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A MICAH Founding Pastor: Reverend Dr. Dennis Jacobsen

By Patricia Obletz, MICAH Communication Team

It’s not surprising that Rev. Dr. Dennis Jacobsen wanted to help create a multi-racial interfaith organization committed to the goal of empowering people to act together for justice in pursuit of their individual and collective interests… using education, advocacy, and action, to paraphrase MICAH’s motto and mission statement. His background is in congregation-based organizing.

Inspired towards ministry by the pastor of his childhood church in Chicago, Rev. Jacobsen graduated from Valparaiso University (B.A., 1969) and then Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1973) in St. Louis, Missouri. His field placement in seminary was in Kinloch, a low-income black suburb without running water --- “(A) real eye-opener,” he said. Other influences were Black Liberation Theology, the poet and peace activist Fr. Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.

Jacobsen’s first assignment after seminary was as a worker-priest in campus ministry at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh. In addition to ministering to students, Jacobsen formed a local support committee on behalf of Martin Sostre, a political prisoner serving a 20–40 year sentence at nearby Clinton Correctional Facility. Through this political work, Jacobsen met and became a close friend with Fr. Daniel Berrigan. The efforts on behalf of Sostre led to his winning clemency from the Governor of New York.

In 1978, Rev. Jacobsen moved to New York City where he helped to found an anti-war community, Kairos (“Greek for God’s time, the fullness of time”), which organized civil disobedience actions at a Pentagon-funded think tank in Manhattan. In 1980, Jacobsen headed up the defense committee for the Plowshares Eight (including Dan and Phil Berrigan) who faced heavy prison sentences for enacting Isaiah’s prophecy of swords into plowshares at a nuclear weapons facility in Pennsylvania.

While serving as pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Jersey City, New Jersey (1980–87), Jacobsen was a founding pastor of ICO, a congregation-based organization affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation. In 1987, Jacobsen received his Doctor of Ministry degree from New York Theological Seminary with a dissertation on congregation-based organizing.

Jacobsen and his wife, attorney Lynn Novotnak, moved to Milwaukee in 1987 where he was called to serve as pastor of Incarnation Lutheran Church. After a few weeks in Milwaukee, he spoke to a friend who worked with Central City Catholic Churches and learned about the Gamaliel Foundation and the possibility of starting a Gamaliel affiliate here. It was a combined effort of the Central City Catholic Churches and Karen Royster, then director of the Hunger Task Force, that drew clergy into the formative process that gave birth to MICAH, Dr. Jacobsen said. Incarnation was one of the founding congregations of MICAH.

“We had the good fortune of hiring Cheryl Spivey-Perry as the first organizer of MICAH in 1988. She was dynamite,” Jacobsen said. About 1,200 people attended MICAH’s first public meeting at Our Saviors Lutheran Church, which made the front page of the Milwaukee Journal. Such a massive, multi-racial, public meeting was almost unprecedented in Milwaukee.

MICAH Churches challenge integrity of banks

One of the early significant victories of MICAH was the banking campaign, Rev. Jacobsen said. Ana Garcia-Ashley, now the Executive Director of Gamaliel, was the successor to Spivey-Perry as MICAH organizer and drove this campaign. Jacobsen has vivid memories of meeting with then president and CEO of M&I Bank, Dennis Kuester, in his office. “The meeting with Dennis Kuester followed the release of federal data that showed a 5 to 1 rejection rate of African Americans to whites on home mortgage loan applications, regardless of income level between black and white applicants,” Rev. Jacobsen said. “So we said we wanted M&I to deliver $50 million of home mortgage loans within the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) zip codes --- which is how we defined the geography of MICAH in the beginning. That meeting became confrontational --- Rev. Leary challenged Kuester pretty strongly and he became pretty angry, but it ended up becoming a real victory. Kuester made the commitment. He’s a very deeply committed Christian, and I think it was hard for him that churches were challenging the integrity of his institution. I don’t think he ever believed that the disparity of loan rejections was due to blatant racism. What he did acknowledge was the need for the bank to do a better job and look at the various criteria used in granting mortgages. I recall that membership in a MICAH congregation was looked upon as a favorable indicator of stability.”

