LINCOLN – In the space of a 70-minute community problems assembly, Lincoln and Lancaster County’s new justice organization determined its two top priorities, elected officers, selected its name, and announced a Great Plains Conference clergy as its lead organizer.
Justice in Action, the name selected by the 300 people attending the assembly at Eastridge Presbyterian Church — over Justice Coalition and Stronger Together — on Nov. 10, is partially funded by the conference’s $2.1 million Doing Justice Initiative. Of the 21 congregations involved in the first efforts, 12 are United Methodist churches.
Its new officers include the Rev. Kirstie Engel, pastor of Lincoln First UMC, as co-president (succeeding the Rev. Dr. Nancy Tomlinson, Blue River and Elkhorn Valley districts superintendent), and Chuck Hibberd, a member of Lincoln St. Mark’s UMC, as treasurer.
The new organization had its first listening process over five weeks this fall, with 87 house meetings — 47 of which were conducted by United Methodist churches — where 627 people attended. The top-10 list was narrowed by its leaders down to the top three: criminal justice reform, lack of affordable housing, and mental illness.
Presentations were made on each of the subjects, including by Emily Schoenleber, a member of Lincoln South Gate UMC, speaking on criminal justice, saying the problem is rooted in children not going to school. She said prior to COVID, 85 youth in Lincoln Public Schools were considered to have problem truancy, and since the pandemic the number has more than doubled. In nearby Douglas County, 109 youth were problem truants and the number fell by 65% after the pandemic.
“The system is not created to help people but punish people,” said Schoenleber, who works in the Nebraska juvenile services division. “When we punish this behavior, we’re limiting kids’ trajectory.”
The two top priorities voted by the full house at the church were mental illness and criminal justice.
The night concluded with the announcement of the hiring of the Rev. Beth Graverholt, associate pastor of Lincoln Christ UMC and founder of ConnectioN Point, a ministry near the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, both of which she will leave at the end of the month.
Graverholt, who was ordained as an elder in June, said her role as lead organizer, which begins Dec. 1, will be to conduct one-on-one meetings with clergy and laity, help organize larger events, work in fundraising and meet with other organizations in the area striving for the same goals of improving mental health and criminal justice.
“I’m so proud of The United Methodist Church for really bringing this mission to Lincoln and making it possible for us,” she said after the meeting. “It makes me truly proud to be a member of the Great Plains Conference, to call myself a United Methodist.”
The Rev. Sarah Marsh, mercy and justice coordinator for the conference, was among those at the assembly. She said it was “thrilling” that Graverholt agreed to be the lead organizer.
“She is so talented,” Marsh said. “She is a visionary leader, and she has a heart for justice.”
Tomlinson also praised Graverholt’s mission.
“She’s been doing justice work for the district and organizing churches,” Tomlinson said. “That gave us a real head start in this work.”
Marsh also praised Tomlinson’s work in getting the justice group started.
“Nancy Tomlinson led this justice initiative in Lincoln from the beginning,” Marsh said. “She was supportive, she jumped in, she engaged her networks, and she invited and invited pastors to come. And they were responsive. She was brave and courageous, called by God to put her leadership capital into this, and look at the fruits.”
Tomlinson gave credit to the Great Plains initiative.
“The annual conference opened the door for this, providing the funding,” she said. “It enabled us to answer that call to do justice, because the annual conference envisioned possibilities and we just walked into this.”
Justice in Action is the third new organization to be formed under the Doing Justice Initiative, following groups in Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas. Steps are being taken toward justice efforts in Norfolk, Nebraska, and Wichita.
Graverholt said the problems assembly was “electrifying.”
“This is the kind of faith community that I want to be a part of, that I want to give our congregations an opportunity to be a part of, where we’re really working together to try and make a difference in our community,” she said. “This is what we’re here for as Christians, and I’m so excited about it.”
Contact David Burke, content specialist, at email@example.com.