Charleston Area Justice Ministry holds its Nehemiah Action each year to push for action on local issues | CAJM Facebook photo

The Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM) made up for lost time Monday night with a dual-issue Nehemiah Action held as a drive-in event and open to virtual attendees in the local activist community.

Each year, Nehemiah Action draws thousands of Charleston-area residents to meet with public officials and secure commitments to action. CAJM is a coalition of faith organizations that organize their combined congregations and followers to push for social and political change in the Charleston area.

This year, more than 120 cars rolled through the gates at The Bend and well over 1,000 tuned in via Zoom, with car-horn applause reacting to speakers as they took the stage. Altogether, CAJM organizers say 2,200 people participating Tuesday night.

Benton speaking Monday night | CAJM screenshot

Monday night’s meeting saw the Rev. Charles Heyward, pastor of Edisto Presbyterian, as lead negotiator for affordable housing, and the Rev. Byron Benton, pastor at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist, as lead negotiator for health care.

County Council members Kylon Middleton and Rob Wehrman represented county leadership and both committed to help get the council to take local action to establish and fund the Lowcountry Housing Fund.

“Every year we don’t pass something is a year of people’s lives,” Wehrman said. “Setting aside economics and what have you, this is something that is having impacts now. We can sit and debate as long as we want, but there is cost to debate.”

Middleton and Wehrman also vowed to push to get the issue up for vote by May 25, only two months away.

“Collectively, we are the newest members on council, and we have been completely consistent in our resolve to make certain all of the things we came on to council for, affordable housing being number 1 for both of us,” Middleton said. “I could not find a better person as a sidekick to make certain that we get this across the line. We will give everything we have to make it happen.”

Attendees tuned in online and from their cars in-person at The Bend on Monday | Photo courtesy Wendy Hudson

Dr. Melvin Brown, a member of the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) board of trustees, expressed support for CAJM’s proposal to address inadequate, inaccessible or unaffordable health care options for the community through the use of mobile health units placed in prominent positions to address community issues.

“I know the way to decrease the number of visits for what is essentially high-cost care is to make sure people have more access to low-cost care,” he said.

Brown also said he would call and strongly encourage the president and CEO of MUSC to meet with CAJM’s health care committee, which drafted the proposal. According to Benton, attempts to get such a meeting began in late February, but have been unsuccessful.

“Tonight, we are disappointed,” Benton said. “But, I am reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, ‘There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.’ We are disappointed because our love runs deep. We love our community, we love our people and we want better for all human kind.”

Every year, CAJM commits to a large-scale injustice affecting marginalized communities in the Lowcountry, but the ongoing pandemic disrupted many of their advocacy for affordable and accessible housing last year, going as far as cancelling the Nehemiah Action.