FAST, Faith and Action for Strength Together, is an interdenominational political organization in Pinellas County that works to promote left-leaning progressive policies in local government. They generally ask for more government funding to push programs (that often fail) purportedly promoting “Social Justice”. The Sun Beam Times has analyzed their Social Justice mission on several occasions (linked here) and discussed how their agenda actually promotes injustice despite the best intentions of those involved. This is a continuing series on FAST in anticipation of their Nehemiah Action Assembly March 19, 2012.
It is an actively promoted fallacy that FAST is a grassroots organization where decisions are made by its members and parishioners. Nothing could be further from the truth. FAST is entirely a top-down organization run by an oligarchy of insiders who set the agenda and reject any democratic process to influence the organization’s agenda. Dissent is actively suppressed. One of its chief organizers, Father John Tapp, the Pastor at Holy Family Catholic Church is obviously sensitive about this and was quoted in the St. Pete Times last year addressing this very issue. Father Tapp offered the following:
“Neither, Tapp says, is this some top-down agenda decided by a few insiders. FAST develops its priorities based on what members say they care about the most.”
Sadly, the exact opposite is true as is confirmed by the experience of this author and many others. I have always been concerned about FAST but felt prior, to reaching a conclusion or offering judgment, it was my duty to work within the system to see if it could be influenced and to determine if my theories were correct. I attended the Nehemiah action assembly last March, joined “house meeting” groups, and attended the annual assembly in October 2011. I have discussed the organization on several occasions with Father Tapp, and in one official meeting. I have interviewed priests and pastors who specifically declined to be involved and met with the “Lead Organizer”, Haley Grossman (a paid staff member). I have participated in a Church pre-assembly organization meeting and inquired regarding projects to directors of various groups relating to “hot spot reporting”, expansion of voluntary pre-K enrollment, Drug courts, prisoner recidivism programs and jobs proposals. I have spoken to committee chairs and sought to become involved as a committee member and influence the approaches taken. At one point I was invited to be a member of the “jobs” committee and then told that I could not be on it without approval of the Pastor. Father Tapp advised me he would not appoint me. I was invited to a meeting of the Jobs committee to discuss issues and then, at the last minute, advised not to come as I was not “approved”. I have even exchanged letters and emails with Bishop Lynch on the subject seeking to have him alter the role of the dioceses in FAST.
At every step of the way, I have been specifically advised that FAST is not a democratic organization. This is not something that is hidden or even felt to be inappropriate. The only way to influence the agenda is to be part of the Board (pastors of each church) or be appointed by one of those pastors to one of the committees. No parish member of any church may attend any board meeting or committee meeting without approval of a member pastor. No agenda item may be discussed at any committee meeting without approval of the Board or the appointed committee chair. Ultimately there are only a limited set of items that will be offered for a choice to members of FAST for approval or disapproval. There is no way to have any other item considered if the Board does not want it considered.
There is a faux process to give the illusion of grassroots involvement. At the House meetings, which are small groups of 6-10 people under a group leader, each person can raise concerns to the leader. The leader can then bring those concerns up the chain of command to the committee structure and board to determine if it will rise to the top. However, even at the house meetings, there is a list of pre-determined topics for approval and the members spend most of their time discussing those and which ones will be given priority. There is never an opportunity for the entire parish to get together and discuss issues to decide if none of the short list will be supported and if anything will be added. After the Board and committee structure winnow the ideas down from the house meetings, the end result is usually a list of options that seems very similar if not identical to what was originally offered to the house meeting. Any new idea is a carefully selected item that the Board has discussed to offer to members to adopt as a “priority”.
The main purpose of the House meetings, church meetings and the General Assembly is to build numbers to show up to the Nehemiah Action Assembly and pressure public officials. Members are advised and trained on how to demand change in meetings with local officials prior to the Action assembly. They are told to not take no for an answer. There is immense pressure to find more people to bring and an obsession to create a large Action assembly with the sole purpose of impressing public officials with numbers. Sadly, those in attendance have never had a chance to participate in any meaningful debate, discussion or voting or any democratic process. They are expected to blindly follow and “clap on cue”.
The annual meeting is then held in the fall and a short list of items is offered. Each congregation brings a group of people and they cast votes for what should be the priority or the new item for the year if applicable. There is no opportunity to make any amendments from the floor, offer new ideas, or debate the merits of what is being offered. In fact, at the Annual meeting last year, I rose to “object” to this fact and was not given the consent of the assembly to address why I was objecting. The objection was offered during approval of the agenda and I was an official registered member at the time. I was planning to ask FAST to adopt the position that Planned Parenthood should stop doing abortions in Pinellas County and to demand that they do so in the Nehemiah assembly just like FAST demands action from local elected officials. More on this topic in another post.
I met with Haley Grossman (the lead organizer) and asked her to do a number of things. I asked her to add more mission work to the work of the organization. For instance, setting up a prison visitation program, one-on-one tutoring for kids with reading problems or having parishioners adopt young families to mentor. I was told that the ONLY purpose of Fast was to push for change at the government level. There would never be a mission to do anything else. Lead Organizer Haley Grossman advised me that FAST would ONLY work to challenge local officials to vote in certain ways and to “hold systems accountable”. I asked to appear before the Board of FAST and was told that was not allowed. I was ultimately granted permission to write a letter to the Board which I will publish in another piece. The only response I received was a terse thank you and a statement that the board could find nothing “actionable” in my recommendations.
FAST is functioning in a way that is ant-democratic and actively works to suppress dissent. It is an oligarchy of religious leaders who use FAST and the group it pulls together for their own narrow political agenda. Members of local churches who are part of FAST are being held up as being members, even though they have not consented to join as a member. These acts violate basic theological and natural tenants of moral behavior and should cease. Americans expect a democratic process when it comes to political advocacy and FAST is not only rejecting democracy, it is suppressing dissent. Until FAST converts to a truly democratic organization that is member driven, it cannot claim to work for Social Justice and will continue to promote injustice while acting unjustly.