By Tim Lilley
The Message editor
For the second consecutive year, Congregations Acting for Justice and Empowerment held its signature event, the Nehemiah Action, as a virtual gathering using Zoom and Facebook Live. CAJE officials noted that more than 900 had registered to be a part of the May 10 online session.
CAJE Board Member Rev. Brian Buschkill, pastor of St. Peter’s (Highland) United Church of Christ, welcomed all and discussed CAJE’s 18-year history of following the biblical model of social justice that Nehemiah practiced.
Rev. Buschkill said, “We identify injustices in the community and demand action.” He also noted a sentence from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s renowned Letter from Birmingham Jail, quoting the civil rights legend as writing, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
Before getting into a series of reports from CAJE committees and requesting commitments from civic leaders in a number of areas, the organization recognized and saluted two of its founding members – Rev. Joe Easley, who has relocated to California, and All Saints Parish Administrator Father Jay Davidson. Several speakers heralded their leadership and guidance of CAJE from its beginnings to today.
For ease of reporting, we note here that community officials mentioned throughout this story agreed to attend CAJE’s Nov. 15 Community Problems Assembly to provide updates as appropriate.
Committee reports and requests
CAJE’s Safe Neighborhood Committee offered the event’s first report, noting that the City of Evansville has already committed to a two-year, $380,000 partnership with the National Network for Safe Communities. Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke agreed to appoint a member of CAJE to serve on the local Gun Violence Intervention Team, and he announced that CAJE co-chair Pam Decker is his appointee.
The committee working on the development of an Evansville Diversion Care Center to serve those who experience mental-health issues that require first-responder intervention provided an update on plans for the center, which will be coordinated through United Caring Services. In response to CAJE’s requests, Mayor Winnecke and Vanderburgh County Commissioner Jeff Hatfield each agreed to seek $300,000 per year in 2021 and 2022 to fund the center. Hatfield said, “I support efforts at every level we can get passed by the County Commission and County Council.” County Councilors participating also agreed to support the funding request.
Hatfield added, “We need to do more to help the people who need the most help.”
Another group CAJE has focused on in recent years are those with dual diagnoses of autism and mental illness. Dr. Emma Nicholls of the Easterseals Rehabilitation Center agreed to serve on a Dual Diagnosis Task Force developed by a coalition that CAJE is a part of. Speakers during the Nehemiah Action also emphasized that they would continue efforts to engage the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation to get involved with the task force.
The final report focused on affordable housing in Vanderburgh and Warrick counties. CAJE’s main thrust centered on increased funding for the Evansville Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Although Mayor Winnecke would not commit to specific numbers, he agreed to recommend “seven-figure funding” for the trust fund in 2021 and 2022. He said he expected to be able to provide specific numbers at the Community Problems Assembly in November.
City Council members Zach Heronemus, Kaitlin Moore Morely and Stephanie Terry expressed their support for the funding. Councilman Justin Elpers said he would not be ready to make a commitment until he had a chance to review all of the funding requests the city receives.
In closing the virtual Nehemiah Action, Rev. Kevin Fleming of Evansville’s First Presbyterian Church said, “It’s been a great evening for Evansville and surrounding communities.” He also talked about the major impacts that an operating Diversion Care Center will have, and how more affordable housing is critical. He said, “We will continue to intercede for our neighbors who struggle to make ends meet.”