BREAD members say their faith propels activism; social justice campaigners annoy some

By June 16, 2011April 15th, 2014No Comments

September 15, 2000. The Columbus Dispatch.

A recipe for BREAD: Start with a faith base, stir in a call for social justice and blend in some grass roots. Turn some heat on public officials, but don’t let mixture boil over. Serves community.

BREAD — a social-action group whose acronym stands for Building Responsibility, Equality and Dignity — has been active for the past four years in the streets and government offices of central Ohio. It’s been trying to reduce neighborhood crime and improve transportation, housing and education. Its modest war chest is filled by annual dues of $600 to $2,000 from its members: 38 churches and two synagogues. The amounts are determined by congregational size.

“We don’t have the bucks, so we rely on people power,” said Sister Regina Marcum, a Franciscan who is co-president of the organization. She shares the office with the Rev. Jeffrey P. Kee, pastor at New Faith Baptist Church of Christ on the East Side.

BREAD members say they easily could get bogged down and become ineffective if they allowed themselves to dwell on their religious differences. Instead, they have chosen to rein in their practices of faith — even prayer — when cooperating to help their constituents.

“When you have Jews, Christians and Unitarians working together, it demands sensitivity and growth,” said Ed Hoffman, the group’s vice president.”Faith holds us together, not theology,” Marcum said. “We don’t think of God the same way.” In public, the group tries to make prayer inclusive; in private meetings, members identify their traditions and proceed accordingly.

Some observers, Franklin County Commissioner Dorothy Teater among them, say that BREAD’s sensitivity evaporates when dealing with public officials and that the group’s activists sometimes use aggressive, theatrical behavior.

“Their last meeting I went to was two years ago, about tax abatement,” she said. “They wanted me to make a firm commitment that the county would do this, that and the other, but I couldn’t.”

“BREAD’s mission is good and its ability to mobilize the community is admirable, Teater said, but it could be more successful if it didn’t publicly put elected officials on the spot. I personally didn’t appreciate it,” she said.

On May 17, 1999, BREAD members turned their backs toward City Councilwoman Jennette Bradley, saying that she had turned her back toward them when they pled for a cleanup of prostitution and drug trafficking on E. Main Street. Bradley deflected the group’s wrath toward Police Chief James G. Jackson.

The upshot was Operation Clean Sweep, a raid launched eight days later that cracked down on illicit activity in the target area. Columbus police, code-enforcement officials, the Health Department, the city attorney’s office and the Refuse Division teamed up in the effort.

On other occasions, BREAD has sent messages to city officials by carrying around rat traps to protest vermin-infested housing and by having a member dress in a duck costume to call attention to flooding near Krumm Park, near E. 5th and N. Cassady avenues.
Such actions were intended to be “humorous, provocative and to dramatize the problems,” said the Rev. John Aeschbury, lead organizer. He is a minister in the United Church of Christ.

If politicians seek BREAD’s favor, they dare not resort to rhetoric without action.
“We’re holding public officials accountable to what they commit to,” Hoffman said. He’s a representative to BREAD from Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church on the North Side.

Ronald L. Barnes recalls his first exposure to the organization at an East Side church in February 1998, just days after he assumed his position as general manager of the Central Ohio Transit Authority.

“I was astounded; there were about 1,000 people there,” he said. “I’ve never seen that many people for an organizational meeting.”

Some officials have accused BREAD of failing to do its homework, but Barnes said he was impressed by how well-organized members were at the meeting and how they were able to identify which of the invited community leaders would align with them.

BREAD’s desire to make suburban jobs more accessible to inner-city residents meshed with COTA’s efforts to expand bus ridership. BREAD wrote letters and did other things that helped COTA get a $675,000 federal grant to set up a transit center at Cleveland and 11th avenues in the Linden area. The organization still meets with Barnes every two months and is working with him in trying to establish other transit centers, on E. Main Street and eventually on the South Side.

