Photo courtesy of the Post and Courier.
A rabbi, minister and pastor walk into a room. I know what you’re thinking: it sounds like the set up for a joke that you’ve probably heard before. But, while sitting in the pews of the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church this past November, the feeling in the air was far from humorous – it felt holy. For on that chilly November night, over 600 people from across the Charleston area gathered to talk about social justice as a part of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry’s Community Problems Assembly. The Charleston Area Justice Ministry, or CAJM, is a network of congregations throughout the greater Charleston area that strives to embrace religious and cultural diversity while making tangible changes in the community at large. One of the CAJM Co-Presidents, Rabbi Stephanie Alexander, says that the organization’s vision is the “make Charleston a more equitable and just community year by year.”
Each year, CAJM selects a problem area to focus their efforts on in what they call a “justice cycle.” A number of problem areas are discussed at a meeting called the Team Assembly and narrowed down to three specific focuses. At the Community Problems Assembly, one area is selected for the justice cycle. In years past, CAJM encouraged the increased availability of early childhood education programs and worked to see a decrease in juvenile incarcerations and detentions. The organization also has worked to increase the amount of wages low income workers take home for their work. This year, members of the interfaith network chose between focusing on affordable housing, public transportation, and racial discrimination. After hearing from network members affected by each issue, each congregation voted as a whole for which issue they would like to focus on for the 2016 justice cycle. The choice was overwhelmingly clear. The Charleston Area Justice Ministry decided to address racial discrimination this cycle. This issue encompasses several other problem areas, including transportation and racial profiling, that all contribute to a desire for equal justice under the law.
In the aftermath of the shooting that happened at the Mother Emanuel AME Church last June, CAJM’s new focus on ending racial discrimination could not come at a more appropriate time. Now, more than ever, the Charleston faith community is facing the effects of race in our city, from the way police interact with everyday citizens to the unequal opportunities that are omnipresent throughout our school system. Rabbi Alexander is adamant that “until we (as a community) tackle the issue of racial justice head on, our work can only go so deep and the changes we make won’t ultimately be sustainable.” The Charleston Area Justice Ministry, as a pluralistic, all-inclusive network whose core values are compassion, love and understanding, could not be a better organization to engage the Holy City in a holy conversation about how we can move forward. CAJM is dedicated not only to starting discussions, but also in transforming words into action. Since their meeting in October, CAJM has narrowed their area of focus to police stops in the greater Charleston area. They have worked with locals to fight against wage theft, and they have met with local organizations, including Girls Rock Charleston, to better understand and address school-based arrests in the Charleston area. As this justice cycle continues, the organization hopes to meet again with the Charleston Police Department and other law enforcement agencies to form an plan of action to reduce racial discrimination in Charleston County.
If you’re like me, a college student that does not belong to one particular congregation in the Charleston area, you may be wondering how exactly you can get involved with CAJM. One student, Madeline Leibin, is working on an answer. As a sophomore at the College of Charleston, Leibin is working to develop a CofC chapter of the justice ministry. Instead of consisting of just one group of students, this chapter of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry would have students of many faiths, participating in meaningful discussions on what it means to fight racial discrimination on our very own college campus. If you are interested in learning more, Madeline can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.