Seeking ways to engage economic justice, immigration reform, and expand HIV/AIDS ministries formed part of the agenda for 250 participants meeting at the Wilshire Grand Hotel in Los Angeles September 14-17 for the National Jubilee Ministry Gathering.
The triennial meeting also offered continuing hope, connection and peer support, said the Rev. Canon Carmen B. Guerrero, the Episcopal Church's national jubilee officer.
"A lot of what we do is peer to peer help in sharing what we know with each other," said Guerrero. "After I came on board as national jubilee officer nearly eight years ago, it became very clear that jubilee officers needed to know one another; I made it my business to visit all the centers to help facilitate those connections."
The Rev. Pascual Torres, chancellor of the Diocese of Honduras, said the canvas tote bags distributed to each conference participant are made at a jubilee center which does something unheard of in his country -- offers work to those living with HIV/AIDS.
"There is a stigma in Honduras for people living with AIDS -- they are ignored by society at large. We offer them the opportunity to be productive people," he said. The industry, called Tabita Industrial, a sewing factory supported by Ministerio Episcopal 'Siempre Unidos,' employs about 25 people who make -- in addition to the tote bags -- hospital and baby clothing.
Through the jubilee center and other connections, the Honduras diocese partnered with All Saints Church in Beverly Hills and others to produce the tote bags. The relationship blossomed to include building of the All Saints Day Care Center in Honduras, in partnership with the Beverly Hills parish. The church also makes two trips yearly to deliver medicine and other supplies, he said.
Keynote speaker, the Rev. Dr. Michael Battle, chaplain to the House of Bishops and Professor of Theology at the Virginia Theological Seminary, encouraged participants to overcome society's "shallow forces" in order to cultivate a spirituality of justice, to ensure longevity for activism.
Drawing upon the two-year period he lived with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Battle told the gathering: "I saw it embodied in Bishop Tutu, how a person is able to impact societies, not in a hit-or-miss way, the way a rock singer has one hit, but how it is that we can impact society with all of our life until that eulogy is actually said, how our life is active to its very end.
"Without theology we lose the ability to be reflective, contemplative, we burn out, we act up, we exacerbate situations and make matters worse. It's about creating a movement, a synergy, about how what you do links with what I do with what India does or what Darfur does."
Bishop Suffragan Chet Talton of Los Angeles praised the group for observing "jubilee principles" by relocating the conference site from a non-union compliant employer, the Hilton Hotel at the Los Angeles International Airport, to the Wilshire Grand, which offers workers a living wage.
While preaching at the opening Eucharist Thursday evening, Talton called upon participants to stand up against war, racism, increased poverty and HIV/AIDS infections, particularly among people of color, and to stand up for the vulnerable, the oppressed and the stranger.
"We are engaged in an illegal, morally bankrupt war, called a war against terror fought mostly in Iraq. It is being fought by those who joined the military to make a living not readily available to them outside the military, or to get an education," he said. "Those are the ones dying in these wars.
Noting the vulnerability of the newly arrived, he added: "Racism and exclusion continue with a changed face, but they are just as deadly nevertheless. Many immigrants come to these shores and enter into a time of new slavery, their wages dictated by others and because they can't quit, because they need the work, they can't complain."
The gathering drew national attention in August when Guerrero changed venues to support low-wage workers.
"I wasn't trying to make a statement; I just wanted to organize the conference, but we had to do the right thing," Guerrero told participants Thursday evening. After a site visit to the Hilton LAX and unsuccessful attempts to talk to management about mistreatment of workers, she moved the conference.
The Rev. Canon Dick Gillett, social justice minister for the Los Angeles diocese, said churches can build a new social movement by standing up for workers like those at the Hilton.
"It has got to penetrate our minds and hearts that we have this ongoing festering sore of low wage workers in the country. They are not moving at all while the prevailing image is that our economy is improving," Gillett said. "It's asking a lot of church people, but that's the challenge -- to live into the Old Testament understanding of jubilee as a redistribution of wealth. That's what Leviticus 25 is really about."
Gillett cited emerging models such as the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, where church and community, groups, unions and economists collaborated in 2002 with the Staples Center to forge a community benefits agreement for job creation.
Another model involves churches and unions advocating together on behalf of low-wage workers, like the L.A.-area Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, which is one of several organizations supporting a September 28 protest against unfair labor practices in a number of downtown Los Angeles hotels.
"It's a partnership that emerges between the interfaith religious community and unions; it involves community leaders and work with elected municipal officials," Gillett said. "It gives the religious voice a chance to say workers need dignity and a living wage and respect."
Immigration, HIV/AIDS' transmission rates
Other workshops on HIV/AIDS ministries, immigration reform and support of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals were also part of the agenda.
Jack Plimpton, Los Angeles diocesan officer for AIDS ministries, said Project New Hope, a 15-year ministry and a jubilee center, provides about 220 housing units and training programs for those living with HIV/AIDS.
Additionally, educational efforts like the diocesan Latino AIDS Prevention Project and the Black AIDS Task Force were highlighted.
"Although African Americans make up about 12 percent of the population, they account for half of the HIV/AIDS cases diagnosed in Los Angeles and throughout the nation," said April Grayson, convener of the Black AIDS Task Force. Citing Center for Disease Control 2004 statistics, she said that transmission rates, while declining among gay white males, appear to be increasing at alarming rates among African American heterosexual women, senior citizens and teenagers. "It doesn't occur to them they're in an at-risk group," she said.
The gathering also celebrated the ministry of Guerrero, who is retiring December 31 but will continue to serve as a consultant to the jubilee ministries and part-time as peace and justice missioner for the Diocese of Arizona.
Jubilee Ministry started in 1982 at the 67th General Convention held in New Orleans and has about 650 centers in 13 countries. Thus far this year, $15,000 in grants have been awarded to more than 30 dioceses, from a total $50,000 grant budget, Guerrero said.
The Rev. James Hunter, Jubilee Officer for the Diocese of Alaska, said attending the conference gave him hope "that he'd learn how to energize Jubilee Ministry in the North Pole, and to open more than just the one center we have now in Alaska.
"I'm here to see how people have implemented their programs on low budgets," he added. "A lot of the work we do is thankless, hopeless work; most of us don't look for praise or accolades, we're silently, effectively going about our ministries. We're one of the best-kept secrets in the Episcopal Church."