Barnes said he is glad he wasn’t booed by BREAD, as were some officials at his inaugural meeting. “Nobody likes to be embarrassed,” he said. “I probably would not have been as cooperative if that’s how we started.”

His predecessor, Glenna Watson, said she’s glad her dealings with BREAD also were positive. “I’m sure they could needle people to death if they didn’t cooperate with them,” she said.

The organization doesn’t apologize for an in-your-face approach that some find overly aggressive. “Of course, we’re confrontational, but we don’t play dirty pool, coming in trying to trip you up,” Marcum said.

She sees BREAD as a shifting set of alliances — “We say there are no permanent enemies, no permanent friends.” Good will, although admirable, by itself won’t win the day, Marcum said. “We teach members how to negotiate, how to organize and how to target winnable issues,” she said.

BREAD is a member of the national Direct Action Response Training Center in Miami, a network of congregation-based action organizations, but operates autonomously.
Originally, it was known as the Columbus Organizing Project. Clergy members were involved early, but with the intent of ensuring congregational support. Organizers foresaw a need to maintain BREAD’s continuity despite changes in clerical appointments that have occurred and will continue.

The organization might not speak for all 30,000 members of the 38 churches and two synagogues on the BREAD rolls, but it manages to get many to show up for rallies for a variety of reasons.

“Some come because of social reasons; some can’t do things by themselves; others are looking for harmony and balance,” Marcum said.

Certain topics, such as abortion, homosexuality and prayer in school, are off-limits because they’re not winnable, Aeschbury said.

“They’re hot-button issues that we’re not going to deal with,” he said.
Housing, however, is one of BREAD’s priorities.

An area of concern is Dublin, where proposed zoning regulations would require more expensive design and materials in new construction. Such restrictions and other factors would effectively eliminate the possibility of building moderate-priced housing costing about $175,000, said Tom L. Hart, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Central Ohio.

BREAD finds unconscionable the prospect of a community where new homes probably would cost at least $300,000.

“The housing patterns in the suburbs are disgraceful; we’re reaching out to the congregations in those areas,” Hoffman said.

After considerable study, BREAD has developed a Jubilee Housing Plan. It identifies a shortage of affordablehousing in central Ohio and suggests that racial and economic segregation contribute to inequities between urban and suburban communities.

Three solutions have been proposed:
* Creating an affordable-housing trust fund. In March, the city committed $20 million to seed the fund. Additional money is being sought from the county.
* Calling on the city to adopt inclusionary zoning, so a small percentage of everything built should be affordablehousing– not for the homeless, but for working families.
* Providing tax abatements for renovations in older neighborhoods.
Cleveland, where an aggressive infill housing program has been initiated, can provide a model for improving residential areas in Columbus, Hoffman said.

Although BREAD is bent on getting things done now, it also has an eye to the future. It plans to devote more attention to young people at risk of social problems, and it will hold a youth conference on Oct. 20 at a site not yet chosen.

The organization recognizes a need to change, possibly with changed alliances, as new issues unfold. Whatever efforts are undertaken likely will continue with a focus on social justice, rather than charity, leaders said.

“For some people, bringing in food baskets might be easier — and that has to be done — but that’s not what BREAD does,” Marcum said.

Many religious bodies traditionally have steered clear of social action, but the Rev. Karen Battle, pastor at First English Evangelical Lutheran Church, says to do so is to miss God’s call.

“We don’t gather on Sunday morning to be a worship club,” she said. “We gather to remind ourselves what God has done in our midst.

“If the church has forgotten that they are called to serve, then they have forgotten the one who called them, because Christ called us to service to the neighborhood.”

Similarly, the synagogues in BREAD have demonstrated a commitment to serving humanity, Battle said.

Alvin Hadley, president of the Columbus Metropolitan Area Church Council, said it and BREAD are complementary.

“BREAD is much more action-oriented (than the council),” he said. “They will choose a target need in a particular community or a particular issue and stay with it. We see that as very positive.”

“We offer a new mix in Columbus,” Hoffman said. “There always have been faith-based efforts, but BREAD is something different.”