Immigrant Children from Central America — Who are the Parents?

Grace Des Moines Peace

Guest Post from Dr. Jan L. Flora and Rev. Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz

Our chickens are coming home to roost with the large numbers of unaccompanied Central American children making the life-threatening journey from Central America through Mexico and across our southern border.  Perhaps a better metaphor would be to say that we fail to recognize our collective paternity of the children undertaking this dangerous trip.

Some readers may remember the Contra War under Reagan, but the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala by the Eisenhower Administration is little known here.  The CIA orchestrated the overthrow of Arbenz’ elected Guatemalan government in 1954 and replaced him with Col. Castillo Armas.  Arbenz had sought to peacefully change the extremely unequal land ownership patterns in that country.  Our support of right-wing governments triggered a 36-year insurgency. When indigenous peasants joined the fight a quarter century later, General Rios Montt’s regime (1982-83), according to Amnesty International, massacred 70,000 civilian women, children, and men. Although the U.S. wrung its hands at these grizzly human rights violations, military aid continued to flow to Rios Montt.  The current president Otto Pérez Molina was the general in charge of the army unit in El Quiche responsible for genocide in that area.  Currently, Guatemalan communities opposing mega projects (e.g., mining, hydroelectric dams) are being repressed when they opt instead for local and sustainable development.

U.S. support of the Somoza dictatorships in Nicaragua (1932-1979) and right wing governments in El Salvador and Honduras led to insurgencies in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, and pervasive human rights abuses in Honduras.  Only Costa Rica, which never had such unequal landholdings and which had a mild-mannered revolution in 1948 which resulted in the elimination of its military and regular democratic alternations in power of competing political parties to the present day. The Sandinista movement in Nicaragua came to power in 1979, prompting our fomenting of a bloody civil war there to forestall another Cuba in our hemisphere, though neither the Soviet Union nor China provided support to the guerrillas in any of the three countries.

Once the U.S. and its rightist Central American allies brought the insurgent groups to the table to negotiate a peace agreement in 1996, our development aid plummeted.  Our narrowly defined interests had prevailed, which somehow absolved our government of any need to build more just societies.  Formal democracy returned and has been unbroken in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, but the four Central American countries we “aided” in the 1980s are as impoverished as ever.  Absent significant economic development, right-wing regimes in El Salvador and Honduras offered an ideal setting for narco-traffickers to operate.  El Salvador, after a series of right wing governments, has finally elected progressive governments twice in a row, but inequality remains great. The deportation of Salvadoran gang members from Los Angeles has strengthened gang violence in that country.  President Obama, to his credit, ultimately decided not to block the election of a former FMLN guerrilla leader and his party to the Salvadoran Presidency earlier this year.

Honduras, from which the U.S. coordinated its Central American anti-guerrilla operations in the 1980s, had an abysmal human rights record. As a member of a Central American human rights task force of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in 1986, the first author visited Honduras with two other LASA scholars.  We verified the Honduran government’s human rights shortcomings and corroborated U.S. knowledge of those violations. Missionary friends recently returned and currently in Honduras indicate that that record remains problematic.  In 2006, Manuel Zelaya was elected President. He came to be modestly progressive, raising the minimum wage, aiding small farmers, and offering free public education.  The U.S., in contrast to most Latin American countries, ultimately gave its blessing to a bloodless coup in 2009, which stopped progressive government action.  Add the gang activities and it is not so surprising that child migration from Central America (especially Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador) is on the upswing.  This year, 75% of the unaccompanied children arriving on our southern border are from these three countries; most of the rest are from Mexico.  The Pew Hispanic Center analyzed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data showing that thegreatest number of unaccompanied children come from San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second city, where the homicide rate is 38 times that of New York City!

