Conference calls for sustained social justice

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Conference calls for sustained social justice

By Derek Maul | July 8, 2010 {1195}

ST. PETERSBURG  — Nearly 1.4 billion people worldwide live on less than $1.25 a day. Nearly 2.5 million Floridians live below the federal poverty line.

A recent report on human trafficking cites 12.3 million adults and children worldwide are in forced labor and prostitution. Fifty-six percent are women and girls.

Keynote speaker Shane Claiborne tells participants eradicating poverty is only possible when “we first are willing to make poverty personal.” “We can’t be a voice for the voiceless without listening to their voices,” he said. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #10-1507. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

Many faith communities work to change those realities because they believe social justice is part of their calling as disciples of Jesus Christ. Sustaining those ministries, however, is often real challenge.

A recent conference titled “A Sustainable Faith: Justice in the Real World” provided a forum for conversation around the question of how to be committed to social justice for the long haul, despite the enormity of the task.

The biannual event, held at Albright United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg and sponsored by The Missio Dei Community — an interdenominational congregation housed at the church — was designed to initiate conversation about “a faith with the capacity to endure beyond today,” or in practical terms, what a sustainable faith looks like, according to organizer Rick Bennett.

“(John) Wesley said there is no personal holiness apart from social holiness,” said the Rev. Joe

“Missio Dei doesn’t have a mission,” says the Rev. Joe Esposito, co-pastor of The Missio Dei Community. “It is mission.” Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #10-1508. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

Esposito, co-pastor at Missio Dei and the event’s prime mover. “We witness personal piety, but sacrificial love is often left behind. To worship fully, we must love God and love our neighbors. Missio Dei doesn’t have a mission; it is mission.”

Missio Dei is an “emergent” faith community embracing the idea that Christianity is in the throws of reformation, with both worship and mission emerging from the response of faith to post-modern society.

Esposito said the conference fostered open communication. “When friends speak openly and honestly, it begins a process of opening oneself to do justice and mercy,” he said.

Making it personal, authentic

The two-day symposium drew about 200 registered participants, with workshop leaders from across the United States.

“I’m here to listen and learn,” said the Rev. Kathleen Lambert, pastor at Woodlawn Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg. “I’m wide open to any ideas.”

The majority of those attending were young adults in their 20s and 30s. They came from across Central Florida to hear social justice advocate Shane Claiborne give the keynote address.

Claiborne, author of the best-selling book “The Irresistible Revolution,” has been called one of his generation’s leading voices. He travels extensively to share an emotional and pointed message, but lives with his family in one of Philadelphia’s most destitute neighborhoods, putting into practice the principles he outlines every time he is invited to speak.

Sustainability depends on what kind of Jesus-follower you are. The key is a long-term commitment and a well-grounded faith.”

Rachel Day

“We can’t make poverty history,” Claiborne said, “until we first are willing to make poverty personal. We can’t be a voice for the voiceless without listening to their voices.

“This is the holistic work of justice. We have to hope appropriately, but ideology is not enough. Ideologies don’t demand so much of us, but relationships do.”

The conference title referenced both environmental stewardship and care for gospel — stewardship of both Earth and good news.

One participant, elementary school teacher Rachel Day, worships at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland and is involved in the young adult ministry there.

“Sustainability depends on what kind of Jesus-follower you are,” she said. “The key is a long-term commitment and a well-grounded faith.”

Roger Sullins, a church musician from Tampa, said he is still in the process of working out what it means to follow Jesus with authenticity.

“It’s easy to slip back into obligations,” he said. “But it’s not about what we have to do; it’s where our relationship with God leads us. Reforming means still open to change and growth, trying to remain humble and teachable.”

Justice issues at home

A plenary moderated by Claiborne featured a conversation with representatives from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The coalition has recently been involved in protests designed to persuade food retailers to sign on to its “Campaign for Fair Food” initiative.

The presentation detailed some of the disturbing challenges migrant families face, including documented examples of forced labor and a variety of human rights violations.

Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers share their stories fighting for fair wages and safe working conditions for farm workers. As late as 2008 there were cases of farm workers locked in box trucks and released only to work. Many workers in Florida’s tomato fields earn pennies per 32-pound bucket picked. In 1978 workers earned just 40 cents per bucket. Today, the rate is 72 cents. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #10-1509. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

“There are no benefits and no recourse if we’re injured on the job,” one worker said through a translator. “Many work 12 or more hours in a day; yet we’re never paid overtime.”

“The churches are generous, and we receive charity,” another said. “But we shouldn’t need charity. I work six to seven days a week, and I can’t afford to buy the food we pick. We’re only looking for justice, so we can support ourselves with dignity.”

The farm workers weren’t there to complain. The point of their testimony was hope for positive change. They shared stories of Christ-directed lives making a real difference by answering the call of discipleship to work together for good in their own neighborhoods, towns and state.

Finding answers together

Other workshops focused on factors that help sustain ministry. A workshop taught by Spencer Burke offered insight into connectivity. Burke has been at the forefront of the emerging church movement through TheOOZE ministry, an interactive network designed to bridge the worlds of the traditional and emerging church.

Cheri Honkala shared practical ways to implement social justice objectives in local churches. Honkala is founder and national organizer for the Poor Peoples Economic Human Rights Campaign, an organization of 125 groups from across the country advocating for the poor and disadvantaged based on the economic human rights included in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights.

Another workshop offered encouragement for leaders attempting to change the culture in faith communities stuck in non-productive patterns.

Workshop leader Danielle Shroyer shared her experience in her community as pastor at Journey Church in Dallas, Texas. “One nearby church is, essentially, a Bible theme park,” she said. “But it doesn’t make any sense to try and offer competing programs. The key is to invite people to meet Jesus and to participate in the journey together.”

It’s an emphasis that resonated with Lambert. “This conversation has been encouraging,” she said. “It’s given me hope.”

Participants networked, listened, encouraged one another and prayed together.

Participants take part in a responsive prayer. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #10-1510. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

“We want to come alongside those who we don’t understand,” said Doug Pagitt, co-founder of Emergent Village in Minnesota and co-editor of “An Emergent Manifesto of Hope.”

“Not just to pray, but to come alongside,” he said, as he guided an interactive prayer experience. “Not just to pray, but to be a part of the answer.”

“Part of what allows injustice to happen is to separate ourselves and to make injustice invisible,” Claiborne said. “We need to become great collaborators, especially with people who don’t agree with us. It’s wrong to expect everyone to agree. This conference is about restorative justice, not punitive justice.”

More information about the conference is available at

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News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Maul is an author and freelance writer based in Valrico, Fla.

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