While the media loves to cover eccentric types of Christianity (the recent coverage of the May 21 Doomsday prophecies standing as a chief example), more typical Christians who work to make a positive change in the world can sometimes be overlooked. One group in Pinellas County that has sought to bring Christians together to help those around them has been FAST (Faith and Action for Strength Together), an organization that trains and mobilizes Christians and congregations to address local issues. Founded in 2004 and a part of the DART (Direct Action and Research Training Center) network, FAST now encompasses 37 congregations, including representatives from the Jewish and Islamic communities and members of Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Baptist, A.M.E., and Methodist denominations.
FAST began out of both spiritual and practical concerns. In terms of faith, FAST leaders have been particularly inspired by Biblical passages such as Micah 6:8 (What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God) and the example of Nehemiah in Nehemiah 5:1-13 where he successfully brings together a “great assembly” to protest unfair seizures of land and overly high interest rates. Rev. Manuel Sykes, one of the founding members of FAST and pastor at Bethel Community Baptist (as well as the current head of the St. Petersburg NAACP branch) notes that FAST believes that the Church needs to be an advocate of justice, as well as a place of mercy to bring about long-term benefits. On a practical level, Rev. Willie McClendon Jr., minister at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church and another founder of FAST, observes that, “There is power in numbers. Politicians look at it in terms of (potential) votes.”
FAST operates both as a total unit and through the work of the individual congregations. The faith communities are expected to recruit a core group of members to carry out such missions as researching issues and communicating with local authorities, while also attracting other people to assist. FAST holds four yearly meetings where top issues are chosen that the group will work on, while affiliated pastors meet once a month for fellowship and to report on progress. FAST also holds yearly rallies to ensure mass support for their goals with the latest, the April 11, 2011 Nehemiah Action Assembly, attracting 2,800 people.
Since its inception, FAST can point to a number of achievements. Perhaps their biggest success was in their campaign for affordable housing where a nineteen-million dollar trust fund was set aside. FAST also contributed to the creation of a one-stop hotline for thousands of seniors seeking help with transportation issues. In the area of education, another key concern, they helped convince the Pinellas Early Learning Coalition to expand the Pre-Kindergarten program to a full day from the previous half day for low-income children. An additional accomplishment was the enactment of a disciplinary program for Pinellas County schools designed to lower suspensions.
With budget cuts looming across Florida and the state’s dire economic and housing problems, FAST is currently working harder than ever towards new goals. Issues addressed at the latest Nehemiah rally included reducing foreclosures, working to reinstate a program called Smart Choices designed to reduce re-arrests among prisoners, increasing job training, requiring the hiring of at least 50% local workers by incoming businesses getting tax breaks or city contracts, and improving reading skills in local schools.
FAST has faced obstacles in the past, from communicating with and convincing local officials to persuading some reluctant congregations that the organization is, as McClendon puts it, “Biblical and not political.” However, FAST looks forward to its future. Sykes hopes to expand the scope of the group to encompass state and global problems, while still pressing forward with local issues. The group also has the aim of attracting 10,000 people to their Nehemiah rally by the year 2020. Whatever the future brings, FAST will abide by its beliefs that great things can happen when people of faith work together.