In the 1960s, Birmingham, Ala., was at the heart of the civil rights movement.
This spirit of social justice is what brought the Rev. Shannon Webster to the city to serve as pastor of First Presbyterian Church downtown.
After serving as a presbytery executive in New Mexico for 18 years, Webster was drawn back to parish work because of the congregation’s ministries.
“There’s a long history in this church of being rooted in social justice in the city,” he said.
The latest chapter in that history is the church’s involvement with Birmingham Faith in Action (BFIA). Through BFIA, First Presbyterian joins forces with 24 other churches who all share a desire to address Birmingham’s public safety and economic opportunity and dignity.
“We needed a community organization of faith-based folks who were not afraid to get together and wield power — the power of our relationship with each other — to make Birmingham look more like the kingdom of God,” Webster said.
The 25 congregations represent about 10,000 members from neighborhoods all over the city; much of BFIA’s power to bring about change comes from its size and the influence of the religious community.
“The church still matters in the South, and when you have that many congregations representing that many members together, the city council returns your phone calls,” Webster said.
BFIA is focusing on two issues—the use of pepper spray on students in city schools and the unfair lending practices of high-interest payday loan vendors who target the poorest neighborhoods.
“There’ve been more than 150 cases of students being Maced by the school resource officers (SROs) in the schools over the last five years,” Webster said. “Seems like a lot to us.”
According to BFIA, the students who were sprayed were as young as 13. None of them were involved in gangs or had weapons and all were African American. Not all of those instances involved scenarios where people were in danger and some were regular ornery student behavior that could have been handled with other disciplinary measures, Webster said.
Predatory payday-lending institutions affect even more people. These lenders charge as much as 456 percent interest — which is not against Alabama law — and concentrate their stores in areas with the most economically vulnerable populations.
“(Residents) walk into these facilities and a lot of them unknowingly walk into years of slavery through a payday loan,” said Amanda Mullins, a staff organizer for BFIA.
Last month, BFIA held a public meeting at First Presbyterian, where about 300 people heard testimonials from citizens about both issues. BFIA intended to not only bring attention to the issues but to ask the city council to extend a moratorium on the licensing of new payday loan shops until a solution could be found.
“I think the biggest thing accomplished that evening was for people to hear the stories of people who have been in the payday-lending trap,” Mullins said. “There is definitely a need for financial literacy in these lower-income neighborhoods where these payday-lending facilities target people who don’t have a lot of financial literacy.”
As a result of media coverage of the meeting, the city council did extend the moratorium. BFIA also made progress with the schools: the police department contacted the organization about the idea of setting up a commission that will include representatives from BFIA, the police department, the school district and the city to discuss alternatives for school discipline.
Not only does Birmingham profit from BFIA’s work, but the member congregations also benefit from going outside their own walls. The 25 member congregations are different in many ways — they are small, large, black, white, urban and suburban — and yet they all come together in one room to work on a common issue.
“It’s the most wildly ecumenical group I’ve ever been a part of,” said Webster, noting that BFIA is made up of Presbyterians, Missionary Baptists, Quakers, Living Stones Temple (a non-affiliated congregation), United Methodists, African Methodists, Episcopalians, AME Zionists, Unitarians, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Lutherans and Baptists. “It’s a wildly diverse group.”
And though they come from different beliefs and traditions, the member congregations all face the same issues in Birmingham and are looking for a resolution. This gives them common ground to overcome their individual differences.
“We don’t talk about doctrine or debate that, we talk about, ‘What does God want us to do to make our community healthier and safer and more productive and more faithful,’” Webster said. “It’s kind of like Pentecost, it really is. Everybody spoke different languages and had different songs but we’re learning each other’s language and each other’s songs. Maybe we just had to stop talking doctrine and talk politics for awhile.”
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, NC, where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.