Monday night's annual gathering of Toledoans United for Social Action had all the makings of an interfaith revival, but — once again — stood out more as an example of democracy in action.
Black, white, Hispanic, Catholic, Baptist, young, old, nimble, and disabled — 1,250 people from all walks of life and from 24 congregations met at Friendship Baptist Church on Nebraska Avenue for their “Nehemiah Action” style of fellowship, one in which those in the faith-based community seek to hold public officials accountable to their word.
Nehemiah was a biblical prophet who led the Israelites to rebuild Jerusalem. TUSA said it is likewise hoping to rebuild Toledo.
“We come tonight not to criticize, not to gripe, not even to place blame,” the Rev. Gerry Chmiel of St. John the Baptist and St. Michael the Archangel churches, said when laying out the evening's ground rules. “We come here tonight to look for solutions and think we can win, because we have people power.”
The group's strength in numbers was displayed before the event began. Every parking spot and then some in the parking lot was filled; every pew seat in the sanctuary had someone in it. Many people stood.
Father Chmiel reminded those in attendance to remain dignified and show respect to their guests while the group put hard questions before them.
There were no questions from the floor. The group said it had done months of research in committee. Father Chmiel said it was determined to act with one voice as “a body, a unified force,” and to do what Jesus had commanded each of them to do individually: Stand up for justice.
Monday night's discussion could have veered off in many directions, with Toledo's economy in shambles. The latest U.S. Census figures show one of every four city residents are now living below the poverty line, the nation's eighth worst ranking among major metropolitan areas.
But the interfaith group, which calls itself TUSA for short, kept it simple.
Crime and education were its two focal points for guests that included Lucas County Sheriff James Telb, Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak, and Toledo City Councilman Joe McNamara.
One of TUSA's speakers, Clarence Cooper of Wesley United Methodist Church, said he was astounded to learn that more than 8,000 area homes — 1 of every 15 — were burglarized in 2009, a 20 percent increase over 2008.
“This is infuriating,” he said. “We deserve to feel safe in our homes and our community.”
The group identified the “revolving door” of substance abuse as the root of the problem, claiming the system has not done enough to keep people off drugs and alcohol.
“Evil exists in our city today. It exists in the form of crime and drugs,” the Rev. Otis Gordon of Warren African Methodist Episcopal church, said. “Like a cancer, it is destroying our city. If not controlled, it will become a scourge that destroys us all.”
The group got commitments from Mr. Telb and Ms. Wozniak to help arrange for a tour of a Cuyahoga County re-entry program it sees as a model.
The sheriff also pledged to step up efforts to screen inmates who could benefit from such a program should a similar one be developed in Lucas County.
As for schools, TUSA raised concerns about the disciplinary actions of Toledo Public Schools, which resulted in 6,000 students being suspended and missing 47,000 days in 2008, and 5,020 being suspended and missing 38,648 days last year.
TUSA officials said those figures are excessive. While recognizing the need for orderly classrooms, they questioned how else students could be disciplined without losing instructional time. Those who fall behind are more likely to drop out and resort to a hard life on the streets, they said.
They lauded Ms. Skeldon Wozniak and Mr. McNamara for following through on their 2009 commitments to enhance job-training programs. For Ms. Skeldon Wozniak, that included a commitment to spend $1 million of the Workforce Investment Act funding on green jobs training.
The school board declined to send anybody in an official capacity to address TUSA's latest concerns, said the Rev. James Willis of St. Paul Baptist Church. Mr. Willis recognized one school board member, Larry Sykes, for attending on his own accord.
Founded in 1992, TUSA represents more than 19,000 people in Lucas County.
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