Last night, approximately 3100 people gathered at Tropicana Field for the annual Spring Nehemiah Conference of FAST (the acronym for “Faith and Action for Strength Together.”)
FAST and the Nehemiah Conference are no strangers to this blog as I have written about them now almost yearly. Each year I am strengthened by the growing participation of the various church and synagogue communities which belong to FAST, by the dramatic increase in attendance by committed congregants, and by the growing political maturity of both the organization and the elected representatives they invite to come and participate.
Once again this year, they asked me to open with Nehemiah Conference with a prayer and I want to include it here because I hope it set the proper tone for the evening. By the way, accountability and transparency mandate that I share with you that I am not the author of the prayer, Father John Tapp of Holy Family parish composed it for me, but I embraced it fully:
Father of Mercy, Father of Justice,
we thank you for gathering us together this evening
for our 10th Nehemiah Action Assembly in Pinellas County.
In the spirit of your prophet Nehemiah,
we assemble here this evening
because we have listened to and heard the cry of those most in need.
We come from different backgrounds, religions, and ethnic traditions,
but you have joined us together as one,
working as one,
so that YOUR justice may rain down upon the earth
and guide the hearts and minds of those who lead us.
In this time when our Jewish sisters and brothers anticipate
the great feast of Passover,
we think of Moses demanding that Pharaoh “Let my people go.”
We think of the new life won for your Chosen People,
the journey from slavery to freedom,
from scarcity to abundance,
because of his selfless dedication to the Lord and his people.
Give us that same spirit this evening.
May our focus be on your people – especially those most in need.
May we constantly commit ourselves to the good work of justice.
May our efforts be mighty and fruitful.
As we celebrate Passover as a perpetual institution,
May we continuously work for greater justice in our world.
We also find ourselves in this holy season of Lent – a time of
prayer, fasting and giving alms.
During this time, we remember the words of the prophet
“THIS is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound
unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free
the oppressed, breaking every yoke.”
Give us the grace, the courage, the persistence, the wisdom
to do this great and holy work.
May we always be aware, that what we do for others,
we do for you.
May our quest for justice in Pinellas County
serve to build up your Kingdom in our midst.
And may those who see our work give glory to you, our living
and true God.
We offer this humble prayer in faith,
confident that you hear us and help us,
giving us what we need – today and at every moment.
And let us all cry out together: AMEN!
This year, FAST chose three areas of concentration and I wonder what person of sound mind could object to any of the three.
First, a note that last year the City of St. Petersburg committed to requiring that any city funded construction contract in excess of $700,000 would only be awarded to contractors binding themselves to hire local labor, which includes people who have committed felonies in the past but have reformed their lives in the present. Now, again, in the interest of honesty, I have to admit that because of our SAFE ENVIRONMENT PROGRAM put in place to protect children, this diocese and its entities can not hire or allow to volunteer anyone convicted of having committed a felony. I regret this but understand it, hoping that some day we can move beyond it.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman was unable to be present but his deputy mayor was present and indicated that the Mayor would like to expand the commitment to construction projects well below the $700,000 threshold. That was a YES even though the exact threshold amount could not be identified last night.
The second area of concentration focused on youth arrest for less serious crimes. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and State Attorney Bernie McCabe were asked if they would work to implement a program which would direct first-time offenders for less serious crimes away from jail time and toward programs of changing behavior leading to non-repeat. Florida, by the way, arrests and places in jail more youth that any other state in the union, many for crimes which, while felonious, are by their nature less serious than others.
Both men affirmed their intention to use alternate forms of punishment short of incarceration for such crimes and McCabe passed the proverbial football right back into the laps of the attendees saying that the communities’ best interests were best served when the whole community works together to see that youth and law enforcement never meet. Another YES recorded to the delight and satisfaction of those in attendance.
The third and final issue of the evening was addressed to the Pinellas County Commission which had four of its members in attendance. This issue concerned making dental care available to the indigent and poor and a story was related by a member church of a woman who died because she was unable to access care for a dental abcess. The request made of the commissioners was to use $5.9 million dollars of the projected county surplus (due to an improved economy and rise in taxes and assessment revenues) which is currently estimated to be about $20 million for this fiscal year to give access to no-cost dental coverage for the truly indigent. All four commissioners promised their support but one noted that the spurplis predicted needed to be attained before a final number for the program could be agreed to. The assembled took these responses as another YES.
As the Catholic bishop for this area, I am proud of the achievements of FAST and its Hillsborough counterpart HOPE which is holding its annual conference tonight (I am with the Franciscan fathers this evening for Mass at St. Joseph in south St. Petersburg and then dinner with Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiga who is their guest for a chapter meeting so I am unable to attend). But I swell with pride when I see my pastors and associates sitting either on the dais or with their people in the crowd.
And I am even prouder of the Catholic participation in FAST which is substantial. To those priests and parishes which have not yet chosen to participate, I simply remind them that FAST is a good way to reach out to Pope Francis’ “peripheries” and bring Christ to the desperate poor. The elected officials are learning how to handle FAST better than some of our own people.
A great night at the TROP and as Father John Gerth, who summarized the results said at the end of the evening, a “grand slam” had taken place on the Trop’s outfield.
Congratulations, FAST, and good luck tonight, HOPE.