What started as a simple phone call in 2003 seeking help working on a statewide effort to implement treatment instead of incarceration policy has become a broad-based movement to address a wide array of poverty-related issues in the Eau Claire area. 

That phone call 14 years ago led to the organization of Chippewa Valley residents who decided to help push for treatment options as an alternative for people sentenced to jail and prison. Local residents played an instrumental role in further treatment courts in Eau Claire County and helped prompt statewide legislation on the issue and county programs that have garnered national recognition. 

But the effort to better the existing system’s treatment of those in need didn’t stop there. Four years and countless conversations later, nine churches and many people involved with the alternatives to incarceration movement formed JONAH, the acronym for Joining Our Neighbors Advancing Hope.

Since then JONAH, a faith-based, nonpartisan organization designed to address social justice issues, has worked on many fronts related to not only criminal justice reform but to the environment, poverty, health, immigration, transit, predatory lending practices and other topics. Name a social justice subject in the Eau Claire area and there is a good chance JONAH is involved in some way.  

Today JONAH officially celebrates 10 years in Eau Claire. A celebration of the organization begins at 4 p.m. today at the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre, 1814 N. Oxford Ave.   

JONAH’s mission statement describes the group as “a grassroots organization, comprised primarily of diverse faith communities, (that) seeks to bring people in the Chippewa Valley into relationship and empower one another to build a healthier and fairer community for us all.” 

More simply, JONAH is people willing to help others in need. 

“At its core, JONAH is really about people helping people,” said the organization’s current president, Sandra McKinney, the retired pastor at Unity Christ Center in Eau Claire. 

Relationships built

Back in 2003, many Chippewa Valley residents were willing to join the effort to address furthering treatment options instead of simply putting offenders behind bars. But when that group was asked to form officially into JONAH, one of 11 Wisconsin affiliates of WISDOM — the state entity that oversees organizations concerned with social justice issues — its members were less enthused, said Jill Christopherson, who served as the first JONAH president. 

“When we were asked to officially become JONAH, we balked,” Christopherson recalled. “It took us a bit longer, in our German-Norwegian way, to make that commitment and really make it happen.”

Ultimately the sense of caring was strong enough to persuade nine Eau Claire-area churches of different faiths to join forces to work on issues that matched their core faith values. Christopherson stepped up to head the organization. 

Among Christopherson’s acts was hiring the group’s first community organizer, John Stedman. The man who once called a dumpster in Key West, Fla., home and was open about his drug and alcohol addictions was at the forefront of many JONAH activities. He built connections with many community organizations that proved key to moving JONAH-related initiatives, particularly alternatives to incarceration, forward. 

Stedman died last year. 

“I am really proud of JONAH’s work on (criminal justice reform),” Christopherson said, “and John was a big part of that.”

Different model

JONAH tackled other issues and continued to connect with local organizations and governmental entities to further its work helping people in need. Through trainings, JONAH grew in numbers as those trained members subsequently connected to others. 

“We weren’t just a bunch of people,” Christopherson said, “but we were a group with knowledge and one made up of those who were willing to motivate others.”

Among the concepts espoused by JONAH is its model of empowering people to become part of solutions to problems, the organization’s members said. Rather than a top-down approach of working on issues, JONAH seeks to teach people — including those the organization seeks to help — to be leaders. 

“That is a key difference between JONAH and other organizations,” said Julianne Lepp, lifespan minister at Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Eau Claire, a JONAH member church. “It teaches people to be leaders, to be their own advocates.”

Community effort

When Eau Claire residents Joyce and David Anderson heard about JONAH, they felt drawn to the effort. The aim of JONAH — advocating for systemic changes to improve people’s lives — matched their personal and religious philosophies. David is a retired pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Eau Claire and is a past JONAH president and vice president. 

Since getting involved with JONAH, the couple have taken part in multiple efforts to address social justice, most notably those related to immigration. In late summer they helped organize a visit by the St. Paul-based Mexican consulate’s office to their church. About 200 Hispanic residents attended to receive assistance, legal and otherwise, with ensuring their identification papers were in order. 

JONAH appeals to the Andersons because “it embodies the spirit of caring for your neighbor,” Joyce said, and because the organization aims to not only address issues but to get at their root cause. 

As she gathers with JONAH members and others at today’s celebration dinner, McKinney said she will reflect on all the group has accomplished during the past decade. But she will think also about work remaining to improve the lives of community members. From immigration to the environment to poverty, much remains to be done, she said. 

“There are a lot of issues to address,” she said, “and we will continue to work as a community to do that.”

Contact: 715-830-5911, julian.emerson@ecpc.com