It wouldn't be advisable, in this room, to say out loud that religion and politics don't mix; you'd be faced with approximately 2,200 people who are here in force to prove otherwise. They stream in to the enormous Khorassan Ballroom at the Chase, trucked in from near and far on lumbering yellow school buses, finding their seats quickly while a gospel choir from Greater St. Mark's Missionary Baptist Church whips the gathering faithful into a frenzy, wrapping up with a fierce, a capella rendition of "It Is Well With My Soul" that has the crowd on its feet by the end.
Just as steady as the arriving audience members (striking in their racial, denominational and geographic diversity) is the nonstop flow of VIPs to the stage, a group that includes every politician worth her salt within a several hundred mile radius. On the dais are Senator Jean Carnahan, Mayor Francis Slay, County Executive Buzz Westfall, aldermen from all over the city, SLPS Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds, Representative Lacy Clay, and even, curiously, Memphis congressman Harold Ford, Jr., scion to an entrenched political dynasty there much as Clay is here. Ubiquitous Joe Mokwa, the chief of police, strides to the front in full uniform and working the cell phone right up until he reaches the stage steps.
That the Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU) public meeting an annual affair at which the group lays out its agenda for the coming year can draw such an impressive range of movers and shakers is testament to the wide and deep roots (grass roots though they are) of this relatively young advocacy group. MCU comprises 76 member congregations with a total of 700,000 people...and they are organized and ready for action. With an army of volunteers like these, who needs high-paid lobbyists?
There's no doubt that part of the reason politicians and other officials find MCU's entreaties irresistible stems from the moral authority of those making the overtures in a place like St. Louis, you ignore the suggestions of Roman Catholic priests, Methodist and United Church of Christ pastors, Jewish rabbis and AME elders at your own peril. Father Rich Creason, head of Most Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in North City's Hyde Park neighborhood, reminded the crowd that, "The moral dimension of our work is critical to the victories we celebrate today."
Those victories, many accomplished in the last legislative session, include: an "agreement in principle" with MODOT for the state to take over maintenance of 35 miles of arterial roads that run through the city of St. Louis, relieving the city from burdensome costs (not stopping long to celebrate, MCU leaders plan to be back this year looking to add 42 more miles to that list); preservation of the definition of "distressed communities," which retained crucial development tax credits for city neighborhoods; the passage of presumptive eligibility, providing immediate health care coverage for 90,000 Missouri children; and the continuing success of project Holy Ground, in which member congregations lay claim to the area around their church buildings and work to eliminate drug activity, prostitution and other social ills.
Motivating all of these and other efforts is a renewed vigor in communities of faith across the region to take an active role in the socio-political landscape of St. Louis. As problems like decaying neighborhoods, loss of population and jobs, deteriorating infrastructure, disappearing public services and a growing sense of despair creep into neighborhoods spreading from the city outward, congregations are affected. Many have come to view vigorous involvement in local and state politics as part of their faith's call to expand social justice and the kingdom of God here on earth.
As the Reverend Al Smith, from St. Paul AME, put it, "Let us think of an apple: without the core, the flesh around it does not remain juicy." And so, the constituents of MCU are here today to sing, to testify, to rededicate themselves and to call upon their elected representatives to be committed to the core.
It's a curious mix of the secular and the sacred, as political issues like corporate responsibility, health care reform and especially a call for TIF reform are trotted out by charismatic men and women of the clergy, often with a call-and-response element ("the time is now" is one popular chant). After a long list of names is read, of politicians who have signed on to endorse the MCU agenda for the coming year, an altar call of sorts is issued for any elected officials in attendance who have not yet come forwards to be counted among the faithful. And in what must be at least a vaguely uncomfortable situation for some in the crowd, portions of the program approach the tenor of a Democratic political rally. (When Senator Jean Carnahan speaks, reiterating her support for the goals of MCU, an entire row of older, white, suburban attendees sit grimly with their hands at their sides, while the rest of the place goes crazy.)
Still, MCU has managed to unite people across lines formerly thought impermeable, an effort that continues. Jean Kendall makes the thought explicit: "It is critical that the old divisions between North St. Louis and South St. Louis give way to the common good."
A rousing two hours later, the congregants are sent back out into the world, admonishments about the November elections still ringing in their ears. ("We have ten days to do our thing," says the Revered Tommie Pearson of Greater St. Mark MB Church. "Now, here's what we need you to do...") As the faithful file out past activists of all sorts eager to press literature ("War in Iraq? Not in our Names!" and "Vote Yes! On Prop A!") upon a mass of perceived allies, and re-board the phalanx of buses in the drizzling rain, a familiar scripture might linger with some:
"You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in."