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United Methodists rally for children at state capitol

United Methodists rally for children at state capitol

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

United Methodists rally for children at state capitol

April 15, 2008     News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0830}

An e-Review Feature
By Erik J. Alsgaard**

TALLAHASSEE — Breakfast. It’s one of the most important meals of the day. It refuels the body and provides the energy needed to get through the morning. Research has shown that children who eat breakfast perform better at school.

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker (right) greets Sen. Ken Pruitt (R-Port St. Lucie), president of the Florida Senate, April 1 during Children’s Week in Tallahassee. Whitaker and African Methodist Episcopal Bishop McKinley Young joined met with Pruitt and other legislators about children’s issues, including the need for affordable housing and meal programs. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #08-0804.

For countless children across Florida, that important meal is a luxury.

Children’s advocates are determined to change that, however, even in the face of a struggling economy and the looming threat of cuts in the state’s budget.

Florida Conference United Methodists, who have declared that children are their social issue priority, joined their voices and hearts with dozens of public and private nonprofit organizations from around the state March 29-April 2 during Children’s Week at the Florida Capitol.

With thousands of children’s handprints adorning the capitol rotunda, Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker spent April 1 meeting with political and religious leaders to advocate on behalf of children. African Methodist Episcopal Bishop McKinley Young joined Whitaker to meet with legislators about the needs of affordable housing and nutrition.

“We are engaging our churches around a common social agenda,” Whitaker said during a meeting with President of the Florida Senate Ken Pruitt (R-Port St. Lucie). “We are intentionally engaging in ministry to and for children and partnering with others like the African Methodist Episcopal Church to advocate with the legislature: don’t forget our children.”

The bishops, along with Melinda Trotti, Florida Conference director of Justice and Spirituality Ministries, and Debra Susie, director of Florida Impact, met with Pruitt for 15 minutes to talk about affordable housing and feeding programs for children.

“Feeding children is one of our most dramatic issues,” the senator agreed. “Putting food in the bellies of babies is a paramount concern. It is the role of government to take care of those who can’t care for themselves.”

Members, advocates fight to feed children year-round

That day of advocacy for Florida United Methodists began with a brief worship and communion service at the chapel of Trinity United Methodist Church, a few blocks from the capitol. The Rev. Barbara Awoniyi, pastor of New Life United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, sounded the tone for the day by preaching about Hagar from Genesis 21.

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker recognizes the Rev. Tony Rosenburg and his congregation, Crawfordville United Methodist Church, for their efforts in partnering with other groups in their community to provide feeding programs for children during the summer school break. Whitaker made the presentation April 1 during a service at Trinity United Methodist Church in Tallahassee. After the service Whitaker and a group of more than 37 United Methodist Women and pastors headed to the state’s capitol to meet with other groups and legislators on behalf of Florida’s children during the annual Children’s Week event. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #08-0805.

“There are thousands of Hagars in our midst who would place children under a bush,” she said.
“If an angel does not rescue them, thousands will die. As St. Theresa of Avilla once said, ‘God has no hands but our hands.” We are on a mission; the survival and the protection of our children depend on you.”

During the service, Whitaker recognized Crawfordville United Methodist Church and its pastor, the Rev. Tony Rosenberger. The church has partnered with other groups in its community to provide meals for children during the summer months when schools are on break and children aren’t receiving the meals they’d normally get at school.

“I’m always looking for ways to connect with other churches to work on poverty in our community and county,” Rosenberger said. “As a church, we’re in a time of transition, of moving our whole missional focus to looking outward, not inward; to opening our eyes to see the issues that are in our community and asking, ‘How can we be a blessing to others?’ ”

Rosenberger said his church collected an offering of $200 last year that was given to Mt. Trial Primitive Baptist Church in Sopchoppy, Fla., which coordinated a summer feeding program. For Crawfordville United Methodist Church, this was something new.

“We support other things — the (Florida United Methodist) Children’s Home,” Rosenberger said. “But this is really the first time we’ve done anything like this.”

Rosenberger’s lay leader, David Miller, was also recognized during the worship service for his role in helping with feeding programs as Wakulla County’s school superintendent.

Whitaker then presented a check for $20,000 to Susie to assist with Florida Impact’s work. The money was raised through offerings taken at the recent 2008 Women’s Retreats at the Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park.

Holding a $20,000 check raised for Florida Impact through offerings collected at the recent 2008 Women’s Retreats and just presented to her by Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker, Florida Impact Director Debra Susie addresses a group of Florida Conference United Methodist Women and pastors April 1 at a church service at Trinity United Methodist Church in Tallahassee. The group was at the state’s capitol to advocate for children’s issues during the annual Children’s Week event. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #08-0806.

Since 1979, Florida Impact has been dedicated to reducing hunger and poverty in Florida. Its mission is to inspire and enlist Floridians in securing justice for and with those whose economic rights have not been realized. The Florida Conference has been a supporter of the organization since its inception.

One of Florida Impact’s priorities is making breakfast both part of the school day in Florida and free for all students in schools with a high concentration of low-income students, Susie said.

“Only one in three low-income students are participating in the breakfast program currently being offered,” she said, noting certain structural situations make it difficult for children to be at breakfast.

“First,” Susie said, “students currently have to arrive before school starts. Then, they have to go to a separate location, usually the cafeteria, and in the minds of some children, that identifies them a little too clearly as poor. So, rather than be stigmatized by other children and their peers, they don’t show up.”

The “Breakfast Bill” now supported by Florida Impact would make breakfast part of the school day — making it easier for children to arrive in time to eat — and available to all children.

Florida Impact is also working on measures that would support breakfast programs during the summer recess period, when low-income families have to pay for food they were receiving for free or a reduced price the other nine months of the year.

Churches, Susie said, are uniquely qualified locations where summer feeding programs could take place.

“They have kitchens, they have volunteers, they have fellowship halls,” she said. “There are federal dollars available to help, and if churches would partner with others, churches can really pick up the slack.”

Affordable housing: the other piece of the puzzle

The issue of affordable housing was also addressed during Children’s Week. Ruth Mageria, director of volunteers and congregational development for C.R.O.S. Ministries in Palm Beach County, said it is a huge issue for that community.

Florida Conference United Methodists march to the Florida Capitol April 1 during the annual Children’s Week event. Their goal: to meet with advocacy groups and state legislators about children’s issues, specifically meal programs for children while school is in session and during the summer break and affordable housing. The conference's United Methodist Women make it a priority to have a strong contingent of representatives at the gathering each year. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #08-0807.

“A lot of homeless people are whole families who are afraid to come out of being homeless because they’re afraid their children will be taken away from them,” she said. “We have many people coming to our food pantry because they are forced to make a decision: pay the rent or buy some food. That’s a heartbreaking choice to have to make.”

C.R.O.S. — Christians Reaching Out to Society — is supported by contributions from many United Methodist churches in that area, along with numerous community and faith groups. It’s also an outreach ministry of the Florida Conference. Its mission is to enable people of all faiths to work together to identify needs, collaborate with community groups and assist in creating solutions for members of the community who are in need.

Susie said there is a role for United Methodists to address the political process and the issues of affordable housing and nutrition for children.

“When it comes down to these money issues and budgets that are tight, then we are left with that moral obligation to take care of others,” she said. “And nobody can express that better than people of faith.”

More information on Children’s Week and Florida Impact is available at and, respectively. C.R.O.S. Ministries’ Web site is


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.