The UN refugee commissioner (UNHCR) recently interviewed a representative sample of 400 Central American and Mexican unaccompanied children ages 12-17 apprehended in the U.S. Forty-eight percent of the youth recounted being personally affected by organized violence from drug cartels, gangs, or state law enforcement personnel.  Twenty-two percent indicated having experienced abuse or violence by their caretakers at home. The UNHCR estimates that some 58% of the unaccompanied youth merit protection from returning home.  The DHS examined the origins of unaccompanied Central American children who came during the first 4 ½ months of 2014.  They concluded that “…many Guatemalan children come from rural areas, indicating they are probably seeking economic opportunities in the US.  Salvadoran and Honduran children… come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of travelling along to the US preferable to remaining at home.”  The Center for American Progress shows that lax border enforcement (the mantra of Sen. Grassley and Rep. King is “secure the border first”) is not a factor, since the amount spent on border interdiction has increased along with numbers of unaccompanied minors apprehended.  The numbers of such minors doubled from 2011 to 2013 and likely will double again from 2013 to 2014.  Border Patrol agents doubled between 2002 and 2013.  The $18 billion we spend annually on immigration enforcement dwarfs what we spend on health and development assistance ($198 million in FY2014) in all of Central America.

We provide military aid to Central America ostensibly to fight the drug wars.  A failed U.S. drug policy (failed because it has neither slowed drugs from south of the border nor reduced demand in the U.S.) strengthens the Honduran National Police with a suspect human rights record.  The Los Angeles Times on July 9 reported that an elite unit of the Honduran national police trained by the U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit to interdict drugs and arms, is currently assigned to keep Honduran children and families from crossing the border into Guatemala on their way to the U.S.  This immigrant interdiction program, “Operation Rescue Angels,” and has been in effect since VP Biden’s trip to Central America.  This aid is part of the $642 million spent since 2008 on security assistance to all seven Central American countries. $176 million was proposed for FY2014.

How have our public officials responded to child migration?  Not well. President Obama seeks additional funds for Health and Human Services to house unaccompanied minors, but proposes to change the 2008 law that prevents summary deportation of unaccompanied children all countries but Mexico. The Administration is now working on a proposal to grant refugee status to a limited number of Honduran children and youth in Tegucigalpa, but that is not likely to stem the tide of unaccompanied child immigration. The Administration seems to be as embarrassed by the appearance of these refugees as Republicans should be for failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the single most important factor in unauthorized migration to this country.  Reps. Latham and King and Sen. Grassley have stood up for “strict” adherence to immigration law, while blocking comprehensive immigration reform. Such reform would diminish problems generated by and for the youthful sojourners who risk life and limb to escape an intolerable social situation in their countries of origin and/or to be reunited with parents they may have not seen for many years. It does appear that – in the short term — the Pharisees speak louder than those who embrace the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Governor Branstad has steadfastly refused to collaborate with other Iowans in helping Iowa’s share of these brave, ragged children to be housed here while it is sorted out which have relatives where in the U.S., which should be eligible for asylum, and which could safely be deported back to their home countries.  Governor Branstad seems determined to take an anti-Obama stance, when he should be taking a pro-Governor Ray stance – welcoming refugees from troubled parts of the world.  Governor Branstad distinguishes the child refugees from Central America and those who came to Iowa from Southeast Asia in the late 1970s, by saying that the latter came legally.  That is a distinction without a difference.  The bill proposed by the Senators from Arizona to allow a modest number of child refugees from Central America, also proposes to immediately turn back all those who would continue to arrive at our borders.  The irony of the anti-immigrant hysteria among certain of our political leaders is that immigrants who have arrived in Iowa since the 1990s, first mainly from Mexico, now increasingly from Central America and other war zones around the world, have enriched our culture, stabilized the population of certain declining rural counties, and expanded Iowa’s youthful population as Iowans of European descent continue to age.  Those of us who will one day qualify for social security should be thankful for the young families – and indeed the unaccompanied children – that have migrated to our country and will pay the taxes that keep us healthy and happy in our retirement.

