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Grant partner of the Presbyterian Hunger Program makes strides on local issues

Anne Arundel Connecting Together helps congregations unite on key issues in Maryland

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Anne Arundel Connecting Together (ACT) describes itself as a “people’s power organization.” Many of its members are churches and other faith-based groups. (Photo courtesy of ACT)

LOUISVILLE — A congregation-based community organizing group in the Annapolis, Maryland area is helping churches and other groups to champion local causes through working together as a united force.

Founded in 2018, Anne Arundel Connecting Together — better known as ACT — is “a people’s power organization working across race, socioeconomic background, faith and geography to win on issues of justice for low- and moderate-income communities,” according to its annual report.

One of its most enthusiastic members is Ark and Dove Presbyterian Church, a Matthew 25 church in Anne Arundel County, where ACT is based. “When we got invited to participate in this new organization that was going to do community organizing, we said, ‘That’s what we’ve been waiting for,’ and we jumped on,” said Pastor Timothy Stern, Ark and Dove’s pastor. Out of more than 1,000 people in attendance at the launch meeting, “120 were from Ark and Dove.”

The congregation was interested because of glaring disparities affecting marginalized people in Anne Arundel County, Stern said. Ark and Dove also had grown weary of “doing Band-Aid mission programs without concentrating on the root causes of poverty and structural racism,” he said.

Pastor TIm Stern (Screenshot)

Whether advocating on affordable housing issues or the need to test school water fountains for lead, “there’s definitely influence and power when you have a lot of organizations working together,” said Stern. He also noted, “Community organizing is a great way of organizing a congregation” because it involves doing “one-on-one meetings with people so that you can create relational power.”

ACT, a grant partner of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, is made up of more than 20 organizations that form a diverse coalition. “Our member organizations are mostly faith-based, so mostly churches and two Islamic communities and then a number of nonprofits are members as well,” said lead organizer Katie Zinler. “We’ve got a mix of Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, Catholics, non-denominational” as well.

An interest in justice unites them. “In our own ways, in our own traditions, we are called to act for justice, and many of us are also called to acts of service or mercy as well, and those are incredibly important,” Zinler said. “For the most part, the problems that are causing injustice and systemic oppression in our communities are way bigger than what any one faith congregation can tackle on their own, and so to fully act on this call for justice and to be the agents of making justice happen in our communities, we need one another” and “to be powerful enough to face the forces that are causing brokenness.”

ACT’s successful projects have included holding an accountability session with candidates for county executive and county council as well as working in collaboration with sister organizations to hold actions with statewide candidates for governor, attorney general and comptroller.

Some other victories include $1.3 million for the Turnaround Thursday Movement in Anne Arundel County to provide job training and services for formerly incarcerated people, and helping to provide meals for more than 150,000 people during the pandemic thanks to a collaboration that helped to keep people employed at 75-80 restaurants and small businesses.

Member organizations receive “community organizing training that builds the capacity within each faith congregation or community organization to act for justice,” according to the annual report.

“In our own ways, in our own traditions, we are called to act for justice,” said Katie Zinler, ACT’s lead organizer. (Photo courtesy of ACT)

The skills that they acquire “help deepen and strengthen relationships in that existing community as a way of being in more full and true human relationship, which includes seeing and understanding one another and making relationships across difference,” Zinler said, “but also figuring out where are the commonalities? Where are the common pains and pressures? And how do we use these relationships that we just built, which are our power, to act to address some of these issues that are going on in our community?”

At events, ACT participants often can be identified by their T-shirts as they strive to call attention to particular issues and to be in solidarity with those affected. “When we want to go to a county council meeting or a school board meeting and you see 150 of these yellow shirts out there, you get the message,” Stern said.

The Presbyterian Hunger Program is one of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Gifts to the One Great Hour of Sharing Special Offering allow PHP to fund congregation-based community organizing groups during their start-up phase or in their ongoing efforts to address affordable housing shortfalls and homelessness.

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