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Conference Table participants say children should be top priority

Conference Table participants say children should be top priority

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Conference Table participants say children should be top priority

March 10, 2007    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0635}

An e-Review Feature
By Tita Parham

SPRING HILL — The goal for the day was ambitious: identify one social justice issue all Florida Conference churches can embrace and act upon.

Although participants attending the “Shaping a Common Social Witness” Conference Table Jan. 27 did not identify a specific strategy, they did agree conference churches should collectively focus on the needs of children.

Now it will be up to a small task force of people from the group to decide exactly what that means and present recommendations for specific goals and outcomes at the annual conference event in Lakeland in June.

Alice Williams, a member of St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Windermere, and other participants at the Jan. 27 Conference Table on social witness vote for the issues they feel should be a priority of the conference. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #07-0536.

Nearly 60 people participated in the discussion, either by attending the gathering at First United Methodist Church in Spring Hill or by webcast. The fact they were able to agree on one area of focus despite the state’s many issues and people’s passions for addressing particular issues was seen as real progress.

Alice Williams was pleased with the outcome. Williams is a member of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Windermere and convener of the conference’s Leadership Connection. She said one of her top concerns is affordable health care, from the lack of health plans in the workplace to nurses in public schools. After participants decided children’s issues and inclusiveness of conference churches should be the conference’s top two concerns, Williams said she was leaning toward inclusiveness as the more pressing of the two. But after additional discussion she said she was convinced focusing on children’s issues should be the conference’s priority.

“I was so moved by this thought that if we get it right with the kids from the get-go (then) we’ve got it right,” she said. “It is so amazing how God has worked in this room.”

The importance of “getting it right” with children, and youth, was expressed by a number of participants, including Len Jacobs.

As a Native American he said he has seen extreme poverty on reservations, high suicide rates among Native American youth, and youth “rejected in the white world and not welcome at home.”

“Children pick up the tab for all our mistakes — they don’t create wars, they don’t create poverty,” he said, adding the conference needs to focus on children “so they don’t pick up the tab for us.”

Others expressed the belief that dealing with issues affecting children, such as poverty and hunger, would have a trickle-down effect, improving other issues, including inclusiveness.

The Rev. Marilyn Beecher, a church and community worker with the General Board of Global Ministries and director of outreach for the conference’s East Central District, said providing services to children is one of the best ways to “open doors” because it offers the opportunity to work with other people.

She said churches can become more aware of other needs, such as those of single parents, “if we’re really paying attention,” and services or programs that build relationships “can lead to inclusiveness.”

Agreeing to agree

Conference Table organizers helped participants agree on the issues by leading them through a process of discernment before voting for specific issues.

Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker also helped frame the day’s discussion by sharing the biblical mandate to engage in acts of mercy and justice as part of the church’s Christian witness, the three basic forms of Christian witness in society established by the early church and the Wesleyan tradition of social witness.

The list of issues considered came in large part from participants. After registering, they were asked to answer the question: “What is one compelling issue you believe United Methodist churches should address that would enhance our witness for Christ?”

Walter Dry Sr., a member of First United Methodist Church of Spring Hill, the host church for the Conference Table on social witness, writes what he feels is the greatest issue Florida faces today on the sessions's grafitti wall. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #07-0537.

From that feedback a list of several dozen issues was developed. The list was posted at the session, and participants could add to it by writing their concerns on butcher-block paper, what organizers called the graffiti wall, taped to the wall.

Lynette Fields, a member of the Conference Table’s planning team and staff person at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Windermere, combined the feedback into one list. She and Felecia O’Neal, another team member and associate pastor at First United Methodist Church of Lakeland, then led participants in a time or reflection over the issues before deciding which one or two should be the conference’s focus. O’Neal read portions of scripture dealing with acts of justice and mercy that had been included in the worship earlier that morning and asked participants to pray and reflect on the issues in light of the scripture.

Participants were also instructed to consider a set of criteria. Fields said the issues should be ones every conference church can embrace and act upon; be Gospel-directed needs in which the response reflects the image of God; make an impact beyond The United Methodist Church; be a concern that has relevance throughout Florida, regardless of such factors as geography or culture; and be ones which enable a response that addresses the root causes of suffering related to the expressed concern.

After narrowing the list to six issues, participants went through another period of discernment to narrow the list to two issues. To make their choices Fields asked them to consider additional criteria: the issues had to be compelling and the goals associated with them “audacious, doable and right for the Florida Conference at this time.”

Participants voted children’s issues and inclusiveness the top concerns.

Mercy versus justice

Deciding which one or two social justice issues to tackle led to discussion and clarification about the difference between justice and acts of mercy.

