By Lauren Costantino, Miami Herald
The pews of Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Allapattah buzz with chatter from Christians and Jews, Muslims and Protestants. Pastors talk casually with Rabbis. Unitarian Universalists catch up with friends from Mosque Al-Ansar. As the cathedral quiets, Rev. Sherlain Stevens leads the gathering in an opening prayer.
But this is not a worship service or forum to discuss religion.
This is a meeting of a little-known but influential group called PACT (People Acting for Community Together) — an interfaith organization that seeks to tackle Miami-Dade County’s most pressing social issues. The nonprofit unites over 40 churches, synagogues, universities and one mosque in Miami-Dade in the common goal of holding public officials accountable and creating tangible change to make Miami a better, safer place to live.
That sounds lofty, but PACT has a record of real results — pushing a plan to plant more trees to help reduce rising temperatures in urban areas, implementing community IDs to make it easier for people to access services and expanding Miami-Dade’s civil citation program to help reduce jail time for minors.
For PACT, its strength comes in numbers. It represents more than 50,000 people in the member congregations, making it among the largest grassroots organizations in South Florida. Unlike many groups which focus more on money and fundraising, PACT uses its collective clout to persuade the people in power to address the most pressing community concerns. The government leaders who appear at an annual PACT summit hope to win the group’s signature chorus of approval — “Let Justice Roll!”
“Our work builds relationships, our work builds bridges, our work builds community, our work allows our county to be a safer and more sustainable place where the people’s voices are heard,” said Rev. Robert Brooks, senior pastor at St. Peter’s Missionary Baptist Church, in his opening remarks at the meeting. “Our work is about creating a Miami that people are proud to call home.”
Advocating for social justice and equal treatment is a tenet of many faiths. It’s the heart of what PACT does.
“That’s one of the obligations of a believer. That’s one of the things God tells us to do,” said Patricia Salahuddin, the outgoing PACT secretary and member of Masjid Al-Ansar Mosque. “It doesn’t really matter whether you are a Muslim, whether you are a Christian, whether you’re Jewish, because in all of those religions, they’re obligated to promote justice. That’s the responsibility.”
At PACT’s annual assembly, held on a Monday night in late October, members voted on the one big issue that will determine their work for the upcoming year. Leaders from each congregation had spent months holding listening sessions and surveying their members about what community problems keep them up at night. Those weren’t casual chats. They were conversations guided by facilitators and punctuated with pointed questions.
The aim is to empower community members to prioritize what matters — and often, seemingly different groups point to the same problems, said Jonathan Sepsenwol, PACT’s newly elected vice president and a member of Temple Beth Sholom.
“You would think that a synagogue in Miami Beach like Beth Sholom would not necessarily come up with similar issues to a small Baptist Church in South Miami. But at every single one of these things that I’ve participated in, there’s always some amount of synergy among the various congregations,” he said. “That, to me, is remarkable.”
Before this year’s vote to decide among public safety, homeowner’s insurance and rent and homelessness as the group’s big mission —speakers made their cases, outlining real world ripple effects from each issue.
Rising rents were the big concern for Paul Campbell of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Coconut Grove.
“Because of this rise in rent, myself, my family and many of us are one bad accident, one emergency situation happening away from us ending up a very desperate place,” he said. “The struggle to pay rent has never been so close to becoming homeless. We have to do something about this.”
For Toni Mountain, a member of Ebenezer United Methodist Church, skyrocketing homeowner’s insurance costs were making living in Miami-Dade unsustainable for many people.
“My homeowners insurance increased from $3,500 in 2022 to $7,500 in 2023. I am retired, living on a fixed income and I must be very frugal with my spending,” she said. “I’m considering returning to work.”
In the end, PACT members picked rising rents and homelessness as this year’s campaign. And now, the hard work begins.
Over the next several months, PACT volunteers will form weekly committees to research the high rent crisis. They’ll figure out which groups have already been advocating on this issue and where they can make the most impact.
“Why are we having such a problem with this rent, Why is it going up? Where do we start? What do we do? Who do we talk to? How do we collect data? After we plow through those questions, we look at what is our main point,” said Salahuddin. “What is it that we really want to accomplish?”
Through this research phase, members gain a sense of ownership over both the problems and the potential solutions, said outgoing president Rev. Dr. Laurinda Hafner of Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ.
“When we work together and we do research to make sure that we have all the statistics and that we have all of the facts right about our issues … people become empowered because they get to work on those issues.,” she said. “They’re not just superficial or on the outside. They’re in the circle.”
Once they develop a plan for attacking problems, PACT members move to what matters most in government — getting the ear of the people who write policy and decide how to spend money. Members will engage local politicians by speaking at city council meetings, calling representatives and advocating for policy plans.
