TALLAHASSEE—Spirits were high Tuesday morning as dozens of child advocates gathered in the fellowship hall at Trinity United Methodist Church to gird for battle.
Young and old, male and female, clergy and laity, the diverse group represented the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Their mission: To march to the Capitol in support of the 22nd annual Children’s Week, meet with state legislators and stir their compassion on behalf of millions of children who have no voice of their own. Like all good cavalries, they also had amassed persuasive ammunition—white stoles bearing tiny, colorful handprints, chocolate chip cookies baked by the United Methodist Women of the Northwest District and children’s artwork in every color of the rainbow.
|Erin Frey, a young adult missionary with UMCM Suncoast, left, and Marrie McQueen, of the Florida Conference of the AME prepare to take boxes of children's artwork to lawmakers at the State Capitol in Tallahassee March 28 as part of the 22nd annual Children's Week.|
As participants donned their stoles and organized into teams of four, Trudy Novicki, president and CEO of Florida Impact and a major partner of the Florida Conference, offered one final pep talk. “This is the most beautiful advocacy I could ever see because it’s based on the spirit of God,” she said. “Don’t worry about what you’re going to say. The spirit will tell you.”
Minutes later, amid cries of “Children!” and “Amen!” and “Let’s Go!”, the happy warriors set off down South Adams Street toward their destination.
To prepare for Children’s Week, the group—comprised of pastors, teachers, youth ministers, students and domestic missionaries—had two days of advocacy training at Trinity UMC. They learned about the legislative process, the various roles of the Florida Senate and the House of Representatives and how to interact appropriately with lawmakers and their aides. This year’s advocacy focused on multiple social justice issues covered in three proposed bills: One that funds a program to help teenagers in foster care obtain driver education and motor vehicle insurance; another that calls for a more holistic approach in treating child survivors of human trafficking, and one that would require civil citations to be issued to juvenile offenders who commit a first-time, misdemeanor offense such as fighting or underage possession of alcohol.
“The biggest thing is making it personal to them,” said participant Marisa Gertz, a youth ministry intern at Memorial UMC in Fernandina Beach. “These legislators are people too!” The Rev. Sharon G. Austin, director of Connectional and Justice Ministries with the FLUMC, said it helps to find common ground with a lawmaker when discussing children’s issues. “I have often begun by looking around their offices and you usually see a photo of their families,” she said. “I usually tell them…what you want for your beautiful children is what we want for all of Florida’s children.”
Latricia Scriven, director of the Florida A&M University Wesley Foundation, and a mom of three teenagers, was especially interested in the civil citation measure. “With a civil citation, you won’t go to jail,” she said. “We don’t want a person’s life to be forever altered to their detriment.” Her teammate Daisy Bush, a middle school teacher from Tallahassee, said such a law takes into consideration that teenagers are not finished growing. “They’re still learning,” she said. “They make mistakes, but we do not want those mistakes to be the face of them forever.”
‘A Spiritual Endeavor’
By lunchtime, the teams returned victorious, having spent the morning meeting with numerous lawmakers including House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes; Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando; Rep. Mike Miller, R-Winter Park and Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale. “It went really well,” Gertz said. “I found it very encouraging to see that our conferences are active politically in our state. And it’s a great framework for future years.” Scriven said she and her team worked so well together that they decided to keep in touch. “It was absolutely fabulous,” she said. “It’s definitely something I would want our students on campus to get involved in. Social justice is a spiritual endeavor. This is what church looks like.”
Click here for a photo album of the Children’s Week event.
--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance writer who lives in Pensacola.