What to do?  The most humane way of dealing with these unaccompanied children is for the U.S. to “harmonize its immigration law with domestic child welfare and international law by … requiring U.S. officials to consider the best interests of the child as primary in all … decisions regarding immigrant children.”  (Center for Gender & Refugee Studies and Kids in Need of Defense 2014).  The study, A Treacherous Journey, financed by the McArthur Foundation, further recommends:

  • No child should appear in immigration proceedings without legal representation; the Attorney General should appoint counsel skilled in child immigration matters.
  • An independent child advocate should be appointed for all children wanting to stay in the U.S.
  • A new form of immigrant relief should be enacted to prevent children from being deported when returning home opposes their best interests.

Our government over the years has helped create conditions that make these children refugees – by supporting the right-wing dictators who fought savagely (often with weapons paid for by us — U.S. taxpayers) to maintain the privileges of the military and the landowning class over and against another group of children, women, and men who committed the profound error of being born into a system that was rigged against them.  Should we not demonstrate Iowa values once again in welcoming the stranger as we did in the aftermath of the Vietnam War? Come on, Governor Branstad, have a heart.  After all, THEY ARE CHILDREN!

Dr. Flora is Professor Emeritus at Iowa State University.  He worked for the Ford Foundation in Spanish-speaking South America and in Nicaragua from 1978 through 1980.  He published a paper on “Roots of insurgency in Central America” (1987) and a book on the same topic. Rev. Alfaro-Santiz a U.S. resident, is the Immigration Specialist for the Central District of Iowa United Methodist Church and a Pastor of Las Americas United Methodist Faith Community. He is a native of Guatemala. References used in the paper are available from the first author (floraj@iastate.edu).

Jan L. Flora

1902 George Allen Ave.
Ames, IA 50010
floraj@iastate.edu
Cell:  (515) 451-9693
 Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz
Las Americas United Methodist Faith Community 1548 8th St Des Moines, IA 50311
aalfarosantiz@iliff.edu 
515-450-1621 cell 515-288-4056 office

 

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Ministry with Fathers

This Father’s Day week, I wanted to highlight ministries of justice and mission whose core was related to the particular experience of fatherhood. I found this article and simply loved the description of how the ministry “Young Dads” came to be. I will draw your attention to the way in which the leaders of this ministry first “listened” to the community. I also want to highlight the role of prayer and Scripture, as well as the engagement of a passionate advocate to help bridge between the church and a community of people who distrusted the church.

This article originally appears among the Reformed Church in America Resources

The Surprising Launch of “Young Dads”

About 10 months after launching Moms in Unity, we began praying about and exploring how to birth a companion ministry for men. Specifically, we felt a pull toward creating a ministry for dads who were not participating as fathers in the lives of their children.

Consistent with our ministry model of listening to the community before launching a ministry, we gathered a small group of dads. But what we learned was not at all what we had expected. The young fathers did not feel comfortable with us church folks. Likely, they did not trust us. Several of them had strong negative opinions about the church. Some of them thought Jesus was a weak man, while others thought he represented white society’s interests. Others did not trust us either because we lacked a “street rep” they respected or because no one they respected vouched for us.

At one point, Joel, a ministry partner, introduced Tony to me. Tony and his wife were friends of Joel and his wife. Tony was a tall brother who, when younger, held a state-wide ranking in basketball. He understood the world of work and was a dad himself. And Tony had a strong love for Jesus. We all shared together about our ministry idea on several occasions. Tony got what the ministry was all about, committed himself to our ministry model, and agreed to champion our desire to make a difference in the lives of fathers.

Together we fleshed out our ministry strategy and adopted Malachi 4:6 as our motivating Scripture: “He [the prophet] shall turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers; or else I [God] will come and strike the land with a curse” (NIV). We named the ministry “Young Dads” and proclaimed, “You cannot be the man you want to be until you are the father you must be!”

