"WE DON'T WORK toward justice; we bring about justice through systemic change," says Rev. Cindy Weber, with a fierce and loving smile, when asked how her congregation, Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty, seeks justice through reaching out to the community. There is no pride or bravado in her statement, but a firmness that comes from more than 20 years of pastoring a small, community church that actively helps bring about God's peace on earth.
Jeff Street, located in Louisville, Ky., has an active membership of approximately 100 people—a David-sized congregation compared to many mainline or mega-churches. However, the creativity, dedication, and passion of the church's members, manifested in hospitality programs for and with the homeless, have made a giant-sized impact on local economic justice issues. And the congregation didn't stop there; as part of a coalition of area churches, Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together (CLOUT), the church has made an impression with policy work and community organizing on the state level as well. Jeff Street's commitment to empower poor people has even reached internationally: Members have invested in Oikocredit micro-lending programs to the tune of $180,000.
"We are a church that knows the difference between justice and charity, and also between charity and hospitality," says Weber.
Jeff Street, as members call it, started as the Jefferson Street Baptist Chapel, a worship community that had been meeting for decades at Louisville's Jefferson Street Baptist Center, an outreach to homeless people that is a mission of the Southern Baptist-affiliated Long Run Baptist Association. But when the congregation's head pastor left in 1987 and it promoted Rev. Weber from associate to interim pastor, the move touched off a four-year struggle with the Center's parent organization. The Long Run Baptist Association refused to recognize Weber's leadership because she is a woman—even though, at the time, she was also serving as director of the center. In 1991, the year the congregation installed Weber as permanent pastor, it was told to leave the center. The church kept the name "Jeff Street"—the shortened moniker by which Jefferson Street Baptist Center was known in the nearby Clarksdale housing project and environs—and moved a couple blocks south, into a rehabbed former machine shop on Liberty Street.