Justice groups in Lincoln, Lawrence advance

David Burke


Nehemiah Assemblies 2023

Nehemiah Assemblies for justice organizations, where priorities are given to needs in communities, action plans are announced, and commitments are presented to government officials, wrapped up May 7 in the Great Plains Conference.  

May 4 was the assembly for the Lincoln-based Justice in Action, and May 7 was Justice Matters’ assembly in Lawrence.  

The groups are partly funded by the Great Plains Conference’s Doing Justice Initiative, and United Methodists from the two states play predominant roles in the organizations.  

Justice in Action 

LINCOLN – More than 1,000 people gathered at the Lancaster Event Center for Justice in Action’s first Nehemiah Assembly. 

Rev. Kirstie Engel, pastor of Lincoln First UMC, is co-president of Justice in Action. Photos by David Burke

Improved mental health treatment and criminal justice reform were the initial two concerns brought by the group, comprised of 19 religious organizations – 10 of them United Methodist churches, including Nebraska Wesleyan University. 

“We want everyone to leave here knowing where our elected officials stand and what can happen next,” said Rev. Kirstie Engel, Lincoln First UMC pastor and co-president of Justice in Action.  

Engel encouraged group members to be vigilant in fighting for their priorities. 

“We didn’t name this group Justice in Words,” she said. “We named it Justice in Action.” 


Mental health treatment 

Lancaster County’s community mental health program was closed in 2014, leaving those who are in need of treatment either uncertain of how to receive it or stuck on a lengthy waiting list. 

“There is no front door for mental health in Lancaster County, and people are falling through the cracks,” committee member Judy Hart said. 

Hart said that 20% of the county’s residents — or about 60,000 people — identify as having depression, anxiety, schizophrenic or bipolar, and that the county’s suicide rate is the highest in 20 years. 

“That’s a statistic that should smack us in the face and punch us in the gut,” she said. 

Wendy Smith, a member of Lincoln Christ UMC, is the mother of a transgender teen and a nonbinary teen, and said she called 20 different providers to find counseling for them. One provider said there would be a two-year wait, and another said the waiting list was so long that new patients weren’t being added. 

“It is beyond frustrating not to be able to find the right care,” she said. 

Smith said she spent hours on the phone trying to find a solution. 

“Right now, we don’t have a mental health care system,” she said. “What we have here is a maze.” 

Christa Yoakum, chair of the Lancaster County Commission, acknowledged the frustration and difficulty in securing treatment. 

“We have wonderful nonprofits doing really, really hard work,” she said. “But it is a tough system to navigate.” 

Lincoln City Councilwoman Sändra Washington said attaining more mental health care won’t only come from the council or the county commission. 

“This is not a government process,” she said. “It won’t just be a government solution.” 

Yoakam, Washington and councilman James Michael Bowers agreed to investigate funding for a mental health navigator system for the county, but Bowers said he was not ready to promise its longevity. 

“Just because it’s in the city budget doesn’t mean it will never be taken out,” he said. 


Criminal justice reform 

Justice in Action proposed that Lancaster County invest in diversion for non-violent criminals rather than jail time, saying jail costs the county $100 per inmate, per day, while diversion costs pennies per day. 

“The problem is that jail is full,” said Rachel Mulcahy, a member of Lincoln New Visions UMC. “It’s full of black and brown people and those with mental health issues. 

“Jail is not a treatment facility,” she added. “We need to invest in rehabilitation.” 

Ed Ostlund, associate pastor at Waverly First UMC, was among the United Methodists represented at the assembly.

Diversion has an 80% success rate in preventing repeat offenders, Mulcahy said, with one-third of prisoners returning to jail. 

Racism is evident in the jail population, she said, as 33% of the inmates are brown or black, compared with 4% of the county population. 

Destinie Commuso told the audience how she had been in jail 15 different times and was never made aware of diversions or rehabilitation and recovery, and that organizations are not working together to improve the system. 

