March 28, 2015
Catholic parishes and organizations are joining Nashville Organized for Action and Hope to help find solutions to issues facing the city’s poor and marginalized.
“We want to be able to reach out to all those people in our community and get them some help,” said L.B. Gaiters of St. Vincent de Paul Church in North Nashville, which has become a member organization of NOAH. “The city is not doing a lot right now to help.”
The parish was a member of a similar group called Tying Nashville Together before it disbanded. “I’m really pleased (NOAH) has picked up the charge and making sure Nashville is a city for all people,” Gaiters said.
NOAH is made up of member organizations, including congregations of many denominations and faiths, labor unions, and non-profit organizations that work on justice issues, explained Irene Boyd, a parishioner at St. Joseph Church in Madison and member of the group. NOAH received a grant to help get it established from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the U.S. bishops’ domestic anti-poverty program “works to break the cycle of poverty by helping low-income people participate in decisions that affect their lives, families and communities,” its website states.
NOAH recently hosted a forum for the candidates for mayor in Nashville. At the forum, NOAH unveiled its agenda, which included:
• Affordable housing: To preserve and produce affordable housing by enhancing the city’s housing trust fund, developing inclusionary zoning, and using federal, state and local resources to prevent displacement.
• Criminal justice: To reduce the jail population and the General Sessions Court docket by 50 percent by using alternatives to arrest and restorative justice measures.
• Economic equity and jobs: To increase transparency on public project government incentives, to hire locally first, and to attach community benefit measurements to projects in high-poverty areas.
NOAH members weren’t asking the candidates to commit to support all the specifics of its agenda, but did want a commitment that the candidates would meet with NOAH representatives to discuss the issues within 60 days of their election and quarterly after that, Boyd said.
The goal is to have whoever is elected mayor work with NOAH toward “some type of resolution of some of those goals,” Boyd said.
Each of the candidates agreed, if elected, to meet with NOAH and to work on the issues in its agenda.
“That was exciting,” Boyd said. “The other really exciting thing was we set a goal of having 1,000 people at this event, we ended up with 1,500 to 2,000. It was wonderful. … It says that perhaps there are many more people concerned about these issues than we would know.”
Gaiters was in the crowd at the forum. “That forum was about the tale of two Nashvilles, one part that is getting everything and another part that is being left behind,” she said.
The large turnout sent a strong message to the candidates, Gaiters said. “The meeting was fantastic and let the people who are running for mayor know that there’s a force out there that has to be reckoned with.”
Gaiters, a retired professor of criminal justice at Tennessee State University, is particularly interested in issues surrounding the criminal justice system, especially its impact on the youth. “It’s a vicious cycle,” that can begin with school discipline efforts, Gaiters said. “They get caught up in the system and go around and around and around and eventually the door is going to close.
“It’s disheartening to see the government isn’t doing anything about that issue,” she said.
The Passionist Partners, a group of lay people associated with the order of Passionist priests and sisters, is another Catholic group that is a member organization of NOAH.
“Our group is very interested in social justice, as Jesus was,” said Martha Wittemann, a member of the Passionist Partners group that meets at the Cathedral of the Incarnation.
“We had a meeting to discuss areas we thought we needed to work on in Nashville with a focus on the preferential option for the poor,” she said. Two areas the group identified were reducing the number of people involved in the criminal justice system and issues surrounding economic equity, such as people who take out “payday loans” and end up being charged interest rates as high as 400 percent, Wittemann said.
“Relief is needed for people, especially those marginalized people who can’t afford to do any better in Nashville. We believe there is a tale of two cities in Nashville. Marginalized people don’t have the same opportunities as others,” she said. “We feel like NOAH is really trying to make a difference.”
Boyd is hoping to convince other Catholic parishes and organizations to join NOAH.
The Catholic Church, its agencies and parishes “in this area have a wonderful reputation” for helping the needy, Boyd said. “What we don’t understand is the other side of that coin is justice.”
Seeking justice involves taking a deeper look at the causes of the problems so many Catholic efforts are aimed at addressing, such as homelessness or helping people find jobs, Boyd said. Addressing the causes of those problems requires changes to the law, government policies and structures, she said.
“We need to be a community effort to work to improve the city and represent the people not at the decision making table,” Boyd said.
“It’s political,” Boyd said. “It’s not partisan, but it’s political.” The organization is working to bring faith values and beliefs about the dignity of the human person to the public square where citizens can discuss and work toward the common good, Boyd said.
It’s an approach that has been endorsed by both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI, Boyd said.
In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis wrote, “People in every nation enhance the social dimension of their lives by acting as committed and responsible citizens.”
And in “God is Love,” Pope Benedict wrote: “Instead of contributing through individual works of charity to maintaining the status quo, we need to build a just social order in which all receive their share of the world’s goods and no longer have to depend on charity.”
Boyd and other representatives of NOAH are available to speak to parishes and Catholic groups about the organization and how it fits with Catholic social teaching. “The church has a lot to say about these issues,” she said.
I do believe that Catholic social teaching is one of the best kept secrets of our church.
For more information, call Boyd at (615) 254-5375 or NOAH organizer Mike Hodge at (615) 289-4216.