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In Wichita, a remarkable community gathering showed a path forward on challenging issues

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In Wichita, a remarkable community gathering showed a path forward on challenging issues

May 21, 2024 | 4:33 am ET
By Russell Arben Fox
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In Wichita, a remarkable community gathering showed a path forward on challenging issues
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Leaders and community members in Wichita convened this month to address mental health and homelessness. (Getty Images)

On May 9, something remarkable happened in Wichita, similar to other remarkable things that have happened in Lawrence, Topeka and elsewhere across Kansas in recent years.

At the Century II building in downtown Wichita, elected and agency leaders — Wichita Mayor Lily Wu, Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Ryan Baty, the managers of both Wichita and Sedgwick County, along with leading representatives from COMCARE and the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services — stood in front of more than 1,300 people and committed to take specific local policy actions to address homelessness and mental health crises.

At least one of the commitments they made, supporting the creation of a municipal “Air Capital” ID card, will be controversial. It may already be in the process of being walked back slightly by Wu. Still, you don’t often see such public support for social justice actions from city and county leaders in Kansas. Applause — and encouragement — for those who brought them to the stage is much deserved.

The group that brought them together and laid out the commitments is called Justice Together, a group I’m proud to have been a participant in from the beginning, though I play no organizational role. In early 2023, Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone, a friend and occasional interlocutor from the Ahavath Achim Congregation here in Wichita, told me about an interfaith group coming together to move social justice issues forward.

At the first meeting, I was gratified to find Louis Goseland, a Wichita-born community organizer I remembered from Sunflower Community Action and other justice-related groups from more than a decade before. He was back in Wichita as a regional coordinator from the Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART), an umbrella organization that has been working with church congregations and other community associations to apply the best lessons of religious activism to motivate members towards social justice goals.

DART began in Florida in 1982, working primarily with church ministries that served the interests of senior citizens. Since that time, it been able to help build over 30 additional interfaith movements across the country, including several here in Kansas. DART was instrumental in the formation of Justice Matters in Lawrence, which has raised millions of dollars for a locally managed Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and JUMP (Justice, Unity, and Ministry Project) in Topeka, which is working to bring a mental health crisis intervention program to Shawnee County.

Similar interfaith organizations, representing dozens of churches and faith-related groups, have been formed with the assistance of DART in Wyandotte and Johnson counties.

In Wichita, Justice Together includes nearly 40 denominations — mostly mainline Protestant, but with Catholic, Mennonite, Unitarian, Baha’i and Jewish synagogues included as well. Over the past 14 months, they have worked through their church groups to develop specific plans to assist those struggling with mental health (funding to provide free bus passes for those in crisis and to pay for 24/7 on-call psychiatric help) and homelessness (sustainable funding plans for an integrated agency center and the aforementioned municipal IDs).

It is those plans they asked local leaders to support, and which all committed to do so.

This is DART’s method, one that they’ve adapted from the history of activism in so many churches, as well as directly from the history of civil protest. Months of research, parishioner outreach, and consensus-building culminates in what they call a “Nehemiah assembly,” an idea taken directly from chapter five of the Bible’s book of Nehemiah. In Nehemiah 5:12, the prophet Nehemiah, having heard the cries of the people for justice, presented their pleas to the nobles, rulers and priests, and “took an oath of them to do as they had promised.”

Justice Together’s strategy, following that of similar church-based DART organizations across the country, isn’t directly confrontational. Its goal is explicitly not to generate walks-outs or protests. But it does aim to generate tension. Make a well-researched and achievable case, and then publicly, in front of hundreds of newly activated religious citizens (the great majority of whom are registered and informed voters) demand action.

This is the tension central to the Rev. Martin Luther King’s position, which Justice Together explicitly cites: Raise just enough heat that “a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

It’s true that most of the plans Justice Together developed don’t involve structural change. Their call for more free bus passes for those with mental health needs, more staffing for on-call psychiatric assistance and a sustainable budget plan for a Multi-Agency Center to gather resources for homeless individuals are all needed and important, but they’re not radical. In fact, nearly all of these involve projects that the city of Wichita, or the county or COMCARE already have in front of them.

But the fact that Justice Together managed to elicit public support for a free municipal ID program? That is a genuinely transformative step.

Having a reliable form of ID is desperately needed by many in recovery or on the streets when it comes to accessing welfare, getting housing, applying for jobs, and so much more. And it is also something that Republican leaders in Topeka have repeatedly attacked as a backdoor to legalization for undocumented immigrants, leaving aside the complication that access to state services often depends on a simple form of reliable identification.

Wyandotte County introduced municipal IDs in 2022, and former Wichita mayor Brandon Whipple had pushed for his city to do the same. Both such efforts, as well as those being contemplated by other cities seeking to address this genuine need on behalf of their poorer and unhoused residents, were knee-capped by the Republican majority in the Legislature, leaving this small but crucial reform very much in limbo.

Wu’s comments after the commitment-making assembly, in which she said her affirmation “was really a commitment that we will sit together between (the) city and county to talk about this,” reflects the political disagreements which lay ahead.

Thus, a real test confronts Justice Together: Will the movement find a way to publicly hold city and county leaders accountable? Will they be able to push the negotiations that will have to take place so the municipal ID goal doesn’t get killed by leaders fearful of blowback from ideologues? Time, as always, will tell. The group’s mere existence reminds us of the long history in America of people of faith organizing on behalf of specific social justice actions.

To me, its presence here in Wichita is a blessing in itself.

Russell Arben Fox teaches politics at Friends University in Wichita. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.