An estimated 1,400 people including children and families attended the 18th Annual PEACE (Polk Ecumenical Council for Empowerment) Action at Resurrection Parish in Lakeland, March 12, many still in their work uniforms coming to help their community. PEACE is a 21 congregation-based community coalition serving to build justice ministries in the county that identify and seek reform to social justice issues, viewing them through the lens of Scripture.
The meeting ran with precision timing, respecting everyone who came to work together for the greater good. Organized and effective, each year PEACE holds a Nehemiah Action, an annual meeting that sets the goals of the organization for the year based on Neh. 5:1-13. The story tells of when Nehemiah gathered a “great assembly” to confront public officials who were charging unfair interest rates causing the poor to be displaced from their homes and children to be sold into slavery. Nehemiah’s “great assembly” was successful and PEACE, understanding the power of unity, gathers its members annually to do the same.
Father Luis Salazar, associate pastor at Resurrection Parish, has worked hard to promote and encourage his parishioners to be a part of the ministry. “The fact that today we have the Nehemiah Action here at Resurrection is part of that journey,” he said. “Social justice is one of the main teachings of our Church. The documents we have regarding social justice are immense, and I think that we, as pastors and priests, preach justice. PEACE is a way to engage people in the practice of justice. Otherwise, it can be something ethereal. This is a way for people to practice something more tangible.”
This year, the actions addressed were homelessness, mental health, and civil citations for youth. Lakeland mayor, Bill Mutz, recognized the crisis of almost 4,000 Polk County children who are homeless and agreed to direct identification of city-owned land that could serve as affordable housing. The plan is to find space for 500 units over the next five years for homeless families. Mutz offered his own testimony saying, “We currently have a homeless family that has lived in our home for the past 18 months. My heart so much appreciates your heart as we are just doing what Christ calls us to do, which is to love and care for people. This is a burden that is not only personal, but one that our city shares.”
Unfortunately, all elected officials were not as compassionate or sympathetic to PEACE issues. Not one commissioner accepted the invitation to attend the action on mental health calling for a 24-hour treatment center for youth and adults. The county currently has two Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) model facilities being shared between three counties. Lakeland Regional Hospital indicated they average 500 Baker Acts (three-day mandated institutionalization for evaluation of mental health) each month and more than half of those patients are later cycled back through the hospital in crisis.
Christine Goding, a parishioner of Resurrection Parish and member of PEACE for 17 years, explains how PEACE deals with rejections and obstacles. “We take it to prayer. We have to persevere and know that God is on our side.” To other parishioners from diocesan parishes she pleads, “We need you. We need your prayers. We need your support and we need your attendance.”
The meeting concluded with celebration of more citations instead of youth arrests that leave minors with a tainted record that follows them the rest of their lives. In areas where there were once zero citations, some statistics are now up to as much as 75%. Lakeland is no longer number one for teen arrests in the state. The Catholic community, through the U.S. Bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), supports the efforts of PEACE in its work to raise the visibility of the poor and powerless in our community. CCHD works with the diocese to address the root causes of injustice and help promote the dignity of all people.
Frank and Sheila Nicsinger are parishioners at St. Matthew in Winter Haven. Active for five years, Frank pointed out, “Social justice is so inherent in the Catholic faith.” He recalled an intercession in the days’ Liturgy of the Hours that read, “Forgive us for failing to see Christ in the poor, the distressed and the troublesome and for failing to reverence your son in their persons.” The third year deaconate aspirant said, “It fit with what we are asked and called to do. We are all in the image and likeness of God. Why wouldn’t we want to help them?”
By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic – March 14, 2018