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'Called to Serve'

Domestic poverty conference gets underway in Newark

[Episcopal News Service – Newark, New Jersey] "Healing the worst of the poverty in this nation is intrinsically connected to restoring human beings to right relationship with the rest of creation," said Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in a keynote address that touched on most every factor – shelter, food, environment, health care, employment and economics – that plays a role in domestic poverty.

More than 170 Episcopalians, the presiding bishop, House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson and others interested in social service gathered here April 28 for "Called to Serve: The Episcopal Church Responds to Domestic Poverty," a conference designed to explore the nature of domestic poverty and the church's role in addressing it.

The three-day conference is supported by Jubilee Ministries, Episcopal Community Services in America and National Episcopal Health Ministries and is an opportunity for conference-goers to share ideas to better implement and strengthen programming through workshops and plenary sessions, and to build relationships locally, regionally and nationally by networking.

"We're here to do justice, and love mercy," Jefferts Schori said. "We're here to walk humbly with God and bring good news to the poor. That good news of justice and mercy looks like the ancient visions of the commonweal of God where everyone has enough to eat, no one goes thirsty or homeless, all have access to meaningful employment and health care, the wealthy and powerful do not exploit the weak, and no one studies war any more. It includes the work of building community and caring for the earth, both of which are essential to the health of a spiritually rooted person, in right relationship with God and neighbor."

The Episcopal Church, with "its partners both sacred and secular, is part of that mission of God’s to bring that holy dream to reality," the presiding bishop said. "Though the principles apply to the parts of this church beyond these shores and the rest of the world, this gathering is very specifically focused on building that reality within these United States. How can all the people of this nation participate in the abundance which is already here?"

Throughout her address, Jefferts Schori illustrated the role the Episcopal Church, its parishes, programs and organizations, play in addressing and attempting to alleviate poverty.

She provided examples, from churches and schools converting outdoor space into produce-growing gardens, to congregations partnering with Habitat for Humanity to build homes for low-income residents, to support for diocese and parishes wishing to start a credit union or micro-lending program, and school and day care programs becoming educational innovators.

In regard to climate change and its disproportionate effect on the poor, she asked about the willingness of the wealthy to change their habits to protect the lives and livelihoods of the poor.

"It is a basic issue of selfishness versus sharing," she said. "Are we willing to live more simply so that others may simply live?"

Evidence of climate change and environmental degradation exist here, Jefferts Schori said. It isn't necessary to look to the developing world to find examples of communities without access to clean water and adequate sanitation; one can find examples here in isolated rural communities, where the homeless and migrant farm workers live and in portions of several Indian reservations, she said.

Jay Lehnertz, chair of the Episcopal Community Services in America board, before introducing the presiding bishop, pointed to the prevailing attitude in recent years that the Episcopal Church has "lost its institutional voice in regard to poverty within our own national borders … what should be a balance of domestic and international has tipped toward international," he said.

Lehnertz acknowledged that the conference grew from seeds planted during the presiding bishop's 2008 Summit on Domestic Poverty in Phoenix, Arizona.

In 2009, General Convention passed resolutions calling for the establishment of a program to address domestic poverty (A155) and commending the presiding bishop for convening the 2008 summit and calling on Executive Council to continuing efforts in the church to address domestic poverty in the next triennium  (A140).

In the time allotted for questions and discussion following the presiding bishop's keynote address, Deborah Conrad, executive pastor of UrbanSpirit, a Louisville, Kentucky-based community partnership, suggested that the church and others "break our addiction to poor people."

"Our American economy is based on having an underclass," she said. "How do we break our addiction to people who live in poverty in America and around the world?"

Episcopalians and others interested in alleviating poverty need to understand what it means to be the working poor in America, Conrad said.

Gordon Brewer, executive coordinator of Episcopal Appalachian Ministries urged leaders to consider what happens to a community when a coal mine closes and jobs dry up in their discussions on environmental and economic justice.

Kristen Lewis, co-director of the Social Science Research Council's American Human Development Project, April 28 presented The Measure of America report, which provides a snapshot of Americans' well-being by state, congressional district, gender, race and ethnicity.

And on the evening of April 28, "Jubilee," a documentary about the 12-year relationship that transformed both an affluent Dallas parish and a high-crime neighborhood, produced by the Episcopal Church's Office of Communication, was set to debut.

On April 29 Chuck Fluharty, founding director of the Rural Policy Research Institute, will address domestic poverty from a public policy perspective and talk about the importance of connecting rural and urban communities, he said in a telephone interview.

On April 30, Wayne Muller, author, minister, therapist and founder of Bread for the Journey, will discuss his most recent book, A Life of Being, Having and Doing Enough.

-- Lynette Wilson is a reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service.

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