Tony went all over town recruiting young dads. He visited the jail, stopped by barber shops, mixed with brothers on the corner, shot hoops with men, and dropped in at coffee houses. Soon he had recruited a group of guys who wanted to hear more and who had an unspoken hunger to be a great dad but lacked someone to lead them through the landmines to the promised land of healthy fatherhood.

Our twice-a-month meetings were focused on answering the questions “How are you living?” and “How are things with you and your child?” We shared pizzas or other food together. Undergirding it all was our profound belief that these dads were image-bearers of God. Most of them did not believe that, so we held on to it for them, making our case for being image-bearers as we built relationships.

Very early on it became clear that each dad’s relationship with the mother or mothers of his child or children had everything to do with his access to his child. If the relationship was stressed and conflicted (and they often were), the dad felt he had little power to do anything. We knew we had to deal with this massive ministry challenge. We could not succeed with our mission if we did not help dads find a way forward.

Tony primarily, and I a little, began meeting with some of the mothers. We either met one-on-one or included the dad. We did not try to heal their relationship per se. We tried to get them to agree that it was better for their child to have a relationship with both parents rather than one. We tried to get them to agree that their child needed to see them supporting each other rather than fighting with or belittling each other.

In some cases, both agreed. For those men, Young Dads meetings became places where they could talk openly, even cry, over the profound and beautiful thing it was to parent a child. But all of them–the dads who developed parenting relationships and those who did not–faced a challenge they had known about all along, and that those of us in ministry discovered had to be reckoned with. Single moms have to assess the men in their lives by how they support her child-rearing efforts both with money and with other kinds of support. A dad who does not measure up faces the combined wrath of the mother and the power of the child-support system to incarcerate.

A Christian who ran a government program for a faith-oriented non-profit clued me on this challenge. His program was designed to coach and equip men who were looking for jobs. All the program participants had recently completed jail sentences for failing to pay child support. The chart below illustrates the issues he described.

We learned that many men who are caught up in these dynamics feel utterly powerless. When we tried to figure out how to deal with this, we could not find another ministry that addressed the system of challenges many dads face. With a systemic approach, we reasoned, we might be successful in helping more dads be the fathers they had to become.

Letters on the chart above show the points at which Young Dads created intervention strategies.

(A) Mom and dad are in conflict. The ministry assisted the mom and dad in resolving enough of their challenges so that their child could benefit from a relationship with both parents. Often the conflict was complicated and confusing. In some cases, the conflict clearly involved issues between the mom and dad. Sometimes it involved their child. Sometimes access to the child was used as a tool to get something else. Often the non-custodial parent felt powerless.

(B) Dad is required to provide money. The ministry needed to help young dads secure work. We did that in two ways: 1) referring them to job development nonprofits and 2) talking directly to employers, which Tony (mostly) and I did. While we did find jobs for some dads, several of them found their own jobs. They wanted to, they needed to, and they saw work as a way to do extra things with their child and as a ticket to being the kind of dad they wanted to be. A few dads worked two or three jobs at a time to achieve that end.

(C) Mom and child support agency are aligned. The ministry periodically would need to advocate with the child support enforcement office and ask that they not send the dad to jail so long as he worked with us. In some instances, the mother was so impressed with the dad’s engagement with their child, she advocated with us on his behalf.

  1. If the dad is not the custodial parent and can provide the mom with adequate funds, he normally can negotiate access to his child.
  2. Generally, the dad remains under a great deal of pressure to pay child support or face jail. This legal matter is often complicated by powerful conflicts with the mom. The dad may resort to going underground, either locally or by leaving for another state.
  3. As the mom and the child support enforcement agency align, the dad often is put under great pressure to pay child support or go to jail. Dad generally exercises one of the following options (4-6).
  4. Dad goes to jail. This often is an ongoing matter. Often, jail time results in court costs and fines–additional financial obligations for the dad. Depending on the jurisdiction, child support arrears may continue to accumulate while he is incarcerated.
  5. Dad goes underground. Some dads drop out of sight when the mom and the child support enforcement agency threaten to incarcerate them.
  6. Dad gets a job and pays support. If the child support averages are not too high and if the mom is open to it, the dad generally can be actively involved in parenting their child.

