The Old Testament book of Nehemiah recalls how families in Jerusalem were struggling to survive in the wake of a famine. As food costs soared, many took out mortgages on their homes and land, and government leaders continued charging interest on loans — even enslaving the children of those in debt. When Nehemiah heard a public outcry, he grew angry and called an assembly to confront officials for their unfair actions. In front of a crowd, leaders admitted their wrongdoings and agreed to cancel the debts.
This story influenced the work of Congregations Acting for Justice and Empowerment (CAJE), an interfaith organization with the goal of addressing local issues by negotiating with community leaders. The nonprofit is made up of 17 congregations: Catholic, various Protestant denominations, Unitarian Universalist, and Jewish. CAJE began in 2003 when a group of local religious leaders studied their sacred texts. One common bond: “the idea of coming together to do justice work,” says Myeda Hussain, CAJE’s executive director and lead organizer.
Each year, CAJE chooses a priority by training 60 to 70 volunteers to lead house meetings (conversations of six to 12 people) or one-on-one interviews with community members. They ask questions such as, “What makes you angry?” and “What would you like to see change?” The volunteers then report their findings and develop a ballot of the top four issues. A larger assembly of member congregations votes on the top priorities.
2011’s focuses, youth homelessness and re-entry for ex-offenders, will be discussed at this spring’s Nehemiah-inspired action assembly, open to the public. Last year, more than 1,200 people attended. Past actions have led to improvements in housing code enforcement and a new dental clinic for low-income residents. Since opening in 2006, the clinic has provided $1 million in services, Hussain says; making it happen “truly was a grassroots effort.”
2011’s public action, addressing youth homelessness and re-entry of ex-offenders, will take place at 6:30 p.m. April 11. As of press time, the location was not confirmed. Contact CAJE at 812-425-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.