Onstage before a crowd of 1,700 church- and synagogue-goers in the North Charleston Performing Arts Center Tuesday night, Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. was visibly flustered. The usually unflappable city leader of nearly 40 years found himself stammering and struggling to get a word in edgewise as the Rev. Charles Heyward of St. James Presbyterian Church pressured him again and again to make political promises to the assembled congregants.
The tone of last night's second annual Nehemiah Action Assembly, an event coordinated by the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM), was decidedly confrontational. The Rev. Danny Reed of the Unitarian Church in Charleston set the stage early in the evening.
"There will likely be awkward moments tonight. There will be discomfort. There will be tension," Reed said. "But remember that we did not bring this tension, nor did we create it."
The CAJM, an organization that represents 24 Charleston-area congregations, started the Nehemiah Action Assembly with prayers and songs from a joint choir, but the point of the evening was to ask political leaders — including Mayor Riley, Charleston County School District Superintendent Nancy McGinley, and North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey — to support policy proposals generated by CAJM's Board of Directors.
CAJM started by identifying social issues that needed to be addressed. For starters, CAJM's Education/Unemployment Action Committee found that Charleston County's unemployment rate among young adults (ages 16 to 24) was 25 percent. As a remedy, the Rev. Heyward asked Riley to support "a targeted hiring policy for publicly funded construction projects" with a goal of 25 percent of all entry-level construction jobs going to 16- to 24-year-olds.
And after the Crime and Violence Action Committee reported that Charleston County leads the state in the number of juveniles arrested per year, the Rev. Francis Covington of New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church led the group in asking Superintendent McGinley to ramp up implementation of an already-existing Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) disciplinary system. Responses from both officials were mixed.
Riley said he would work with CAJM to write a targeted hiring policy for unemployed young adults, but he did not agree to work toward the specific goal of 25 percent. As he spoke, a moderator held a microphone in front of his face but withdrew it after a few seconds. "The answer to the question is no, and I'm going to hold the microphone," Riley said.
The crowd did not always share the various pastors' fervor. During Riley's response, many audience members applauded the mayor even as he rejected parts of the proposal.
"With all due respect, Reverend," Riley said, "I have a responsibility to the citizens who elected me, not to come here and give an answer just for everybody to applaud — and I might even get to hold the microphone — but what I can reasonably do."
McGinley expressed similar reservations in responding to proposals for the school district. She agreed to require district staff who are trained in PBIS to conduct audits of the 10 schools with the highest suspension rates. But when the Rev. Covington asked her to pick five of those schools to pilot a rigorous program of Restorative Justice, an approach that emphasizes repairing the harms caused by a crime over punishing the perpetrator, McGinley said no.
She also took the microphone to criticize CAJM's rhetoric. Simply stating that Charleston County leads the state in juvenile arrests, for instance, glosses over the fact that it's also the second-largest school district in the state. McGinley also pointed out that the school district has no authority over police department arrests, and she balked when LuAnn Rosenzweig of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim characterized in-school cases of simple assault as "a fancy name for a fist fight."
"The expulsion rate is half of what it was when I got here — half. And that's a work in progress," McGinley said. "But I do want to say that characterizing a simple assault as 'just a little fistfight' is really not fair to what we are challenged with at times in certain schools. I was a principal in West Philadelphia, and I saw what was characterized as a simple assault, where a student was urinating blood because of being stomped on and kicked, where girls had plugs pulled out of their head —"
At this point, the man holding the microphone pulled it away from McGinley's mouth and the room went quiet.
"No, I want to finish," McGinley said, leaning toward the microphone. "I have pledged that we will do these initiatives. We have been working on these initiatives, we're further ahead on PBIS than virtually any district, and some of our schools are a model for the country. But we do have to recognize we have a responsibility to children being safe and teachers being able to teach."
In the lobby of the Performing Arts Center, McGinley said she only received the questions from CAJM a week in advance of the Nehemiah Action Assembly. McGinley attended the inaugural Nehemiah Action at St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church last year, and she said she was not a fan of the format because it didn't allow public officials to address the complexity of public policy issues. Before Tuesday night's meeting began, school district employees handed out flyers showing how PBIS was already being implemented and how suspension rates had fallen since McGinley took office in 2007.
"What I'm saying here I've said all year long: I don't like the tactics," McGinley said. "I'm willing to work with them; we all are. But let us explain what we have been doing. If we hadn't put out our own results about all the progress we've made, we wouldn't have even gotten the chance to say that to 3,000 people."
