By Tony McDade
First Baptist Church, Greenville
What are these people up to?
They are a collection of friends sharing a common purpose. They are clergy and laity. They are employed and retired. They are Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Unitarians, Baptists, and Nones. They are men and women, introverts and extroverts, Southerners and otherners…all focused on speaking up for justice for all.
They are advocates.
Greenville, South Carolina, like your town, is blessed with leaders who are devoted to bettering the lives of all of our citizens. These community champions do not hesitate to live out their values, to claim courage as virtue in advocating for the welfare of family, friends, and neighbors. They know that a personal commitment to a cause has unparalleled power to change the world.
Recently, we have become more aware of several critical issues that are adversely impacting the vitality of our community. The dearth of affordable housing, lack of access to reliable public transportation, and barriers to upward economic mobility are paramount concerns, especially for those struggling to leave poverty behind once and for all.
When we care about people as friends and neighbors, we care about the issues that adversely impact their lives. And we get busy about changing the social structures that perpetuate dehumanizing patterns of discrimination and poverty.
How is it that a smallish group of dedicated volunteers pooled their efforts and persuaded Greenville County Council to substantially increase funding for public transportation? Here are some clues….
They were focused. They took time to listen to members of the community with lived-experience but unheard voices. Many ventured into areas of town that they had never before noticed.
They were well-organized. They did their homework, studying the adverse impact of lack of mobility especially on historic communities of color. Several are active members of JustFaith groups that help identify and address social justice issues through serious study and concerted actions.
They were savvy. Note the green t-shirts…’nuf said.
They were pleasant. It’s always good to start a conversation with an elected official with a compliment. Then get to the point!
They were persistent. They showed up at every County Council meeting, at every committee-of-the-whole, at every public event that highlighted the need for better public transit…for over a year! They wrote letters to the editor and collared elected officials and county leaders at public and private gatherings, ensuring that their opinions were heard. Eventually Council members implored the Green T-shirt crew to give Council members a break!
They were specific. Elected officials want to know what you are concerned about and what you want them to do about it.
Finally, they were personal. An email works ok, but a handwritten letter is really good. A phone call is even better, and a personal conversation is best of all.
Advocacy in its most basic understanding is speaking for others, to call for aid for someone in need. Giving a voice to those who too often are not heard in our public conversations is a vital part of our Christian discipleship and citizenship.
What can you do now?
Get involved! Find a group of like-minded people, and commit yourself to changing a repressive social structure. It’s okay to be political, but not okay to be partisan.
Be prepared: read Angela Glover Blackwell’s article about “The Curb-Cut Effect” and let that be your guide to choose the injustices that impact your community, paying attention to those that are less evident. Consider tackling vital topics such as homelessness, redlining, predatory lending, sex trafficking, or reentry barriers. Check with prominent local leaders (especially in nonprofits) who work everyday in your community and see what they think are the biggest needs.
Run for public office.
Raising your voice with…not just for…others is life-giving. Doing so is fundamentally a way to live empowered by the Spirit of God, our own Advocate (John 14:15-17).
Grab a green t-shirt and get going.
Formerly he was the executive director at Greenville Area Interfaith Hospitality Network (GAIHN, the local Family Promise affiliate, 2003-2016).
Tony has much experience in social ministry enterprises in both Carolinas.
A native of Union, SC, Tony is a graduate of Furman University (B.A. in history, 1979), Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Master of Divinity, 1982), and Columbia Theological Seminary (PCUSA, Doctor of Ministry, 2001).
An ordained Baptist minister, Tony has served as an educator and administrator in several congregations, including First Baptist Church, Statesville, NC (1996-2003) and First Baptist Church, Clemson (1987-1996).
A Riley Fellow (Diversity Leaders Initiative, The Riley Institute at Furman University), Tony is a recipient of the Public and Community Services Award from the Atlantic Institute (2017), the Caritas Individual Award from the Sisters of Charity Foundation of SC (2015), and the Richard Furman Baptist Heritage Award from Furman University (2007).
Tony enjoys hiking, tennis, historical literature, and is an accomplished Geocacher.