Congregations and faith communities in Fort Myers speak out for justice for youth, compassionate care for people with mental illness and affordable housing for all
by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Like the prophet Nehemiah’s efforts to rally the people to work together to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, the nonprofit multi-ethnic, multi-faith justice organization Lee Interfaith For Empowerment (LIFE) has worked for the past decade to mobilize efforts of the faithful to address important justice issues in Fort Myers, Florida.
In late April, during a Zoom-hosted forum attended by some 1,500 Lee County residents, LIFE representatives spoke out on three of the most pressing justice issues, asking Sheriff Carmine Marceno and Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson for specific commitments related to first-time juvenile offenders, care of people with mental illness who find themselves in the justice system, and help for individuals and families struggling to access affordable housing. Specifically, LIFE asked the sheriff and the mayor for commitments related to:
- Implementing a secondary screening tool (by Aug. 1) to increase (to 90%) the Sheriff’s Office use of civil citations for youth committing first-time misdemeanors (as opposed to arrest)
- Requiring at least 25% of officers, all dispatchers and all 911 operators in every zone to complete a 40-hour crisis intervention team training (by July 1, 2022) through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
- Drafting an ordinance to be voted on by city council (by the end of July) to reestablish an Affordable Housing Trust Fund to be funded by city of Fort Myers tax dollars, expressly to support affordable housing for residents who are living below the area median income (defined as less than $50,000 for a family of four)
The virtual Nehemiah Action gathering, hosted by LIFE at Mount Hermon Ministries, included 150 individuals representing Covenant Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, a Matthew 25 congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) working to dismantle structural racism and eradicate systemic poverty.
The Rev. Dr. Winston Lawson, parish associate pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church and a member of the LIFE board, said he and the team he leads of more than 400 LIFE supporters at Covenant just “keep showing up.” They know that persistence is what it takes, he said. “We have a very good staff and a committed congregation devoted to ensuring we achieve the goals we have set.”
With regard to law enforcement’s treatment of individuals with mental health concerns, Lawson said, “Having a separate wing of the jail is good but not good enough. The goal is not having them in prison at all.” He emphasized the need for other programs and NAMI crisis intervention training for officers, which the sheriff agreed to at the Nehemiah Action rally.
The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey DeYoe, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, said it has been an honor to have served in LIFE leadership for the past nine years. “It is through the commitment and dedication of socially aware and active members of this and many congregations in our community that this social justice organization accomplishes much for those in great need,” DeYoe said. “As a Matthew 25 church, we take seriously the words of Christ: ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
A few days after the Zoom rally, 50 members of LIFE met at city hall to hold a prayer vigil and to speak out for affordable housing, resulting in the Fort Myers City Council voting unanimously to draft an ordinance to reestablish an Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
LIFE supporter Kelly Wilson of Covenant Presbyterian Church called that moment “surreal and Spirit-filled.” When the time came for public comment, Wilson said, “LIFE illustrated the need for affordable housing with moving testimonies bearing witness to the impact of lack of affordable housing options on people’s lives. After each three-minute comment, we erupted in applause that made our presence known to the council members in the chamber.” She added, “It took three years of pushing the city of Fort Myers to prioritize the most vulnerable in this city, and we’re so grateful the city council finally made a public policy commitment to do so with this ordinance. At the same time, we know that this is only the beginning to ensure that this process is seen through to implementation.”
This Affordable Housing Trust Fund ordinance is expected to be drafted and placed on the city council’s agenda for a vote before the end of July, according to a commitment made by the mayor during the 2021 virtual Nehemiah Action rally.
“I have always had an interest in affordable housing,” said Jef Farlow, a LIFE supporter from Covenant Presbyterian Church. “I came to Florida from a community where you literally had to cross the railroad tracks to get to where low-income people lived. Then, as an older person, the middle-class income that I was used to disappeared, and I found out firsthand what it might be like to face the issue of low-income housing. In my case, family took me in. But, for people who have always faced the problem of ‘Where do I find a safe place for me and my family to live tomorrow?’ It’s not so easy. Through LIFE and its constant insistence [on justice], the city of Fort Myers is facing the [affordable housing] problem head-on. When we heard from LIFE that we needed to show up and be heard, we were there, and because we were there, the city heard us. I’m so proud to be part of LIFE and its work in the community.”
The Rev. Dr. William Glover, senior pastor of Mt. Hermon Ministries, said it can feel tense speaking truth to power. “Sometimes it can be uncomfortable. But we are here because we believe it’s worth it. It was worth it for Moses. It was worth it for Nehemiah. It was worth it for Nathan and Ezekiel. It was worth it for Jesus, and it is worth it for us as we advocate for justice in our communities, and for the people we love who are connected to us.”
Pat Arner, a retired high school math teacher and long-time member of Covenant Presbyterian, joined LIFE to plant seeds of change, much like the olive trees she has helped plant on visits to Palestine.
Of her involvement in LIFE, Arner said, “It’s amazing to see what the different faith communities in Fort Myers can accomplish when we work together as a team in order to bring about justice to those most in need. Our saying is, ‘LIFE for justice, justice for life!’”
LIFE’s justice ministry network — currently 14 member congregations strong — has rallied support for number of issues over the years, including anti-bullying efforts in schools, fair city government hiring practices and a second look into unsolved murders. Each fall, new issues and injustices come to the forefront during small group community conversations.
For more information about LIFE and its justice work in partnership with congregations, call 239-205-2864 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.
Categories: Advocacy & Social Justice, Matthew 25, Peace & Justice
Tags: advocacy, affordable housing trust fund, chelsea baker, city council, civil citations, court system, covenant presbyterian church, crisis-intervention training, empowerment, first-time offenders, florida, Fort Myers, jail, jef farlow, justice, kelly wilson, lee interfaith for empowerment, life, mayor kevin b. anderson, mental health, mental illness, misdemeanors, mount hermon ministries, nami, national alliance of mental illness, nehemiah action, pat arner, poverty, prison, racism, rev. dr. jeffrey deyoe, rev. dr. william glover, rev. dr. winston lawson, sheriff carmine marceno, youth offenders
Ministries: Matthew 25 in the PC(USA): Join the Movement, Compassion, Peace and Justice