Main Menu

Orlando church helps educate voters on issues

Orlando church helps educate voters on issues

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Orlando church helps educate voters on issues

Oct. 27, 2008  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0931}

NOTE: See related story, “Churches open doors to voters during election season,” at:

An e-Review Feature
By Tita Parham

ORLANDO — Don’t be bashful. Get involved. Talk to your elected officials.

That was the advice Dick Batchelor gave about 80 people gathered Sept. 29 for a community forum sponsored by St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando.

The Rev. Bill Barnes, senior pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando, talks to forum participants about the need for a living wage that enables people to sustain a household and how the church puts that belief into practice when determining wages for church employees. Pictured with Barnes is fellow panel member Dr. Valerie King, director of the Office of Diversity Initiatives at the University of Central Florida. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-1040. For longer description see photo gallery.

“When you feel public officials are making decisions that are wrong, you must call them,” he said. “You must talk to the people who have the ability to cast votes.”

The long-time Orlando resident and Democrat should know. Batchelor served for eight years as a member of the Florida House of Representatives before founding a management group and turning his attention to advocacy for children, education and the environment.

Batchelor and Oscar Anderson, a Republican who worked as a Congressional aid and deputy chief of staff for the Housing Urban Development Office in Washington, D.C., moderated the forum, which featured a panel of five local leaders representing government, education, philanthropy and the faith community. The Rev. Bill Barnes, senior past at St. Luke’s, was among them.

Panel members shared their views on a variety of community issues and answered questions from participants. Candidates running in local races were also on hand to talk with voters.

The session was one of several opportunities St. Luke’s offered this election season to help people cut through the clutter and learn about community issues so they can make more informed choices when they go to the polls.

“Our hope is that you come away with a better sense of what you want to ask your local candidates,” said Lynette Fields, director of Servant Ministry at St. Luke’s, as she introduced the issues that would be the focus of the evening’s discussions.

She said the forum was also designed to give participants an idea of the steps they can take to help solve the community’s problems. 

“We’ve got a very broad umbrella (at St. Luke’s), and we like to give a voice to all people — all God’s children,” Barnes said. “That’s what brings us here tonight.”

What’s at stake

The high school graduation rate in Orange County, Fla., is 68.5 percent, according to reports by, a collaboration of leaders working to improve the Central Florida Community. A group called the Public Policy Institute ranked Florida 50th among U.S. states for total per capital spending on education.

In terms of local economics, calculations done by Pennsylvania State University show an income of at least $21.23 per hour is needed to sustain a household in Central Florida. That’s compared to an actual medium hourly income of $12.61.

Fields shared those statistics and others related to four of six areas considered indicators of community health: housing, income, crime and education. The information helped frame the evening’s approximately two-hour discussion.

Katie Farney said the statistics on graduation rates and wages were “pretty shocking.”

Imam Abdurrahman Sykes, chaplain at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Sumter County, speaks to an audience member after the community forum. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-1041. For longer description see photo gallery.

A sophomore on the west campus of Valencia Community College where the forum was held, Farney said she has been “doing a lot politically to get students to vote” and brought several friends to the forum.
Although she feels well informed about national issues, Farney said she attended the forum to learn more about local issues. She also wanted to meet some of the candidates running for office.

Farney said the statistics on income and education were “most striking.” Others on crime and housing were just as eye opening.

Panel members talked about the increased requests they’ve received from families needing help with things like rent and utilities, the lack of funding for education and the inequality in accessing education, particularly at the college level. They also discussed issues inmates face and homelessness in Central Florida.

“There are all kinds of circumstances that cause homelessness,” said Dr. Valerie King, director of the Office of Diversity Initiatives at the University of Central Florida and one of the evening’s panel members. “You’re typically dealing with an illness, not a character problem. Until we deal with the circumstances then no programs are going to be successful.”

On any given day in Central Florida, 4,500 to 6,000 people are homeless, according to the Initiative to End Homelessness in Central Florida. Of that number 28 percent are children, 40 percent are veterans and 45 percent are employed every day. In every county in Central Florida, more than half the residents are considered “severely burdened” because they spend 50 percent or more of their incomes on housing, according to an Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce publication on the new homeless.

Imam Abdurrahman Sykes, chaplain at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Sumter County, said reentry of inmates into society is an important part of the homeless problem. With no jobs, places to live or educational opportunities, he said, inmates don’t have many options “other than flipping hamburgers.”