The goal: Dad gets along with mom and sees their child. Dad and mom negotiate how and when he can be with and actively parent their child.

Terry is one young dad who found fresh reasons for living during his time with Young Dads. He had four children by three mothers. He made peace with all of the mothers and became the father he always wanted to be with his children. Terry valued work and saw it as a critical means of supporting his children and their mothers’ efforts to raise them well. Terry showed the way to other young dads who became convinced that they could not be the men they wanted to be unless they became the fathers they had to be.

Talk Is Cheap

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” 
― Frederick BuechnerWishful Thinking: A Theological ABC

There are a lot of opinions out there. There are a lot of different ways to use our reason and our intellect to convince ourselves that we are OK, or that we are doing the right thing. There are myriad ways to read Scripture and interpret faith so that our own prejudices, biases, inclinations, and desires can be found comfortable, faithful and otherwise pleasing to our own sensibilities; to the sensibilities of our family, friends and neighbors, and can still conform to the tenets of our “doctrine” and  our “discipline.”

I can’t help but wonder, though, how our world might look if we each spent as much energy actually doing something about those things we argue about as we spend consulting our favorite gurus and posting our favorite memes to facebook.

For instance, in Iowa, there is a shortage of residential treatment facilities. There is evidence of human trafficking in both labor and sexual slavery. School food programs are all struggling, while students whose families are under physical, economic, and psychological distress continue to fall behind in the skills necessary to navigate an increasingly complicated world of credit lending and temporary employment. Youth mentorship programs do not have enough mentors to supply their need. People suffering from ongoing mental illness cannot receive the treatment they require. Air, land and water quality are degraded and deteriorating. Women in Iowa earn only 77% of what men make. Our churches, schools and neighborhoods are built more along the lines of separate and unequal, than along lines of an intentionally cross-cultural integration. Laborers work 16 and 20 hour days, while part-time employees without benefits are fired for refusing to work overtime.

And yet . . . there is a United Methodist Church in practically every community in Iowa. I find it impossible to believe that we, as a church, do not have the resources at our fingertips to actually provide a powerful and faithful response to the evil, injustice and oppression whose forms we meet on a daily basis. What if we decided to measure our faithfulness in lives transformed?  What if we looked to measure our righteousness such that every community in which we live is notably more compassionate than communities in which we do not live? What if we loved our neighbors so deeply and so radically we had no room left in our hearts for judgment?

There is a song by Casting Crowns with these lyrics,

But if we are the body
Why aren’t his arms reaching?
Why aren’t his hands healing?
Why aren’t his words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren’t his feet going?
Why is his love not showing them there is a way?”

Maybe we would get some things wrong. Maybe we would break some church rules and raise some eyebrows. Maybe our neighbors would look at us strangely and whisper about us behind our backs. But maybe, just maybe, our world would start to look a little bit more like the place God promises us it can be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Setting Captives Free

"Bronson Blessington: Testimony from my prison cell" by publik15
“Bronson Blessington: Testimony from my prison cell” by publik15

Doug Walker works for the General Board of Church and Society establishing Healing Communities, a framework for ministry to persons returning from or at risk of incarceration, their families, and the larger community.  He works 15 hours a week on behalf of the wider church trying to bridge the gap between local church life and the lives of its families who are bearing the weight of incarceration.

Lee Schott, pastor of Women at the Well United Methodist Church inside the Mitchelville Women’s Prison, wonders how the Iowa Annual Conference can continue to connect with women once they leave the prison and return to life outside its walls.

