The Ecumenical Ministries office on Fairhope Avenue may be small but it produces the mightiest of work.
And for 25 years the office has been the hub for its social justice initiative, ACT II, an organization quietly making deliberate steps of great change for Baldwin County to the tune of more than $50 million in impact.
From paving dirt roads to ensuring clean water for citizens, lobbying for sidewalks to restoring homes in dire need of repair, this faithful group of faith-filled members has courageously tackled justice issues in their own backyards.
Since 1992, Dan Hanson has led the group step by step through a model created by the PICO Network, a national faith-based group in which congregations of all denominations and faiths serve as the institutional base for community organizations. Early on in the process, Hanson enlisted the help of Bishop Manuel Watson of the Bromley community.
“He was interested but didn’t want to step on other clergy toes, and he wasn’t even sure about me so he asked me to go and talk to other clergy in Bromley,” Hanson said. For two months Hanson worked to engage other clergy in Bromley and for two months he was rebuffed.
“While everybody talked a good talk, we just couldn’t get good follow-through,” Hanson said. “I was talking to Bishop and he finally just stood up and said ‘Somebody’s got to do it and if the church doesn’t, then who will?’”
Watson remembers well when Hanson returned to him and even better when they finally convinced six clergy members to sit down for a conversation.
“We finally got together and started talking,” Watson said. “We were meeting at different churches in our area - Catholic, Baptist, Holiness, Full Gospel, Presbyterian - we were all meeting there in different churches. That’s how we came up with the name All Churches Together.”
“Our model works community justice through faith,” Hanson said.
It’s a model that has served the group well. The interdenominational and non-partisan members use their faith to help their fellow neighbors seek justice for the issues that matter most to them.
“When you begin a group, you train people to do one-on-one visits,” said Michelle Kurtz, Community Development officer at Ecumenical Ministries. “Then you come together twice a month. We make a graph, list the issues and after about three to six months what happens is you start hearing the same things over and over again and you know you’ve probably done enough interviews.”
The one-on-ones empower and equip ACT II to do work for their fellow citizens.
“Talking to so many people is what gives you the right to say what people want,” Hanson said. “We as an organization have talked to the community, when we say this is what the community wants it comes from all of our research and you can prove it.”
After the one-on-one interviews are completed and the most pressing issues from the community have risen to the top, action meetings are held.
“When it’s time to pick an issue, we invite everyone who participated in the one-on-ones to the meeting where we review the issues that have been talked about,” Kurtz said. “We don’t fight it out, we don’t listen to the person with the loudest voice. We ask what would Jesus do. And not just that, also some very pragmatic things like how many people are affected, is it tangible, if we worked on this issue would people actually see a difference.”
This community-driven process is key for the model.
“Community leaders are the top, but if you really want to do good democratic stuff you want the people in your community to tell you what they want,” he said. “Sometimes the leaders tell you right, sometimes the leaders tell you wrong. The question is what do the people really want.”
Through 25 years, and lots of trial and error, it has gotten better. And though ACT II is no longer a member of the PICO Network, both Watson and Hanson credit that rock-solid model and the faith of those practicing it for the success.
It’s also helpful that the ACT II model is the only one of its kind in the region.
“There are some groups that don’t really have that kind of aggressive training and that national expertise; it’s one of the things that kind of makes us unique in this area,” Hanson said. “Since much of what we do is based on their model, there are other organizations around the country that do what we do, but we’re unique in this area.”
Across all aisles, the group has a simple goal: to make systemic change in communities and to remain faith-based.
“It’s important that it be faith-based,” Watson said. “If we want to get something done we have to make sure the Lord is involved in it. We can’t do anything without the Lord. We want to make sure what we do is right.”
One of the criteria for selecting an issue is what the spiritual ramifications are on a community, and organizers genuinely want to make sure that God is first in their processes.
“One way to see a church is that it is a tightly organized organism that can do the work for you; you have people who’ve already agreed to what their values are,” Kurtz said. “The second thing is called instrumentalizing the church, talking to people about doing the right thing but not talking about their faith in a genuine way. The organizer has totally different presuppositions and is not even tapping into the real reality, which is the spiritual reality. We’re all fallen and we all need the forgiveness that comes from Christ. What good does it do if Joe Schmoe says he forgives me? It comes from Christ. Other organizers don’t do that.”
The longevity of the organization is due, in part, to staff along with a group of committed volunteers.
“We don’t build our leadership around a specific issue,” Hanson said. “The issue is always the healthiness of the community. That’s why being church-based is so important, people kind of naturally think that way there. We’re about healthiness and justice in our community.”
For Watson, the first clergy member to say “yes” to ACT II, the hard work is worth it.
“I love seeing things being done in our community to make it a better place to live,” said Watson. “We want our community, and this county, to be the best in Alabama.”