Churches work together as allies in activism

ChristianityJuvenile DelinquencyRoman CatholicismCrime, Law and JusticeSocial IssuesCrime

At recent meetings of FOCUS -- Federation of Congregations United to Serve -- crime has been the hottest topic.

One of the largest, held at Good Shepherd Catholic Church, drew worried residents from throughout the city who told stories such as a woman's daughter who was shot to death in Pine Hills, a family home ransacked in east Orange County, and dozens of witnesses to gang violence and drugs.

Among the results: A pilot program to create after-school activities for local youth and a parent-neighborhood watch to look out for kids walking home from school through crime-ridden neighborhoods.

For almost 15 years, FOCUS has been at the heart of an effort to help churches reach out to the world beyond their sanctuary walls.

Their method is simple: Ask people what they need.

"It's not from the top down," said Jim Malcolm, who attends John Calvin Presbyterian Church and took part in a recent forum on crime. "It's finding out what the community problems are from the people who live them."

Malcolm, a FOCUS volunteer for several years, was drawn by the group's nonconfrontational methods. And he came to see that the tiny group has succeeded on varied issues, ranging from health care for uninsured kids to having fire hydrants inspected after one malfunctioned, contributing to the death of a person in a burning home.

"We're working to solve the problem, not put blame on who caused the problem," said Malcolm, a Medicaid fraud investigator.

The group's approach method didn't seem natural to the Rev. Priscilla Robinson of Orlando's First AME Church in the Rosemont area. Her instincts, she said, are to take charge and hold people responsible.

"You learn that you don't do for anybody anything that they can't do for themselves," Robinson said. "But it's fulfilling. It's what we're supposed to be doing -- helping each other."

FOCUS began as an interfaith council of concerned religious leaders.

In 1995, Peter Phillips, who had spent several years as a community organizer in Alabama, North Florida and Detroit, became director of the group. He still holds that position but brushes aside credit for the dozens of causes FOCUS has addressed.

"There is a huge chasm between regular folks in the community and decision-makers," Phillips said. "And we are just the catalyst and support system to bridge that."

The agency of six full- and part-time staffers works out of Broadway United Methodist Church in Orlando. But with 13 churches as part of the group, it can bring together 30,000 family members and about 1,500 active volunteers.

FOCUS has an annual operating budget of about $400,000, with an array of contributors including the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation, Catholic Diocese of Orlando, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Embarq, Darden Restaurants Foundation and several banks.

Despite links to major institutions, FOCUS stays in the background and out of partisan politics.

A recent forum featured the two candidates for Orange County sheriff, but the goal of the meeting was not to have a debate but rather to get the candidates to listen to the attendees, said the Rev. Paul Henry of St. John Vianney Catholic Church, a FOCUS member.

"What FOCUS has done is give us a voice and a place to address people in power," Henry said. "They help us do for ourselves what would have been difficult to learn to do on our own."

The Rev. Terry Niziolek, pastor of Good Shepherd Catholic Church, supports FOCUS because its goals match his understanding of a biblical mandate.

"Jesus talks about a just society," he said. "And about responding to people's needs."

Jay Hamburg can be reached at 407-420-5673 or jhamburg@orlandosentinel.com.

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