Questions of tactics aside, last year's Nehemiah Action Assembly got a few things done. Police chiefs committed to reducing the rate of incarceration for non-violent juvenile offenders, and McGinley promised to push for more slots in the district's early childhood development program. The school board approved McGinley's proposal in June 2013, allocating funds for 300 additional slots in early childhood education.
But some public officials have soured on the format of the assembly, which pits the collective wisdom of religious leaders against the public-policy expertise of elected officials. Notably absent from Tuesday night's meeting was North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey. The Rev. Reed said that Summey had sent a written explanation as to why he would not attend, but Reed refused to read it aloud.
When asked, a city spokesman said no such letter was never written because the group had refused to read it aloud. However, Summey made his position known at an April 24 City Council meeting, when he took about 20 minutes to deride CAJM and its tactics.
"It's a group of churches that have organized together, trying to come up with ways to help unemployed youth. But I'm just going to be honest with you, most of them have never been around unemployed youth," Summey said.
Summey said he had received an invitation to the Nehemiah Action Assembly, and he also said he helped the group negotiate a reduced price to rent out the Performing Arts Center. But he made it clear he would not be attending.
According to Summey, representatives from CAJM refused to share their research with him and told him that he would only be allowed to give yes-or-no answers to their policy proposals at the Nehemiah Action Assembly. He also criticized the proposal for hiring unemployed 16- to 24-year-olds on publicly funded construction projects.
"I tried to explain to them, when we put out bids, the bids normally call for the low bid, qualified bidder, and then we ask them to do the proper job in a timely fashion and stand behind their work. Now if I'm dictating to them who they're going to hire, I can't ask them to guarantee that," Summey said.
The Rev. Jeremy Rutledge of Circular Congregational Church addressed criticisms of the group during his closing statements.
"There are a few voices outside of this room that would seek to discredit our organization altogether," Rutledge said, "so we must be doing something right."
The rhetoric of the Nehemiah Action Assembly was loaded with religious calls to social justice. Pastors mentioned the prophet Micah, who famously said that God requires the believer "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." And of course there were numerous references to Nehemiah, the evening's namesake.
According to scriptures, Nehemiah was a Jewish cupbearer to the Persian King Artaxerxes I in the fifth century BC who used his position of trust to earn certain favors from the king. After praying to God, Nehemiah asked the king's permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city's destroyed walls. He even received permission to use timber from the king's forests in the construction project.
Returning to Jerusalem as a provincial governor, Nehemiah organized a massive reconstruction effort and ordered nobles to return property they had taken as taxes so that the people could feed themselves. Toward the end of the book of Nehemiah, he also led his people in confessing their sins and chastised them for marrying foreign women.
Nehemiah has become a popular Biblical figure among Christians in the social justice movement, and his name was invoked on numerous occasions Tuesday night. "Let us look to our various faith traditions to hold us up tonight," Rev. Reed said during his introductory speech. "Let us look to our shared strength to bring us confidence. Let us look into the eyes of our brothers and our sisters and know, like Nehemiah, that we heed the correct call."
Father Dow Sanderson of Church of the Holy Communion, co-president of CAJM, says he was pleased overall with the outcome of the assembly. He says the awkwardness and intensity of the proceedings were "even more palpable" last year, and he said he stood behind the leadership's decision to call out Mayor Summey during the presentation for critiquing CAJM's goals. "I felt we took him to the woodshed a little bit last night, but I think he deserved it," Sanderson says. "I hope that maybe next year when we come to call on him, he will be a bit more responsive."
Asked about the religious rhetoric of the event, Sanderson says, "This is a group of people of many faiths, but we're not trying to manipulate in the name of God. We're saying that the values we hold demand justice." And Sanderson says that the reason why organizers kept taking the microphone away from Riley and McGinley was that they were expected to simply answer yes or no. He says the public officials would have been given time to explain their positions after all of the questions had been asked.
As for McGinley's claim that she only received the questions a week in advance, Sanderson says all of the public officials were given plenty of prior notice to formulate their responses.
"All of the public officials had those questions in advance, and they have had an opportunity over the course of months and months and months to be vetted on the kinds of things that we're going to ask of them," Sanderson says. "There's no sense of ambush, and if they create that narrative, it's for their own political protection."