Acts of mercy were defined as more service-oriented — setting up a food pantry to fight hunger, picking up litter to protect the environment, donating money to homeless shelters. Acts of justice focus on addressing the root causes of issues — advocating for policies at the state and local level that deal with hunger or poverty, encouraging church members to invest in socially conscious funds that don’t support companies producing tobacco or alcohol, investing money in banks that provide low-interest loans for housing.

Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker suggested to participants attending the Jan. 27 Conference Table that a worthwhile Christian social witness would be one "along the same lines as the 1908 Social Creed,” which influenced the development of reform in American labor practices and focused on reducing hours, providing a living wage and instituting child labor laws. “It was concrete, not a vague sentimental list of ideals for society,” Whitaker said. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #07-0538.

In his opening remarks to participants, the Rev. Clarke Campbell-Evans, senior pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Tallahassee and chair of the planning team, referenced John Wesley’s concern for miners in England and ending slavery as social justice issues of the early Methodist Church.

Whitaker also noted Wesley’s advocacy and his preferred method of practicing Christian social witness — personal charity, cooperation with other Christians in providing social services and advocating on behalf of people hurt by society.

Whitaker highlighted Wesley’s push to develop an employment project for women, a loan fund for poor Methodists, and orphanages and schools. Wesley also worked to end slavery and the practice of evicting tenants from farms and was an advocate for the environment. Whitaker said Wesley was also against the American Revolution because he viewed the colonists as hypocrites. He said they professed the belief that all people possess inalienable rights, while at the same time denying women, slaves and Indians the right to vote.

Whitaker pointed to the 1908 adoption of the Social Creed, what he called one of the most significant events of The Methodist Church, as an example of the kind of social impact the church can have. The Social Creed influenced the development of reform in American labor practices and focused on reducing hours, providing a living wage and instituting child labor laws.

“The creed said how to live, but it was not legalistic,” Whitaker said. “It was concrete, not a vague sentimental list of ideals for society.”

“If we are really serious,” he said, “about advocacy and influencing policymakers, then we need an agenda along the same lines as the 1908 Social Creed.”

In small group discussions around selected scripture, some participants said it’s not always easy to tackle the social justice issue.

“We do what’s comfortable,” said the Rev. Bill McLoud, pastor of the Spring Hill church. “As Christians, we tend to take the easy road.”

Referencing Luke 8:1-3, in which Jesus, his disciples and a group of women “who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities” go into the villages to teach and heal people, McLoud said, “I believe he wants us to do justice. Sometimes we can hide behind acts of mercy.”

(From left to right) The Rev. Bill McLoud; Lenny Schultz, a lay member of Hernando United Methodist Church; and the Rev. Wayne Curry discuss various Bible passages dealing with acts of mercy and justice, the differences between the two, and why churches often find it difficult to tackle social justice issues at the Jan. 27 Conference Table. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #07-0539.

The Rev. Wayne Curry, superintendent of the Gulf Central District, said another factor is the tension in local churches between holding members accountable for their injustices against other people and the risk of losing support, financially and in other ways, from those members.

“Can we say there is no risk in mercy, but there is risk in justice?” he said.

Thrown into the mix was discussion about the value of initiatives that help many people, versus the individual.

Judith Pierre-Okerson, chairwoman of the conference’s refugee and immigration ministries, said the church can’t help just the individual. It needs to “change the system to help the thousands of others.”

Curry suggested churches sometimes must start with the individual “so you can put a human face” on the issue. “You can’t have justice without mercy,” he said.

The next step

Saying conference churches will focus on children doesn’t identify a social issue or goal all churches can embrace, however, so a small group of volunteers agreed to develop goals that fit the criteria explained at the gathering and present them at the upcoming annual conference event.

Participants did offer some suggestions: end hunger in children, improve literacy and the state’s schools, provide affordable health care and housing.

The Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder, director of the conference’s Connectional Ministries office, suggested possible themes: every child loved, fed, nurtured; every child belongs; “bring our children home.” “What does it mean for us to be a collective home for children?” she asked.

Burkholder said the challenge is to develop an emphasis that sounds “compelling and audacious to others.”

In an e-mail sent while viewing the webcast, the Rev. Ron McCreary, senior pastor at John Wesley United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, said, “The ‘audacious’ (goal) would be to press for the creation of, or to create ourselves, a one-stop helping agency that can effectively address all of these issues for families with children.”

Betsy Grizzard, a member of First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, cautioned that whatever is done, it should get to the root of the problem, the justice issue, be “the dirt under our fingernails approach.”


This article relates to Church and Society.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.