Dave Hobbs and the Iowa United Methodist Camps have been developing a specialized camp ministry for the children of people who are or have been incarcerated in Iowa. It is called Camp Hope, and Dave and the camp directors are looking to expand this ministry.

At one level, it seems like we shouldn’t need institutional support or significant technical education to be in vital ministry with people entangled with the criminal justice system (and it is an entanglement; guards, administrators, and others on the law-abiding side of the system are as deeply in need of specialized ministry as those they are employed to keep).  Yet, clearly we in the local church are not entangled enough.

As great as Doug, Lee and Dave’s programs and ministry areas are, they cannot be the sole presence of the United Methodist Church when it comes to our call to be in ministry with those Jesus has given us.  Despite the fact that practically every Iowa town has at least one United Methodist Church, not every town has a flourishing jail visitation ministry. Not every person who needs a ride to visit their loved one in jail can get one. Not every person leaving incarceration has a congregation waiting to receive them. Not every prison guard has a group with which to share the depths of human depravity she has witnessed. This is a place where the deep needs of people are not being met.

You can see that in the violence we inflict on our children, our spouses, our parents and ourselves. It is visible in the thriving methamphetamine industry and the number of bars a community can support. Distrust and disconnectedness, increased weapons permits, pernicious bullying, and the spread of harmful propaganda designed to alienate us from our neighbors are all signs that we are not shining enough light on the darkness which invades peoples’ lives.

And it seems to me that we are not doing this work because it is dangerous. We can’t be assured of the other person’s innocence. There is the possibility that the relationship can become toxic as the other’s addictions and ways of making decisions invade our carefully controlled apartments. We might have to set boundaries or let go of our own aesthetic tastes to make room for the new people in our lives. Frankly, there are people out there who would not hesitate to do us serious harm. Last, I sense that we are afraid our own lights-our faith, our witness, our Christ, our own souls -are not actually strong enough to make headway against the dark.

I asked Doug Walker how a person crosses the threshold. How do we go out the door of our church sanctuaries? How do we go in the visitor’s entrance of the prison, the hospital, or the social services building? He laughed and said it is a lot easier when you know someone there.

I asked Lee Schott why we don’t know the women who leave Mitchelville after serving their sentence. She didn’t know, but thought it had something to do with an idea that once someone has gone behind bars, they become this thing we call “a criminal” rather than a person we can know by name. She becomes effectively invisible to us because we in the church might distrust or judge her if we learned her past. She either enters into relationship with us hiding her past or chooses easier relationships with people who already know her name.

So what is going on with us that we are not teaching, preaching, and reaching into the lives of people such that we can show them that other name they have: the name they take on in Christ? Why are we so ashamed of shame? What makes us so afraid to shake hands with people we have never met? Is there something real we stand to lose by opening ourselves to rejection?

I believe that changing the world is as simple as going out and shaking hands with it.  And if you are looking for Biblical language to help you gather the courage to do so, I suggest spending a bit of time with Paul. He seems to have a good vocabulary for that kind of thing.

Oh, and you can always contact Doug , Lee or Dave as well, because I know they would love to hear from you. They would love to share their experience, expertise and doubts about how the church can best be about this work of setting captives free.

Doug Walker: dwalker@umc-gbcs.org

Rev. Lee Schott: revlas333@gmail.com

Rev. Dave Hobbs: david.hobbs@iaumc.org

 

 

 

Of Shelter Services and Social Responsibility

Important_government_shutdown_notice_for_the_Stature_of_LibertyI recently had coffee with the Executive Director of domestic violence and sexual assault services for a multi-county area in Iowa. At one point, I asked her how the changes to shelter services were going. For those who don’t know, domestic violence and sexual assault services in Iowa are undergoing a massive modernization effort. You can read more about these changes here: Modernizing Iowa’s System of Services for Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

Her face literally brightened, and she sat a little straighter in her seat. Without downplaying the difficulties and the struggles she and her staff have faced, she was able to name a large number of real and unexpected benefits that have come about since her service branch shut down its shelter.

