Drawing inspiration from the biblical story of Queen Esther, United Methodists and members of the AME Church from across Florida joined together to speak to state leaders on behalf of children April 3- 5 in Tallahassee.
About 60 people from the two denominations gathered at Trinity UMC in Tallahassee for Florida Advocacy Days, the Methodists’ contribution to Children’s Week, an annual advocacy effort organized by the United Way of Florida. Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker and AME 11th Episcopal District Bishop McKinley Young were present to lead the assembly.
|Members of the Florida Conference and the Florida AME Church gather outside Trinity United Methodist Church in Tallahassee prior to marching to the State Capitol to meet with legislators. (Photo by Cary McMullen)
Participants were aware that they faced a challenge. State legislators are dealing with a budget shortfall of approximately $3 billion, and many state programs, including many having to do with the health, education and welfare of children, are threatened with cuts.
At the opening worship service on April 3, the Rev. Freddie Tellis, pastor of Mount Zion AME Church in Havana, told the assembly that like Esther, they had come together “at such a time as this” to speak to people of power.
Melinda Trotti, director of Justice and Outreach Ministries for the Florida Conference, continued that theme, telling the participants that Esther used her position on behalf of people who had no way to speak up for themselves.
“Esther could have said, ‘You know, I’m OK here in the palace,’ but she decided to speak up for her people,” she said.
This text will be replaced
On April 4, participants received briefings about legislation that affected children’s programs and some of the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering influencing legislators’ votes. Guided by staff members from Florida Impact, an ecumenical lobbying organization, organizers of Florida Advocacy Days decided to focus on two legislative initiatives.
Participants were asked to tell legislators to support the Healthy Schools for Healthy Lives Act, which would transfer oversight of school nutrition and summer nutrition programs from the state Department of Education to the Department of Agriculture. According to Florida Impact, the Department of Education has not made the nutrition programs a top priority. Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam has pledged to administer the programs more efficiently, streamlining enrollment of eligible children and improving delivery of the nutrition programs.
Although the bill is on a fast track for passage in the Legislature, there is concern that Gov. Rick Scott might veto it. The Department of Education reports to Scott, while Putnam, as an elected official, has a measure of independence from the governor, and there is speculation Scott might resist losing control of the programs.
Participants in Florida Advocacy Days were asked to oppose Senate Bill 7200, which would permanently redirect documentary stamp tax revenue from the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund into the state’s general revenue fund. The Trust Fund was created by the Legislature in 1991 to help low-income people purchase homes or renovate existing homes. The Legislature has raided the fund the past three years to help balance the budget, and SB 7200 would effectively eliminate the fund altogether.
Florida Advocacy Days leaders also asked the assembly to express thanks to legislators for restoring $7.5 million in the budget for homelessness assistance programs.
Sen. Gary Siplin, a Democrat who represents District 19 in Orange and Osceola counties, came to the briefing and gave his views on legislative priorities. He expressed his support for the positions taken by Florida Advocacy Days organizers.
Bishop Whitaker, who has participated in Florida Advocacy Days since 2002, said in an interview that housing and childhood nutrition fall within the social concerns of both denominations.
“A number of years ago, we adopted as a common social witness the needs of children in poverty. Something we’ve been concerned about for many years is issues around children’s nutrition. The Healthy Schools bill seems to make sense to us. It could be an opportunity to use the resources and knowledge of the Agriculture Department to improve the quality of food being served to children,” he said.
l 5, braving bone-chilling winds that blew in on the heels of a storm, Bishops Whitaker and Young and the assembly walked to the state Capitol, where the bishops spoke briefly at a news conference organized by the United Way. Then, as participants fanned out to meet with lawmakers from their districts, Whitaker and Young met with Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam to express their support for the Healthy Schools for Healthy Lives Act.
|Bishops Timothy W. Whitaker and McKinley Young wait to speak at a news conference outside the State Capitol on April 5. (Photo by Cary McMullen)
The bishops told Putnam they would sign a letter to be sent to Speaker of the House Dean Cannon, Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Gov. Scott, supporting the act.
Young thanked Putnam for his leadership on the issue and told him, “We’ve got your back.” Putnam expressed gratitude for their support and explained how his office would administer the program if the bill becomes law.
Also present in the meeting were the Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, and the Ven. Dennis McManis, canon for mission and outreach in the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida. At the conclusion of the meeting, McManis prayed for Putnam, an Episcopalian who grew up in Southern Polk County and attended a small Episcopal church in Fort Meade.
Putnam joked that Methodists and Episcopalians are related, after all.
“I believe Mr. Wesley was an Anglican priest,” he said.
Participants later reconvened at Trinity for lunch and to report on their meetings with legislators. Rosemary Uebel, a member of First United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, said she and others met with Sen. Jack Latvala, who represents parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and Rep. Jeff Brandes, who represents Pinellas County. Latvala was not receptive at first, she said, but began to warm up.
“As we talked to him, you could see his face change. We didn’t get to speak to all our points, but he said he supported the (school nutrition) bill,” she said.
The Rev. Wayne Wiatt, superintendent of the East Central District, said he discovered “it’s all about relationships” in his meetings with Sens. Andy Gardiner and David Simmons, who represent districts in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties. Wiatt invited the senators to tour the Food and Community Outreach Center in Orlando, run by the Rev. Scott George, interim pastor of Pine Castle UMC.
“They were very impressed with how the United Methodist Church is involved in social ministry,” he said.
And the president of the Florida United Methodist Women, Nelida Morales, got special treatment at her meeting with Rep. Jose Felix Diaz. An aide served her espresso coffee, a particular favorite of Morales, as she waited.
Reflecting on his experience in Tallahassee, Whitaker said the briefings he received about the level of poverty underscored the importance of the advocacy undertaken.
“I am really disturbed by how many needy people there are in Florida today, especially children. For example, over the last 10 years, there has been a 71.4 percent increase in the number of children in the school breakfast program and a 33.9 percent increase in the summer nutrition program. Out of 18.5 million citizens, 2.7 million Floridians live below the federal poverty level,” he said.
“The State of Florida is facing very serious budget challenges, but neither the State nor the rest of us, including our churches, should turn our faces away from the needs of our fellow citizens during this difficult economic time.”