United Methodist think-tank leader takes on new role



e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service
      
 

United Methodist think-tank leader takes on new role

Aug. 2, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011 
tparham@flumc.org  Orlando {0712}

NOTE: See related e-Review FUMNS article, “Agreement with McDonald’s advances workers’ rights,” at
http://www.flumc2.org/FCNN/articles/000038/003856.htm.

An e-Review Feature
By John Michael De Marco**

The United Methodist founder of a Christian think-tank that works to foster effective dialogue on poverty has found a platform to discuss the poor in a city made famous by its rich.

Steve Hart formed The Amos Center in Naples, a community known for its affluent citizens, but also home to a population where 50 percent of schoolchildren receive free or reduced lunches.

A member of Cornerstone United Methodist Church in Naples, Hart said he and others were “concerned about the growing misuse of scripture, and misuse of church, in the public square,” and felt a need to discuss “scripturally authentic moral values, such as peace, poverty, stewardship and planet earth,” high priorities of the Old Testament prophets and Christ himself.

The center is named after the Old Testament prophet Amos, “called by God to be a plumb line by which the metaphorical structures of his society were set straight and true,” Hart said.  “He lived in the time of a divided ancient Israel and called his people to account for the arrogance of satiated living and the corresponding oppression of the poor.”

The center’s Web site says its goal is to “do its part to restore true, biblically taught moral and ethical leadership to our society.”

A veteran journalist and formerly a congressional aide to U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, Hart now has the opportunity to leverage the resources of The Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce to broaden conversations about poverty among people of faith, the business community and the government. He was recently hired as a chamber staff person and subsequently relinquished the day-to-day operation of The Amos Center, which incorporated in 2005, but does not yet occupy a physical space. 

“We started having conversations with community leaders in Southwest Florida,” Hart said. “In the course of this, we came along a number of leaders of the Greater Naples Area Chamber of Commerce. I found it really interesting and gratifying to see them lighting up like Christmas trees with the idea of focusing attention on the working poor in the region. I have long contended that in Southwest Florida, and across the state, the number-one issue nobody ever talks about in the public square is poverty.”

Hart says the socioeconomic status of the majority of people living in Naples “doesn’t quite gel with the concept of this very affluent community.”

In addition to low wages, farm workers often experience poor working conditions. In Apopka, the Florida Farmworker’s Association advocates for farm workers who are experiencing health problems associated with the pesticides and fertilizers used on the farms around Lake Apopka. The organization collected gloves of workers and sent them to Florida Senator Mel Martinez in an effort to highlight poor working conditions and advocate for greater support for workers’ rights. Photo by Martha Pierce. Photo #07-0635.

“Naples has the concept of a real rich town,” he said. “And that’s true. Yet, 80 percent of Collier County residents work in low-paying jobs.”

The lower-income workers include migrant and seasonal farm workers. In 2000 approximately 11,999 migrant and seasonal farm workers worked in Collier County, the fifth largest population among Florida counties, according to a study by the state’s Bureau of Primary Health Care of the Health Resources and Services Administration. The U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey estimates family incomes of farm workers were between $15,000 and $17,499 annually in 2000 to 2001. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates 30 percent of all farm workers had total family incomes below the department’s poverty guidelines.

What truly characterizes the big picture of his county, Hart asserts, is “a third world economy where you have a very small, very wealthy group, and the vast majority who are working paycheck to paycheck. There’s not a whole lot of middle class, people who really are comfortable. Most people are struggling.”

The Naples Chamber approached Hart and asked him to develop a public policy initiative that’s a new, more “powerful approach” to discussion, one that’s based on the greater good of community.

“I have accepted the challenge,” Hart said. His official title is vice president for public policy.
 
“Steve has been tremendously helpful in our outreach locally,” said Sarah Osmer, co-coordinator of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, a non-profit group that promotes fair wages and conditions for migrant workers. “We share a lot of goals in terms of peace and justice.”

Barbara Metcalf, a member of St. Monica’s Episcopal Church in Naples, is taking over as executive director of The Amos Center. Metcalf is a former schoolteacher and was once the head of technical writing for Microsoft.

Hart hopes the center will become a conversation facilitator during the next few years. Immediate plans call for hosting a series of lectures related to the issue of poverty. The center will also be partnering with the Florida Conference’s missions and justice ministry to help it plan an event or celebration to create greater awareness of farm worker issues among United Methodists within the conference.

“The bottom line is that the conversation and focus needs to be returned to one where, rather than looking after our own selves, we are looking after the needs of theirs (the poor’s) first,” Hart said.

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This article relates to Church and Society.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant.




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