She described new life and a resurgence of energy in the staff. She talked about the increase in real value aid her branch has been able to offer because of the financial resources which have been freed up. Suddenly, new vistas of opportunity to make a difference and to have significant impact in her service area seem to be opening up.

While we were talking, a few of the things she said kind of lit up in my mind. The kind of institutional change she was describing is the kind of institutional change the United Methodist Church is trying to take on itself-a modernization of systems and services to better enable a mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Here are some of the similarities:

1) Reluctance to embrace change: shelters are the services people know about, and they are “the way” to meet the needs of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Closing shelters will leave people in danger and take away an important service that is needed.

-While the overall modernization plan does not include closing ALL shelters, it does include shutting some of them down.  In order for the entire system to change, some branches will have to actually stop offering the services they have traditionally been designed to supply.

2) Concerns about sustainability of funding: state and federal funding cuts were inevitable, so change was necessary.

-The system was going to change and would do so either of its own will or via downsizing in staff and reduction of services because of budget cuts.  Rather than slowly closing down bits and pieces of the program while increasing the burden of operation on fewer and fewer staff members, a decision was made to reorient around the core mission: providing sustainable services to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

3) Having to let go.

-The Executive Director had to get into a place where she could see the possibility that doing things a different way might meet more needs than doing things the traditional way. She became convinced that a both/and approach to services was not feasible and she chose to actively participate in reorganization efforts rather than holding on to the system and services she helped to create. To move forward she had to let go.

There were two other things she described which I think are key to her system’s adaptability.

1) Being given permission to fail.

-In order to try out new methods and approaches to mobile advocacy, legal services and rapid rehousing, there had to be a lot of grace from those in leadership. Change does not guarantee that the system will improve. There is no map of new territory. Sometimes you are going to get stuck in a ditch. Knowing that someone else with a truck and a winch is ready and willing to come pull you out makes the journey into the future possible.

2) To meet needs, the institution has to go out of its way to be present where and when those needs arise.

-For years, the crisis intervention services in this multi-county area have offered social, educational, and healing opportunities at local jails, schools, rehabilitation centers, halfway houses, and with local law enforcement. They operated out of the assumption that people would not always come to them. Even before the critical need to change, they were halfway outside their buildings anyway.

As a church and as a conference, we are feeling pressures to change. Talking with the Executive Director helped me see we are not the only institution that is feeling the weight. Listening to her stories of renewal, liberation and surprising joy from what had to be an extremely painful surrender, I felt even more surely that rather than a point of death, the church is going through a rite of passage into new life.

As we navigate that canal, I hope our system has the adaptability that hers seems to have, because like Iowa’s domestic abuse and sexual assault services, I believe our communities need us. I believe they need people of faith, witnesses to hope, purveyors of peace, speakers of good will, and large numbers of people who believe their own good is inextricably bound to the good of other beings.

What Do Social Justice Ministries Look Like?

QuestionsA group of you have been thinking and praying together about faith and ministry. As you look around the church, you and your friends have come to the conclusion that there is not a robust social justice ministry. You are starting to feel like that is a place your church needs to grow. You have become convinced that in order to experience a vibrant and vital faith life, you are going to have to reach more deeply into the significant needs of your community. What’s more, you have read the research and you realize that you are going to have to take a different approach to these ministries if you stand a change of actually connecting with the people you intend to reach. In short, you have decided that you want to start doing social justice ministry, but you have no idea what that looks like.

Here are a few examples of ministries:

Fort Washington Collegiate Church (CRC) calls their social justice ministries You Matter. It has identified health, equality and service as three issues around which to organize. It hosts a weekly fitness class, promotes and sponsors healthy living workshops and cooking classes. The church also has a performance advocacy group and commits members to volunteerism with groups such as Habitat for Humanity. To read more about how they have engaged with these issues, visit their website: http://www.fortwashingtonchurch.org/our-ministries/social-justice-you-matter.

