This evening my family attended an IMPACT meeting that filled the John Paul Jones Arena. IMPACT stands for Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together. Quakers, Mennonites, Jews, Presbyterians, Catholics, Muslims, Baptists, Pentecostalists, Unitarians…26 member congregations in all come together once a year to address an issue of social justice in the Charlottesville area in what is known as a “Nehemiah Action,” modeled after the “Great Assembly” described in the book of Nehemiah.

IMPACT is a well-organized grassroots movement that has made a meaningful difference for thousands of the most vulnerable members of our community. Every fall, the group conducts research to study and identify areas of concern. The group identifies a specific issue to address and draws up a practical proposal to solve or alleviate the problem. Congregation members are then mobilized in the kind of numbers that are meaningful to policy-makers, who are also invited to attend the Nehemiah Action.

In the past, IMPACT has addressed issues such as public transportation, health care, and affordable housing. Here are just a few of IMPACT’s success stories:

  • Lobbying for Sunday bus service, night bus service, and the creation of a new bus route between the county office building and low-income neighborhoods.
  • The creation of the Free Dental Clinic, which serves uninsured patients, who had to go without dental care or who had to be seen in emergency rooms
  • The creation of the Healthy Transitions Program, which provides immediate and on-going medication and therapy for people who have recently been released from jail or prison.

This year, the organization targeted two main concerns: homelessness and employment for youth.

  • To address the pressing need of more than 500 children and young people in our community who are currently homeless or on the verge of becoming homeless, IMPACT has proposed the establishment of a coordinated strategy to move people into permanent housing under the leadership of a “Roundtable to Reduce Homelessness.”
  • To address the serious problem of unemployment for young adults, IMPACT has asked the University of Virginia Health System and Martha Jefferson Hospital to sponsor a job-training program that would open the way for thousands of  young adults to enter the workforce, while also providing the hospitals with much-needed skilled workers.

It was inspiring to participate in this assembly of people of many faiths, races, and socio-economic backgrounds, who were all united and committed to social justice not only in words, but in deeds.

Learn more about IMPACT here:

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On Saturday our Helping Hands kids (an after school service group I co-lead) helped transform the Fellowship Hall of Westminster Presbyterian Church into a PACEM homeless shelter:




Many years ago, my children and I took a train trip to Staunton, Virginia. The train goes past the woods behind Farmington Country Club, perhaps the most exclusive neighborhood in Charlottesville. The expansive and luxurious homes here sell for millions of dollars. As I looked out the window, I noticed that there were blue tarps scattered throughout the trees. I was shocked to realize that homeless people were living there. On another occasion, the Helping Hands kids were picking up trash from the nature trail behind our elementary school. From the debris we found, we realized that there must be people living in the woods there as well. The best estimate we have is that there are about 240 homeless people in our community. Another sobering statistic says that there are about 450 children in our area who are either homeless or living in shelters that are unfit for human habitation.

PACEM (People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry) is a grassroots interfaith organization that formed in 2004 to address the problem of homelessness in Charlottesville after members of the clergy reported the common experience of finding homeless individuals sleeping in the doorways of their churches. PACEM coordinates volunteers and space (mostly in churches and temples) for a rotating shelter that operates in the colder months when homeless individuals are most vulnerable. From late October to early April, homeless men and women come to an intake center on the Downtown Mall. From there they are transported to separate shelters (one for men and one for women), where they receive a warm dinner and a bed for the night. In the morning they are served breakfast and are transported back to the Downtown Mall.

My family has learned a lot from volunteering with PACEM over the years. I had always assumed, for example, that the homeless were also jobless. I was surprised to learn that many of the PACEM guests do in fact have jobs. Many of them work physically demanding construction jobs. Recently, I also learned that there are young PACEM guests, who are students in one of our local public high schools. The very first year we helped with PACEM, my oldest son was about seven or eight years old. One evening we helped cook and serve dinner. The staff gave him the special job of loading up a dinner plate for a guest who used a walker and would have found it hard to go through the cafeteria-style line. My son delivered his plate to him at his table and then sat down to chat with him for a few minutes. I remained in the kitchen serving up food to the other guests. My son ran back to find me in the kitchen, and said excitedly, “Guess what?! He speaks English, just like us and he was really, really nice!” In that moment I realized how valuable this program is, not only for the homeless individuals it serves, but for the volunteers who see the human face of homelessness.

To learn more about PACEM and how you can help, please click here.

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