No pedigree needed to press justice issues
|Rick Bennett joined Justice and Outreach Ministries in January.|
A self-described “mutt” when it comes to religion, Rick Bennett didn’t grow up a Methodist.
In fact, the Daytona Beach native is a former Baptist minister who planted churches in other parts of the country before family needs called him back to his home state and he landed a job as interim director of Justice and Outreach Ministries for the Florida Conference.
The idea of being a “voice for the voiceless” by reminding people in power of those less advantaged carried strong appeal, said Bennett, 43, who settled into his new role at the end of January. He is especially interested in ministries that benefit children.
“Most things touch children,” Bennett said. “We are really strongly working on children’s hunger issues. … Hunger is a big issue in education. Hungry kids don’t learn.”
Among his current goals is getting churches interested in starting or participating in summer feeding programs that can help replace the nutrition low-income
kids get through free and reduced-price lunches during the school year.
On Jan. 30, the day he started work, he joined United Methodists in Tallahassee during Florida Advocacy Days to press for the needs of people in poverty, particularly the hungry and homeless.
“They [lawmakers] don’t hear very often from the side of the vulnerable,” Bennett said. “It’s not an equal playing field for everyone, though we like to think it is in America.”
Thanks to the efforts of Methodists and others, the children’s summer feeding program is being moved from Department of Education oversight to the Department of Agriculture, he said.
“Things can get lost in the education program more than in agriculture,” Bennett said. “In agriculture, they know how to do food. They can get permission to go into sites and feed people.”
Also close to his heart are the interests of migrant farm workers. Bennett said he is working with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to advocate for higher wages and a path to legal residency or citizenship for people who toil in Florida’s fields.
“We all benefit from the work they do because we buy cheap vegetables,” he said.
Other programs under Bennett’s purview include Creation Care, an effort to help churches be good environmental stewards, and prison ministry work.
Bennett received a bachelor’s degree in political science and communications from Florida State University and then went on to obtain his master’s degree in divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He was called to his first church leadership role as an associate pastor in Richmond, Va., where he met the woman he would marry, Kristi. The couple now live in Tampa with their three children and attend Hyde Park UMC.
Bennett worked about two years for Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa before joining the Conference.
Though social justice ministry is his primary interest, Bennett said he also has a special place in his heart for people who may feel like “misfits” in mainstream denominations that insist on strict adherence to doctrine. He calls such people “mutts.”
“They’re people who ask too many questions,” he said. “They love Jesus, but the institutional church doesn’t make sense to them.”
He said he and his family feel at home at the Hyde Park church.
A lot of Methodist churches are safe churches, so they attract the mutts,” Bennett said. “That’s what people want. They just want a safe place.”
Beth Fogle-Miller, Connectional Ministries director for the Florida Conference, said she was glad she and others chose Bennett to fill the position vacated by Melinda Trotti, who accepted a job in California last year. The Justice and Outreach job is an interim position because conference divisions could change with the anticipated arrival of a new bishop in the fall.
“He’s a maverick,” Fogle-Miller said of Bennett. “He’s very adaptable and entrepreneurial.”
Despite the interim nature of the position, the Conference had many impressive candidates to choose from, Fogle-Miller said. She said Bennett stood out because of his background in social justice ministries and his track record of networking with people to accomplish a variety of goals.
She said she was thrilled when Bennett accompanied others from the Conference to Florida Advocacy Days on his first day at work.
“He just dove right in,” she said.
Bennett said local churches across Florida are encouraged to participate in some kind of social justice ministry by reaching out to the communities around them. Those near schools and surrounded by young families can start a “pack-a-sack” lunch program that delivers nutritious meals to children, he said. Others may find a different outreach more appropriate. For ideas, contact Bennett at 1-800-282-8011, ext. 504, or firstname.lastname@example.org.