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Leaders delve into hunger, justice issues, ways churches can serve

Leaders delve into hunger, justice issues, ways churches can serve

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Leaders delve into hunger, justice issues, ways churches can serve

By Erik J. Alsgaard | Dec. 16, 2009 {1113}

WINTER PARK — Connecting Florida Conference churches to opportunities for mission, outreach and justice ministries was the focus of a recent gathering of key leaders in these areas.

Meeting at First United Methodist Church in Winter Park, the group came together in a first-of-a-kind meeting to hear how local churches can get outside the walls of their sanctuaries and practice salty service.

“We’re entering a time when the world is more open to salty service,” said the Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins, executive director of the Florida Conference Office of Congregational Transformation.

Salty service is one element of “The Methodist Way,” a five-part disciple-making process to which every congregation is called. It has roots both in the Wesleyan heritage of The United Methodist Church and in the example of Jesus Christ.

“People won’t hear what you have to say — they won’t hear the gospel message — until they see those words in action,” Stiggins said.

As the leaders talked about their particular area of ministry, patterns emerged that will strengthen the message sent to local churches about salty service opportunities.

Brigitte Gynther speaks about the mistreatment of farm works with key conference mission, outreach and justice ministries leaders. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #09-1352.

“One theme is the challenge of communicating with all our constituents,” said Melinda Trotti, director of the conference’s justice and outreach ministries. “Each of these important areas of outreach does vital ministry. We’re going to have to be using all the communication’s tools available to us to get the word out.”

Justice for farm workers

“Do you know where your food comes from?” Brigitte Gynther asked the group. “Much of what we eat comes through the hands of migrant farm workers who often live in horrific housing and fall victim to human trafficking and slavery.”

Gynther is coordinator of Interfaith Action in Southwest Florida, a network of people of faith and religious institutions that works in partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community-based worker organization whose members are mostly Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout Florida.

Gynther spoke about the injustices farm workers across the state experience and said she is working to increase awareness among local churches about what’s happening to farm workers in the hopes more people will advocate for justice.

In many cases, Gynther said, workers are “recruited” from outside the United States with the promise of jobs. Once they arrive, however, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to repay the money they were given to get here. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been involved in several federal prosecutions of contractors for human trafficking. Several reports have been documented, she said, of people being held here against their will and being forced to work.

Recently, the coalition was successful in a hard-fought battle for a one-cent-per-pound raise for the price of picked tomatoes. The organization is also developing monitoring systems to ensure humane treatment for workers.

“Churches can do advocacy work and stand with the farm workers,” said Bert Perry, Florida director of the National Farm Workers Ministry. She detailed some of the health and safety concerns for workers, especially workers who pick tobacco plants.

“People get sick just picking tobacco,” she said. “The toxicity of the plants comes through just contacting it with your bare hands. People are suffering just picking it.”

Workers harvest tomatoes at a farm in Immokalee, where low wages and poor conditions prompted farm worker advocates to lobby fast-food giant Burger King Corp. A May 23, 2008, agreement between Burger King and farm workers increased wages and protection to workers subjected to abuse from growers. A UMNS file photo by Scott Robertson. Photo #08-0893. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0867, 6/12/08.

Perry said her group receives “a lot” of funding and letter-writing support from various United Methodist Women groups around the country. But there is always more need than resources and plenty of ways local churches can help, she said.

Connecting with outreach ministries

One of the better-kept secrets in the conference are the nine outreach ministries housed in eight of the conference’s districts. Pam Cahoon works with one of them — C.R.O.S. Ministries (Christians Reaching Out to Society) in Palm Beach County. The agency provides direct service to the poor and needy through a food pantry, hot meals for shut-ins and the homeless, and day camps and after-school programs for children in low-income areas.

“Business is far too good right now,” Cahoon told the group. “The needs for basic food items are overwhelming. We’re so busy that, right now, we have some shell-shocked staff.”

Cahoon said there are multiple ways local churches can get involved, from being ACCESS sites — where people apply for food stamps — to becoming a site for a federally funded summer feeding program. There is always a need for more volunteers, she said.

Another conference approved outreach ministry is Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON), a cooperative effort between area churches, the conference’s refugee and immigration ministry, and the United Methodist Committee On Relief. JFON operates clinics that offer free legal immigration services for people who can least afford them. The Rev. Marilyn Beecher, a Church and Community Worker through the General Board of Global Ministries, helps coordinate the ministry.

“We help people with the documentation process for legal immigration,” she said. “Our clinics are run by volunteers, and we always need more.”

The conference operates two clinics, one at First United Methodist Church and Berea Haitian Mission in Pine Hills and another at Faith Community Haitian United Methodist Church in Tampa.

Mayuris Pimentel, the regional attorney for the Central Florida Justice For Our Neighbors ministry, meets with a client at the immigration clinic at First United Methodist Church and Berea Haitian Mission in Pine Hills. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #09-1353.

Beecher said JFON staff members are available to speak at local churches — in worship, for United Methodist Women and/or United Methodist Men’s groups — to help people understand the complexities of immigration issues.

More information on the nine outreach ministries in the Florida Conference is available at

Tackling childhood hunger

Two years ago at a Conference Table gathering, the Florida Conference agreed an emphasis on children would be its social witness priority. Lynette Fields, executive director of Servant Ministry at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando, was appointed by Florida Conference Bishop Tim Whitaker as the United Methodist representative to the core advisory group for the Partnership to End Childhood Hunger in Florida. She said there is much work yet to be done and plenty of places local churches can plug in for salty service.

“Our goal is to end childhood hunger in 10 years,” she said. “We’re in year two of an ambitious, 10-point plan.”

Fields said The United Methodist Church in Florida has great visibility in this partnership, having worked for many years with Florida Impact, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit working to reduce hunger and poverty since 1979.

One success story, Fields said, was helping increase the number of children in Orange County receiving free or reduced cost lunches last year. While the percentage of children receiving the meals increased by 68 percent, “we still only reached a little over 10 percent of those who are eligible,” she said.

“The challenge,” she said, “is to get local churches on board and committed to ending childhood hunger.”

Giving resources

Every year, churches throughout United Methodism are asked to take six special Sunday offerings. One of those offerings — Peace With Justice Sunday — provided funding for a coordinator for Florida Advocacy Days at Children’s Week in Tallahassee. This first-year funding in 2008-2009 led to a part-time staff person who is coordinating the advocacy work for United Methodists and the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Florida for 2010, according to Trotti.

“Florida gets back more than we send in,” said Alma Manney of the offering. Manney is a leader in the peace with justice area.

Alma Manney reminds the group of the importance of the Peace With Justice Sunday offering. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #09-1354.

“Fewer than 100 churches participate in this offering in the Florida Conference, with about $10,000 to $12,000 being given,” she said. “We’d like to see more churches participate in this offering because it allows us to be present in the halls of power advocating for children — to make sure that those who don’t have a voice in government have one.”

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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.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.