Chattanooga Council weighs deal for outreach program

Chattanooga Council weighs deal for outreach program

May 18th, 2012 by Ansley Haman in News

Chattanooga City Council member Sally Robinson

Chattanooga City Council member Sally Robinson

A Chattanooga councilwoman's daughter has operated an informal refugee assistance and literacy program in a city building for more than a year, and she wants to formalize the arrangement next week.

In a committee meeting Tuesday, City Council members peppered Councilwoman Sally Robinson's daughter Susannah Murdock with questions about Neema Resettlement Outreach Ministry, which she has been developing over the last six months.

Members wanted to know if the organization is faith-based. They also discussed whether the proposal to allow a $1-a-year "temporary use agreement," in which the city will provide telephone and electricity services, would be fair if it couldn't offer the same to other organizations.

"It seems like it almost sets a precedent," Councilwoman Deborah Scott said.

Murdock's organization began working in the city's human services building at 501 W. 12th St. about 18 months ago, after an African woman was reportedly raped at College Hill Courts and had to wait several days for translation services.

"I went to the mayor and sort of explained what we were doing," Murdock said in an interview after the committee meeting. "I contacted my mom, who is on City Council, and asked if there was anything we could do."

The city allowed Murdock and an ordained Episcopal minister, Peter Kanyi, to use the space to work with refugees, many Africans, who don't speak English. Murdock's church, St. Timothy's Episcopal, lists her as the Neema outreach contact.

The organization assists refugees and teaches literacy twice weekly. The organization has received about $100,000 in grants and serves as many as 142 clients at a time, Murdock said.

She said the organization is pursuing its 501(c)(3) designation and is operating as a component of the Community Foundation.

Their name, Neema, means "grace" in Kiswahili, Murdock said.

Councilwoman Pam Ladd said the title concerns her.

"I think some would question whether or not we had mixed church and state," Ladd said. She asked if Murdock would consider changing it.

Murdock said the organization is not a religious ministry, but said of Kanyi, "it's that kind of Christian compassion that makes him effective at his job."

Councilwoman Carol Berz took issue with that characterization, saying compassion can be broader than one faith.

Assistant Attorney Phil Noblett said after the meeting that he is unaware of any other arrangements like this between the city and organizations such as Neema.

Robinson disclosed her relationship with Murdock and said she will recuse herself from the vote next week but spoke in favor of the organization.