Community Organizing Energizes Largest African-American Church

Listening and Doing (James 1:22)

By Deborah Agbor-Tabi

When I joined St. James Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, many things were new and fascinating.  St. James is the largest African American congregation in the denomination and has always been involved with the community in areas such as recreation and social events, working with the schools and local political leaders, hosting youth summer camps, a senior center, and a distribution center for free school supplies and food stamps.

community organizing meeting at church

Congregants come together to discuss community needs and challenges at St. James Presbyterian Church

Mercy ministries, such as food and aid to the needy, along with education, and spiritual enrichment are seen as acceptable by political leaders. However, we know that in addition to mercy and faithfulness, God calls us to do the work of justice (Micah 6:8 and Matthew 23:23-24).

Yet, when it came to justice work, few were interested. Many were content just to attend Sunday morning worship. I wondered, “Doesn’t seeing injustice make you want to do something?” Fortunately, some folks have been interested. For seven years now, St. James has been active in community organizing with the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM).

Those at the church involved in community organizing started small with meetings in their homes or sometimes at the church.  Invitees felt comfortable talking about the needs in their neighborhoods and were able to trust each other.  Through these annual house meetings over seven years, we have gotten to know that we share similar concerns and difficulties. Then we discovered that other congregations also had similar concerns. We have gotten to know one another’s struggles, so when a brother or sister suffers, I suffer. When my brother or sister prospers, I also prosper.

CBCO assembly full of people

Congregants from St. James Presbyterian Church participated along with about 2,000 others in a Nehemiah Action, where politicians are asked for their commitment to resolve community problems

Each year we focus on one challenge and we research it along with possible solutions. We present these to our public officials in public gatherings.  Using the example of Nehemiah, we have an annual gathering called the Nehemiah Action of up to 2,300 people to ask our officials to adopt and implement the solutions we have identified.  Sometimes this can take two to three years, but we are successful. Then we follow up together to be sure it is implemented. Those folks who felt that nothing ever works have heard about our successes and have started to participate.

One young man who participated in the Nehemiah Action for the first time this year said, “I was wondering why I’ve never come to one before. I should be involved.”  We are building momentum and more people are involved and are investing more financially in the work. Other community problems that were not the annual focus have also received more attention and follow-up from congregants with successful outcomes.

We were told to “stick with doing what you are good at,” meaning mercy ministries and faithfulness. But now after seven years of successful community organizing, we know we are good at this too.  Together we make a difference for each other, our membership and our community, while also energizing the congregation.