Nehemiah Assemblies for justice organizations, where priorities are given to needs in the community, action plans are announced, and commitments are presented to government officials, are underway in the Great Plains Conference.
May 1 saw meetings for the Topeka Justice Unity and Ministry Project, or JUMP, and Churches United for Justice in Kansas City, Kansas. May 2 was the Good Faith Network of Johnson County assembly at Resurrection, a United Methodist Church, at its Leawood campus. May 4 is the assembly for the Lincoln-based Justice in Action, and May 7 is 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.
Here’s a look at two of the assemblies:
In its 10th Nehemiah Assembly, organizers prioritized changes in predatory lending practices, affordable housing and responding to mental health needs as its priorities.
“Tonight, we seek to exercise people power,” said Rev. Dr. Nathan Marsh, pastor of Topeka First Baptist Church, told a crowd of about 1,000 at Washburn University’s Lee Arena. “Each of you are here to take action. You are not a bystander.”
Rev. Dr. Annie Ricker, pastor of Berryton and Big Springs UMCs, has shared her own story of payday loan difficulties and addressed the predatory lending issue at the assembly.
“The way we defeat a predator is by overpowering it,” she said.
JUMP is asking for a reasonable cap on interest rates, a required option for installment payments, and limited initial fees that are based on income.
Ricker said the average interest rate on payday loans is 391%.
She said measures similar to those proposed took place in Ohio, where interest rates dropped from 591% to 130%, and loan fees were reduced from $600 to $112 for a $400 loan.
“Ohio payday loan borrowers are no longer caught up in a cycle of debt,” Ricker said.
The bill did not get a hearing in the Kansas Legislature this year, so progress is stalled until 2024. Ricker encouraged those attending the rally to contact their representatives on the first of the month, every month, to push for loan reform.
Those with moderate incomes are increasingly having to choose between safe housing and affordable housing, said Morgan Bandy, a pastor at New Hope & Love Community Church in Topeka.
An amputee, Bandy said she has had several falls going to and from her walk-up third floor apartment, which smelled of tear gas from the previous resident.
“We have to choose between affordable and accessible,” she said.
Topeka, she said, has 15,000 individuals who make $40,000 a year or less, and 4,825 affordable housing units available to them.
An affordable housing trust fund, established by the city, had stalled but was given $256,261 by the Topeka City Council in April to put the fund over the $1 million mark.
A similar trust fund is in place in Lawrence, said Melissa Weikel, a JUMP board member, which has resulted in 645 new, affordable rental units in the past few years.
“They can see that it works,” she said.
“Topeka used to be on the cutting edge of mental health,” said Melodene Byrd, minister with El Shaddai Ministries, until the 1997 closing of the Topeka State Hospital and the 2003 move of the Menninger Clinic to Houston.
The suicide rate in Topeka has risen 65% from 2020 to ’21, she added, and Kansas was ranked last in the country in access to mental health services.
“The tide is turning,” Byrd said. “Our leaders are listening.”
Anne Abbo, a member of Topeka Lowman UMC and a 23-year veteran of working in mental health, relayed the story of a couple with a bipolar husband and a wife so stressed by his destructive behavior that it caused her a heart attack. The wife unsuccessfully tried to find a mental health facility for him.
“It is not right that someone has to jump through so many hoops just to give a loved one treatment,” Abbo said.
Bill Persinger, CEO of Topeka-based Valeo Behavioral Health, and Andy Brown, commissioner of behavioral health for the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, delivered good news to the rally.
Persinger said there would be increased room available at a crisis residential center, and Brown promised funding of up to $3 million to increase the number of crisis intervention certified beds in Shawnee County.
“The state stands ready to support CIC beds here in Topeka,” Brown said, adding that crisis services would be added in Topeka through the 988 phone line, and that mobile crisis intervention facilities would become available.
“Topeka is on the proactive path for mental health problems instead of reactive,” Byrd said.
Remaining a priority, although not addressed on stage, is reducing violence. It was addressed last year, but “due to leadership issues and a lack of community follow-through, it just didn’t happen,” Marsh said.
In the first four months of 2023, Marsh added, there were 16 homicides in Topeka. The total number of homicides in the city last year was 18.
LEAWOOD – The Rev. Cheryl Jefferson Bell, community justice pastor at Resurrection, a United Methodist Church, and co-vice chair of the Johnson County-based Good Faith Network, set the expectations for the second Nehemiah Assembly for the group.
“We are looking for a breakthrough,” Bell said in her introduction in Resurrection’s Leawood sanctuary.
And breakthroughs happened, with commitments in various degrees to mental health crisis care, ending homelessness, and creating affordable housing.
The largest county in Kansas, Johnson, has no crisis stabilization centers in its borders, Good Faith committee members said, while the second through sixth counties – Sedgwick, Shawnee, Wyandotte, Douglas and Leavenworth – do.
“We’ve needed it for a long time,” said Kelly Jackson, executive director of the Johnson County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
A crisis stabilization center would provide short-term stays of 24-72 hours for those in a mental health crisis, with access and availability for first responders.
Andy Brown, commissioner of behavioral health for the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, said that to meet federal criteria for funding, a county would need to have use of the 988 suicide hotline, a crisis team and a crisis stabilization unit.
Mike Kelly, chairman of the Johnson County Commission, was asked by Good Faith to place an action item on the board agenda to initiate expansion of mental health services in the county.
He agreed it was a worthy goal – “As much as I want to write a check to you this evening, I would” – but that he was one of seven commissioners and couldn’t guarantee its passage. He did say that the county increased its mental health staff by 21 employees in 2022.
Johnson County is the wealthiest county in the state, said Good Faith board member Carla Oppenheimer, but numbers 212 homeless and “there are so many that go uncounted.”
Good Faith proposes that Johnson County joins 14 other communities across the country in a plan called Functional Zero, eliminating homelessness.
A representative from one of those communities, in Bergen County, New Jersey, spoke via video and said her area is similar to Johnson County, an affluent county adjoining a larger metropolis, in their case New York City.
“We need a plan and a driver,” Oppenheimer said.
Brown said his department could provide $2 million in training for staff and hire a Functional Zero coordinator for three years.
Kelly said county staff would need to research and prepare the proposal before asking for the state funds as well as ensure its longevity.
“We don’t want this to be a flash in the plan,” he said. “We want this to be something that sticks.”
From 2017 to 2021, the average home prices in Johnson County increased by 37%.
“Some of us can afford to live here and some of us can’t,” said Hannah Jeffrey, a Good Faith board member.
The median rent in the county is $1,214 and median mortgage is $1,912. Good Faith figures say 93,000 residents of the county are considered low-income, and 19% of homeowners and 40% of renters say they’re paying more than they can afford.
Good Faith is proposing affordable housing trust funds, a sustainable source of funding for development and preservation of affordable housing.
Wichita, the group said, used $5 million in COVID funds to develop a trust fund. Richmond, Virginia, and St. Louis each used $20 million. Kansas City, Missouri, created one using $12.5 million.
Johnson County, Good Faith says, has more than $32 million in unencumbered funds. It proposed taking $10 million from COVID recovery funds to create a trust fund.
When asked if he would bring it before the county commission before the end of the year, Kelly said he couldn’t guarantee it, but he would make an attempt. He also encouraged the 1,200 people who attended to make their wishes and views known by attending the weekly county commission meetings.
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