"...both scripture and our Wesleyan tradition calls on Methodists to speak up for those that cannot, and I think doing so truly makes an important difference in the lives of children."
During Florida’s state legislative session, there are many lobbyists promoting agendas of large corporations and special-interest groups, but when it comes to Florida’s most vulnerable residents – children and poor families – there’s often a shortage of resources and insider know-how to make representatives aware of a bill’s potential benefits or adverse impacts on this often overlooked population.
That’s why for more than a decade, the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church and the 11th Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church have partnered with Florida Impact and United Way to organize Florida Advocacy Days to prepare clergy and laity to lobby elected officials on children’s issues.
Annual legislative briefings are held during Children's Week, a six-day gathering at Florida’s state capital to promote children’s issues and celebrate the progress and achievements of the state’s youngest residents.
During January 30-31, about 30 United Methodists from across Florida gathered at Trinity UMC in Tallahassee. (Because of a conflict with their annual conference, members of the AME Church were unable to attend this year.) But that did not diminish the importance of the group’s mission: “You make sure we do the right thing for children,” said Florida Gov. Rick Scott in welcoming attendees to Children’s Week.
After a day of training, briefings on issues and prayer, Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker and Rev. E. Wayne Curry, Senior Pastor of Trinity UMC, led attendees marching to the state Capitol. There, all dispersed in groups to meet with state senators and representatives from their respective districts.
|(l-r) Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, Bishop Ed Benoway of the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Bishop Chuck Leigh of the Apostolic Catholic Church and Bishop Timothy Whitaker met with Rep. W. Greg Steube during Florida Advocacy Days. Photo-Colleen Hart|
In his separate meetings with Representatives W. Greg Steube, District 67 (R), and Dana D. Young, District 57 (R), Bishop Whitaker was joined by Bishop Ed Benoway of the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and Bishop Chuck Leigh of the Apostolic Catholic Church who also serves as president of the Florida Council of Churches, and the Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches.
Among the issues these clergy leaders discussed with both representatives were: proposed budget cuts to Medicaid; the need to reinstate funding for a homeless coalition that could garner Federal funds and challenge grants; and the church’s opposition to proposed legislation that would restrict the use of SNAP (food stamps) benefits and cash assistance to needy families.
“As United Methodists, our concerns are regarding legislation that would impact our specialized ministries in missions,” said Whitaker. He explained that in the wake of the national economic downturn, many local churches are struggling to help their own members by using church resources traditionally devoted to outreach ministries for homeless and hungry. Church members who once donated to the food pantries and volunteered at shelters now must turn to them for food and housing assistance. Tough times mean state-funded programs and resources like the homeless coalition are critical needs at the local church level.
While both Rep. Steube and Young acknowledged Medicaid cuts would hurt vulnerable populations – since 83% of the 3.1 million Florida Medicaid patients are children, pregnant women, disabled or elderly – they warned that Florida’s billion-dollar budget deficit is requiring some difficult choices as legislators struggle to create a balanced budget.
“It would be great not to have to cut,” agreed Rep. Steube, who serves on the Florida House Appropriations Committee. He pointed out that the House’s proposed budget includes only a 7% cut to Medicaid, which is significantly less than the governor’s proposed budget and assured attendees that the House budget was striving to keep children’s hospitals safe from cuts.
The clergy leaders also expressed their appreciation and support to Rep. Young, who has expressed opposition to proposed legislation that would restrict SNAP food stamps and cash assistance.
“So many of the proposed legislations have the effect of punishing the poor for being poor,” said Melinda Trotti, director of Justice and Outreach Ministries for the Florida Conference. “I think legislators appreciate meeting with United Methodists during Florida Advocacy Days because we are able to reframe some of the divisiveness in a way the puts a face on it.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by attendees at lunch at Trinity UMC. Several encountered resistance attributed to the need for budget cuts, but most attendees reported eventual success at giving a voice to a group that is often overlooked.
The 2012 Florida Advocacy Days also celebrated successes achieved by last year’s participants. Their efforts were instrumental in passing the Healthy Schools for Healthy Lives Act, which transferred oversight of school nutrition and summer nutrition programs from the state Department of Education to the Department of Agriculture. Though the change is less than a year old, reports indicate that the programs are administered more efficiently, enrollment of eligible children has been streamlined and delivery of the nutrition programs has improved – all to the benefit of hungry children.
The annual event also was a farewell to Trotti, who concluded her service as director of Justice and Outreach Ministries before relocating to California, and to Bishop Whitaker who is retiring this summer.
“When I first started attending Florida Advocacy Days, I think there were many in the conference who wondered why is the Bishop involved,” noted Whitaker. “But both scripture and our Wesleyan tradition calls on Methodists to speak up for those that cannot, and I think doing so truly makes an important difference in the lives of children.”