“We had a summit at Calvary Baptist Church when Rev. Leary was the pastor. It was a big moment: Mayor John Norquist came and Dennis Kuester announced M&I’s commitment to do $50 million of home mortgage loans in the inner city. Kuester then worked with Ana Garcia Ashley and MICAH leaders to co-host an event at the University Club for the heads of 17 financial institutions. We had a packet prepared for them with what MICAH wanted from each of them.”

At a subsequent MICAH public meeting, Rev. Jacobsen spoke to more than 1,000 people about the campaign and announced the agreements of the 17 banks collectively to direct over $500 million in home mortgage loans to develop the inner city of Milwaukee. In five years, that figure increased to $700 million. MICAH’s fortitude in facing down the financial sector also resulted in a number of African Americans and Latinos being hired as loan officers, Jacobsen said.

The next significant moment that Rev. Jacobsen cited was the night that MICAH leaders “took over the County Executive’s offices because Milwaukee County was poised to eliminate all treatment funding for uninsured drug addicts and alcoholics. We had tried to meet with the County Executive to avert this crisis, but he refused to meet with us, so the night before there was going to be a vote, we went to his office and said we were just going to have a long prayer. We stayed overnight. The police shut down the building, but didn’t make any arrests. In the morning, the supervisors voted to spend $5 million a year on treatment for the next three years.”

Dr. Jacobsen says that MICAH has won many significant victories over the years. In 1992, MICAH began organizing for school improvement, such as, increasing state funding for early grade class size reduction in low income schools and improving student access to school nurses. The latter received national attention and involved millions of dollars. At one point, there had been only one school nurse for every 7,000 students.

The day that MICAH clergy protested the impending war in Iraq with a civil disobedience action at the federal building was particularly memorable, Rev. Jacobsen said. Sr. Rose Stietz, who started the MICAH prayer vigils at places of homicides more than 20 years ago, drawing angels at each site, also drew angels at the anti-Iraq War protest at the federal building in anticipation of all those who would be slaughtered.

Dr. Jacobsen also said that today’s economy and the current weak political leadership in Milwaukee make it difficult to advocate for major causes. Even so, in 2012, MICAH launched three substantial initiatives, including the statewide 11×15 campaign to reduce the prison population from 22,000 to 11,000 by 2015. Jacobsen serves on MICAH’s 11×15 Task Force.

In March, MICAH launched Hands Across the Viaduct, an intentional and deliberate relationship building effort among minority groups and services agencies to unite to build a better future for all. Rallies have been held on north and south sides of Milwaukee followed by canvassing the next day to inform residents of resources available to them in their neighborhoods.

In August, MICAH and the Black Health Coalition filed a lawsuit against the US Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and the WI Department of Transportation over the $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange expansion because it fails to accommodate public transportation and minority jobs “in the most racially segregated region of the United States.” Most jobs left Milwaukee for the suburbs, making it impossible to follow them without cars.

On a local level, the fieldhouse, including restroom facilities, at Lindbergh Park near Incarnation Lutheran Church, was shut down for years due to asbestos, broken plumbing pipes, mold and more. Incarnation’s MICAH Core Team (Holy Ground) organized for improvements and was featured at a MICAH public meeting. MICAH clergy phoned county supervisors to highlight this matter and encourage their support, which resulted in a $300,000 grant to demolish the fieldhouse and to build a new pavilion. An additional $500,000 has been committed for a new splash pad. Construction of the pavilion and the splash pad is scheduled for completion in spring 2013.

Jacobsen has documented some of the early victories of MICAH in his book Doing Justice: congregations and community organizing (Fortress Press, 2001), which has been widely used in seminaries, colleges, and among grassroots organizers, clergy, and lay leaders. Because of his efforts in MICAH, Jacobsen was drawn into leadership positions in Gamaliel and served as the Director of the Gamaliel National Clergy Caucus from 1995 through 2012. In this position, he has offered presentations and trainings across the country and in Tanzania and the United Kingdom.

As MICAH continues to do what is just into the future, Rev. Dr. Dennis Jacobsen will continue to be a guiding voice and participant.



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