“If they can’t get a job, they go back into crime,” he said.

In discussions about education and the lack of mentors for students, Dr. Ann Manley shared how her high school guidance counselor suggested she should be a secretary instead of going to college. Disregarding that advice and despite growing up in “a very poor family,” she said she pursued a college degree with the goal of being a straight-A student. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-1042. For longer description see photo gallery.

Sykes said some inmates have told him being in prison is the best life they’ve ever known because they get “three meals a day and someone who cares enough to tell them what to do.”

“We need to give them an alternative,” he said.

King said assessing “how we look at the homeless” is critical. “When we talk about differences, difference does not equate to deviance,” she said.

Compounding the issues, particularly financial assistance for families, is the inability to access available resources.

There are “millions of dollars on the table” to deal with people’s needs, but people are not accessing them, said Dr. Ann Manley, vice president of grants and programs for Dr. Phillips Inc. and executive director and corporate secretary for The Dr. P. Phillips Foundation. “There are dollars available to pay utility bills, but they’re going uncollected.”

Barnes agreed. “There are many opportunities for people to get help, but they don’t know where to go and bounce around,” he said.

Because so many people see churches as places to get help, Barnes said, St. Luke’s has trained volunteers to serve as resource advocates for people seeking assistance from the church. It’s case management instead of a “band aid approach,” he said.

Solving problems: whose job is it?

Panel members agreed groups and individuals must work together to address community needs, but there was some tension over what those groups should be doing.

While talking about homelessness, panel member Robert Stuart said government’s role is to help people who can’t help themselves.

“There are a large number of people who are unspoken for and need help,” said Stuart, who serves as a District 3 commissioner and executive director of the Christian Service Center for Central Florida.

Stuart said the church has relinquished a lot of its responsibility regarding homeless issues to government and should bear more of it. He said he’s not opposed to government giving money to churches to address issues, but at some point, he said, churches must show they are moving forward on the issues without government funding.

Later in the evening’s discussion Manley said there’s “a huge misperception (that) if government stops doing something the private sector would pick it up.” 

Panel member Robert Stuart (far right) said about 70 percent of the people who seek help from the Christian Service Center for Central Florida need financial assistance. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-1043. For longer description see photo gallery

Without government funding as part of the mix, she said, foundations would “spend all their endowments in one year and be out of business.”

Manley said the loss of income from small businesses that lease space from foundations and are themselves struggling during the current financial crisis and the slide in the stock market, in which many foundations have significant investments, are affecting the pocketbooks of many foundations. Loosing those revenues means foundations have less dollars to give away.

Stuart also expressed concern for the area’s future economy. He said the community “is getting ready for the largest explosion” of job opportunities in health care, along with the launch of the University of Central Florida’s medical school, which he said will have a $4 billion to $6 billion impact on the community. Because trained health-care workers are in short supply, Stuart said he fears Central Florida is not prepared for the growth. Workers will have to be recruited from other areas at higher wages, he said, and finding places for them to live will be a problem in an already depressed housing market.

Stuart said he’s encouraging the city to form a master plan to fill the jobs. And in anticipation of the needs, Barnes said the Dr. Phillips Foundation and the Orlando nursing program of Florida Southern College, a United Methodist-affiliated school whose main campus is in Lakeland, are collaborating on what he calls “educational philanthropy.” They’re working on a program to train the educators who will teach new nurses.

“We need to set a vision for where we want to go as a community, and other people can’t do it for us,” said Katie Porta, a member of the audience and president of Quest Inc., a local nonprofit that provides services to individuals with developmental disabilities.

Audience members regroup after the community forum. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-1044. For longer description see photo gallery

She said churches play a role in that process, one of influencing and educating people. “It’s interesting to see St. Luke’s stepping up … seeing community needs and coming up with solutions,” she said.
Those solutions, Manley said, come “from all of us — in looking at what can be done without.”

Gary Goetsch, a member of St. Luke’s and a forum participant, agreed.

Citing “the city of Orlando’s budget problems,” Goetsch said one of the causes is people’s unwillingness to “give certain things up.” The solution, he said, is looking at “what can we do among ourselves” and using available resources more effectively, such as converting some of the surplus apartments in Orlando to housing for the homeless.

Although he felt panel members “talked past some issues,” Goetsch said he also felt they “hit upon some good things tonight.”


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