Morris-area clergy and nonprofits seek virtual answers to real problems

Community organizing session by NJ Together, June 22, 2020. Screen shot by Marion Filler.
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By Marion Filler

 

Change is in the air. And in the ether, too.

Some 150 representatives of Morris area religious congregations and nonprofits came together, virtually, on Monday to discuss issues of mutual concern.

The gathering was directed by Frank MacMillan of NJ Together, a group that describes itself as “a growing, broad-based coalition in northern New Jersey,” that is non-partisan and multi-faith.

Pastor David Smazik of the Presbyterian Church in Morristown explained that about two years ago, the Morris Area Interfaith Clergy Council realized that members talked about taking action, but struggled to follow through.

“We decided if we could have a community organizer come among us, that we would be in a much better position to see activity become a reality. When we all work together, we could go after some of the dense issues that confront us here in Morristown.”

MacMillan was hired to make it happen.

“The goal tonight is to launch a listening campaign,” he said, urging the various representatives to look within their organizations and commit to a specific number of people who could be surveyed.

By the end of the evening, he was promised 2,000 persons whose responses could be analyzed for maximum effect.

Pastor Beau Nelson of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Harding and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Florham Park spoke from experience, saying that people with problems don’t want advice, they just want you to listen.

When Maria Vargas of the Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center and St. Margaret’s Church, both based in Morristown, was listening to her community during the COVID-19 crisis, she found out that food was not as big a concern as housing.

Landlords were charging late fees for overdue rents, and families feared losing access to benefits from stimulus and unemployment programs.

Glen King, executive director of Friendship House and re-entry minister at Morristown’s Bethel AME Church learned that his constituency had problems with law enforcement.

“It became clear to us that the prosecutors in Morris County are playing a role that is truly unjust. People are being incarcerated in ways that would never happen anywhere else in the state,” King said.

He told the story of a woman who was offered a plea bargain in exchange for a speedy trial, lost the plea bargain, was convicted, then lost her business as a result.

Alison Miller of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship acknowledged that although the community continues to help with food during the pandemic, “we are not wrapping around affordable housing.”

More needs to be done. The fight goes on to expand mortgage extensions and rent relief funds to combat homelessness. Reform in the criminal justice system now is getting the attention it deserves.

But real change is another matter. The expectation is that when leaders work together and listen to their communities, their voices will be amplified. The Rev. Robert Rogers of the Church of God in Christ for All Saints in Morristown was hopeful.

“It’s all about power to listen and connect,” he said. “We will succeed.”

PARTICIPATING INSTITUTIONS

  • Bethel AME Church, Morristown
  • Brookside Community Church, Mendham
  • Calvary Baptist Church, Morristown
  • Center for Spiritual Living Morristown
  • Church of the Redeemer, Morristown
  • COGIC For All Saints, Morristown
  • Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Florham Park
  • Morris Habitat for Humanity
  • Morristown Stake of the Church of Latter Day Saints, Morristown Unitarian Fellowship
  • Morristown United for Healthy Living
  • Morristown United Methodist Church
  • Presbyterian Church in Morristown
  • St. Mark Lutheran Church, Morristown
  • St. Margaret’s Catholic Church, Morristown
  • St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Morristown
  • Temple B’nai Or, Morristown
  • Wind of the Spirit

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