAST finds power in faith and in numbers 03/23/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 23, 2012 11:45pm]

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