Several Lawrence congregations have joined to tackle the community's most prevalent social injustices.
Members of the interfaith council, still in its infancy, hope to address the root causes of social problems such as poverty, illness and crime to prevent them from festering.
"We're not talking about immediate needs," said the Rev. Rob Baldwin of Trinity Episcopal Church. "In Lawrence, we already have a great homeless shelter, great food pantries, a great domestic violence shelter. The idea is to go up the river a bit, where we can mobilize and affect systemic change."
Centenary United Methodist
First United Methodist
Good Shepherd Lutheran
Lawrence Islamic Center
Lawrence Indian United Methodist
Morning Star Christian
The Salvation Army
St. Margaret Episcopal
St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal
About 160 leaders from nearly two dozen congregations, from Baptist to Muslim to Mennonite, met over the weekend for an orientation on the new organization and to begin setting goals. While the group intends to identify the specific issues it will try to address later this year, its leaders hope to build an organization that is sustainable for the long-term.
"Really what's being built in Lawrence is a vehicle for religious congregations to continuously work on whatever problems they identify in the community," said Ben MacConnell, who does congregation-based community organizing for the Direct Action and Research Training Center in Lawrence, or DART. "They'll work on something then retire it then work on something else."
MacConnell has been involved in similar organizations around the country that have, for example, helped pass legislation to curb predatory payday lending, implement phonics-based reading at low-performing schools, and give drug offenders the option of treatment over jail. "Each city works to identify its own local problems, researches them and looks for best practices that have worked in other cities," he said.
The idea was hatched when a pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church, Gary Teske, approached MacConnell to find out more about DART. Teske, who has since retired, reached out to fellow clergy members, and about three dozen of them showed up for a preliminary meeting last fall.
Another goal behind the group is for local churches to coalesce around the issues they have in common rather than being divided by theological differences.
"This brings us all together regardless of what religion we are or what denomination we represent," said the Rev. Verdell Taylor of St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church. "We're all created beings. We are all created by God. We want to make sure that all people are able to come to the table and be treated fairly."