By Zoe Nicholson, Savannah Morning News

There is a story in the Holy Bible and Jewish Torah about a man named Nehemiah.

Not the one where he restores Jerusalem’s walls and reinstitutes Jewish law after the exile of God’s Chosen People. But the one where his people are starving and in debt.

The people of Jerusalem were burdened by the heavy weight of taxes by the Persians, and many in the wealthy class took loans out on the poor. The debtors lost their homes, land and livestock to pay their debts. Some were forced to sell their children into slavery.

While all were perfectly legal under Hebrew law, Nehemiah saw these practices as evil. He ordered the debts cleared, the children released and taxes paid to him as governor of Jerusalem to cease.

The passage ends like this: “So I said, ‘The thing that you are doing is not good. Should you not walk in the fear of our God, to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies?'”

Nehemiah’s story is the theological bedrock for J.U.S.T. (Justice Unites Savannah Together), a coalition of 20 houses of faith that banded together in an effort to advocate for justice and equality in Chatham County.

“The premise of JUST is that we do well with caring for people, what we call mercy, but we don’t do well to tackle justice…” said Rev. Michael Culbreth of Connexion Church, one of the member churches of JUST.

“The call was to do justice, and we all rally around that.”

The group includes Christian churches (protestant and Catholic), Jewish synagogues and an Islamic Mosque. Each church pays membership dues, which helps with events, organization and the hiring of a staff member, Rachel Hodes.

JUST formed in 2020, after pastors from several congregations noticed the societal and financial woes facing their congregants had been exacerbated by the pandemic. The organization is co-chaired by Rabbi Robert Haas of Mickve Israel and First African Baptist Rev. Thurmond Tillman. Culbreth serves as treasurer.

Rev. Susan Karlson of the Unitarian Universalists tells the story of Nehemiah often. She preached on it a few weeks ago to her congregation. Rabbi Haas reiterated the message at JUST’s rally day in April. Leaders will tell it again on JUST’s Nehemiah Action Assembly at 6:15 p.m., May 2, at the Savannah Civic Center.

“Why do we tell this story over and over? Because it’s the exact format of JUST; it’s exactly what we do,” Karlson said. “We listen. We hear each other and we hear the experiences of people in pain. And then we share those, and then our hearts reach out in empathy, and then we reflect on that.

“And then we act.”

Using the nationally used DART method for creating systemic change through avenues of faith houses and interfaith collaboration, JUST began its work in earnest last year.

“We start with sacred conversations, where we talk amongst our own members in our own congregations,” said Karlson, who serves as JUST’s vice president. “People want to start talking about what keeps you up at night or what wakes you up at night, and what bothers you, and it kind of gets to the back of your mind and you just can’t let go of.”

That issue, for many churches, was a lack of affordable housing in Chatham County.

The housing crisis has plagued Chatham County — like many communities across the nation — for years, but has reached a fever pitch during the pandemic. Home prices have spiked nearly 30% since March 2020, and the average cost of a rental is more than $1,000 a month. The main problem, experts and advocates say, is a lack of inventory.

Both Culbreth and Karlson have seen how the crisis has impacted members of their churches.

“People are paying $1,200 to $1,500 a month. And, they keep building,” Culbreth said. “But you’re pricing some people out who can’t even afford to live in Pooler.”

Last year, JUST successfully lobbied for the City of Savannah to commit more than $5 million into its affordable housing fund. This year, they want to see a bigger commitment.

JUST will be sitting down with city leaders — and encouraging congregation members to do the same — to advocate for how public money should be spent, brainstorm ideas on how to build more housing and urge leaders to pursue policies that will help house families experiencing homelessness.

JUST is also advocating for an end to cash bail and other issues within the prison system that keep those charged with non-violent crimes locked up for weeks, months or even years.

And while some argue that the church is a place to worship, not work, Culbreth said that fighting for justice is an answer to one of the Christian church’s earliest calls to “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8 in the Christian Bible)

“The church needs to learn how to get in ‘good trouble’ again,” Culbreth said, referencing Sen. John Lewis, the late senator and Civil Rights leader from Georgia.

See original story here.