“Nebraska has always been a research-rich but collaboration-poor state,” she said. 

Ed Ostlund, youth and community engagement minister for Waverly First UMC, represented Justice in Action in asking Lancaster County officials to waive the $750 diversion fee and make more people aware that diversion exists. 

“We can restore dignity and worth to our brothers and sisters,” Ostlund said. 

County commissioner Rick Vest said the drug court is in transition since the departure of director Kim Ethington and was uncertain whether her replacement would have diversions and other proposals as a priority. 

“The time is right,” Vest said, after asking for a pledge to budget $100,000 to eliminate diversion fees. “We have a strong county board that’s committed to the things you are. 

“When the time is right the money will be there,” he added. “I promise that.” 

Another proposal from Justice in Action, for an online dashboard with real-time numbers of people in diversion and jail, is already in the works, Vest said. 


Justice Matters 

LAWRENCE -- Justice Matters set its priorities of restorative practices in schools, elder care and ending homelessness. 

“Seeking justice is not an add-on, it’s essential,” Deacon Godsey of Vintage Church in Lawrence told a crowd of 600-plus at the Lied Center at the University of Kansas.  


Restorative practices in schools 

Audience members and those on stage were asked to flash the peace sign for peaceful resolutions to school conflict.

Restorative practices, which is an alternative to suspensions that have a proven record of keeping students from dropping out, already has been in place in Lawrence Public Schools, but Justice Matters said a low number of teachers have been trained in the second and third levels of the program, while every teacher has instruction at the first level. 

Although no representative from Lawrence schools was on the stage, a proposal is being made to the school board to move training in restorative practices from the spring to the fall. Justice Matters’ goal is six to 10 staff in each school trained at higher levels, while the district only has 18 total teachers that have met those criteria so far. 

The school board has been responsive to the requests, said Caitlin Sand, a student at Lawrence High. 

“We were heard,” she said. 


Elder care 

Elder care facilities in Douglas County are understaffed, with wait lists for care raising from 45 people in January 2022 to 65 in April 2023. 

Margie Dyck of Lawrence First Presbyterian Church said 22% of the Douglas County population is 65 and older, with the Baby Boomers likely increasing the number over the next few years. 

“Our grandparents, parents and you deserve more than that,” she said. 

Justice Matters’ elder care committee is working with a workforce development program to increase the training possibilities for those wanting to become certified nursing assistants, certified medication aides and in-home health aides. 

The Kansas Department of Labor is predicting that the state will need 28,000 CNAs, 18,000 registered nurses and 6,000 in-home health aides by 2026 to keep up with the aging population, Dyck said. 

The group received an agreement from the Douglas County Commission Chair Patrick Kelly to facilitate training between the development program and local group Heartland Community Health Center. 



Justice Matters is asking Douglas County leaders to follow through on a five-year program to eliminate homelessness, including compiling a list of names of the homeless, distribute lists of services provided, and develop a one-stop shop for all services provided. 

Rev. Kay Scarbrough, pastor of Lawrence First UMC, gives a summary of Justice Matters' assembly.

“We’re there to meet their needs and objectives, not our own,” said Steve Ozark of Lawrence Trinity Lutheran Church. 

Justice Matters is also asking the county to join 14 other communities in the country in the Built for Zero homelessness elimination program. Johnson County’s Good Faith Network justice group also is working with Built for Zero. 

Giving an update on a previous priority, the audience was told that groups are working with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to reduce the number of failure-to-appear and parole violations in Douglas County, and successfully campaigned against a jail remodeling that would result in more beds. 

“We are about to shift the conversation to life-giving reform,” said Joanna Harader of Peace Mennonite Church. 

Rev. Kay Scarbrough, pastor of Lawrence First UMC, said Justice Matters is making a difference. 

“We want to see peaceful resolutions to conflict,” she said. “Coming together this way is so powerful.” 

Contact David Burke, content specialist, at dburke@greatplainsumc.org.

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