The campaign culminates with an annual public forum, called the Nehemiah Action Assembly, where political leaders are invited to appear at a house of worship in front of more than 1,000 people. That name comes from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, when the prophet Nehemiah used his influence to coordinate a large assembly to call out the nobles and moneylenders for exploiting the Israelites.
The assembly is an unusual set-up for Miami-Dade politicians and leaders: For one thing, they’re barely allowed to speak. Instead, in front of a crowd of constituents, they are asked to answer to direct questions about endorsing PACT plans.
“When a politician comes to a PACT meeting and sees thousands of people there, they kind of sit up and pay attention around the issues that we are lifting up and want them to be responsive to,” said Hafner. “All of these people represent voters who can make or break a person’s political career.”
Salahuddin, who has been to every Nehemiah Action since she joined PACT, said the meetings don’t always go how they’d expect, but that PACT is prepared for every kind of situation.
“They range from quite disappointing to quite successful. And when I say disappointing, I don’t mean that we didn’t do what we’re supposed to. I mean that the officials will find excuses and reasons not to do what they’re supposed to do,” she said.
At the assembly, a PACT member might ask a city commissioner if they commit to revamping a gun violence prevention program, or a mayor to allocate funds for a tree canopy plan — as Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava did in June. If the official says “yes,” the room shouts out in unison, “Let justice roll!”
But if the answer is no? The response is something no politician wants to hear.
“We go into complete silence,” Salahuddin said. “After we let that silence resonate format for a while, then the person who’s holding the mic will say you have one minute to explain your reason.”
TRACK RECORD OF SUCCESS
PACT’s advocacy work, which goes back to 1988, has touched on issues ranging from reducing local gun violence to eliminating school suspensions in Miami-Dade public schools.
In 2018, PACT worked to reduce the amount of people who go to jail for minor offenses by helping pass Senate Bill 1392, which requires all counties to set up civil citations programs. The pre-arrest program, which now exists in all 67 counties across Florida, deters young adults from entering the criminal justice system on their first misdemeanor offense. In the past six years, 60,000 fewer children have been arrested for minor offenses across the state, saving taxpayers $135 million dollars, according to PACT.
In one of their latest campaigns, Levine Cava agreed to aim for 30 percent tree canopy across the county by 2030, something the county has failed on achieving in the past. The trees provide cooling shade that will help combat the increasingly hot climate, which kills an estimated 34 people and hospitalizes hundreds more each year in Dade. The superintendent of Miami Dade County Public Schools, Jose Dotres, also committed to supporting this work — helpful because the system owns a significant amount of land in the county. That’s something PACT learned through its meticulous research.
“Because of our work, we got 25 million local and federal dollars to plant trees in Miami-Dade County for the next two years,” said Andre Green, a member of Mount Hermon AME Church in Miami Gardens who was part of the PACT tree canopy campaign team.
The challenges of extreme heat were widespread. “
We heard hundreds of stories from our listening sessions about flooding in our communities, about electric bills going through the roof because we run our air conditioning on high, and about children unable to play outside during the day,” Green said. “Outdoor workers passing out from heat exhaustion and suffering heat strokes and senior community members suffering at bus stops, all due to the negative effects of extreme heat.”
Because meetings take place in various congregations around Miami, members also are directly exposed to different faiths and cultures. For instance, though he had visited a mosque in Israel, incoming vice president Sepsenwol admitted he hadn’t gone to one in the United States until he went to a PACT meeting at Masjid al-Ansar.
“It’s just so incredibly important that we have these kinds of outlets, where people of different faiths can get together and focus on something else, so that the faith in and of itself isn’t an issue,” he said. “And that builds bridges between the faiths.”
‘LET JUSTICE ROLL’
Back at the annual meeting, Brooks — the St. Peter’s Missionary Baptist pastor — referenced a Bible verse from the book of Micah, chapter 6.
“What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God,” he said. “And while we do mercy and walk humbly with our God often, it’s typically a little more difficult to do justice because justice requires holding decision makers accountable.”
Doing justice work takes power from two different sources, Brooks said. “That’s organized people and organized money. So let me ask you a question. Can we do it alone?” The room erupted in a resounding “No.”
The church hummed with energy as the gathering engaged in call-and-response heard just about any Sunday in Baptist churches.
“What type of world, what type of community are we setting up for our future generations?” Brooks asked. “A community that demands respect and dignity for all of our residents. Let justice roll.”
And, as they did repeatedly through the gathering, the members of many faiths sang out in one voice. “Let justice roll!”
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