In Iowa, Matthew 25 is a ministry hub born out of a vision of whole life ministry that left the church building. It describes itself as

 “an independent, local nonprofit organization in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It exists to strengthen core neighborhoods on the west side of Cedar Rapids, and to provide opportunities for people to act on their values through service.

Matthew 25′s vision is to help create thriving, connected communities where all people are valued and talents are multiplied. It is a highly innovative and collaborative organization that partners with others to work in three program areas: Neighborhood Building, Youth Empowerment, and Cultivate Hope.”

From building renovation to an urban farm education center, Matthew 25 ministries are embedded in the local culture of Cedar Rapids. To see how they have organized around these program areas, visit their website: http://www.hub25.org/ You can also arrange to visit Mathew 25 directly by contacting them: 201 Third Avenue SW Cedar Rapids, IA 52404; 319-362-2214; info@hub25.org

First Unitarian Church of Cleveland has both a corporate and individual approach to social justice ministry. They work with local schools and Family Promise of Greater Cleveland to respond to the needs of families-from housing and education to intergenerational relationship building. Their menu of programs can be seen at http://www.firstunitariancleveland.org/pages/service-justice-social-justice-ministries.htm

Social justice ministries are issue and cause ministries. We can sometimes get caught up in our political and religious viewpoints and forget that at the heart of mission is intimate relationship with people. Vital ministries are born out of a passion for justice, a heart of compassion for those the world uses most cruelly, and a deep, relationship with Christ. They are ministries of solidarity with, not ministries of pity for. As you start to build your bridge into your community via social justice, lean into your heart places.

Love is the energy which will fuel a passionate ministry. Good works without faith are dead, to make a turn on James. Don’t simply choose a cause or an issue and hope that work on that will bear fruit. Cultivate relationships with people such that their burdens become your own. I guarantee you that in doing so, issues and causes galore shall arise to meet your longing to be a disciple, to make disciples, and to transform the world.

When Faith Leaves the Museum

 

Samuel House
Samuel House

Ai Weiwei, perhaps best known for his exhibit Sunflower Seeds, is a conceptual artist who creates “social or performance-based interventions.” He is one of a number of artists who have decided to take art out of the museum and into society. For Ai Weiwei, these interventions are a way of “merging his life and art in order to advocate both the freedoms and responsibilities of individuals.”

‘From a very young age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society’, he has said. ‘Your own acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.’   (Tate Museum)

The Women Are Heroes project is another example of an artist using the real world social order as a canvas on which to paint challenging ideas. The artist, JR, did this particular project “[i]n order to pay tribute to those who play an essential role in society but who are the primary victims of war, crime, rape and political or religious fanaticism . . .”*

When art leaves the museum like this, it is transformed into social witness. It becomes something publicly available.  It eludes censorship, yet is  exposed to raw and sometimes violent criticism. It somehow moves back and forth across the line of legal and illegal, sanctioned and under sanction.  It is vulnerable and open to whatever interpretations, ideas and reactions it causes.

For these two particular artists, these interventions are also intentionally meant to give voice to the voiceless-to bring the lives of unimportant and disregarded people into public view. Their works expose inconvenient truths and somehow point to the cracks in our well-reasoned ideas about how the world is supposed to work and how it actually works.

I think that vital faith is faith which has chosen to leave the museum. It is faith which endeavors to give voice to the voiceless-to bring the lives of unimportant and disregarded people into public view. It exposes inconvenient truths and somehow points to the cracks in our well-reasoned ideas about how the world is supposed to work and how it actually works.

Vital faith, like the artwork of Ai Weiwei, JR, or Iowa’s own Rev. Ted Lyddon Hatten, shows the light of God shining through those cracks, and brings the world’s attention to it.

This work-this faith in the world work-this social intervention-is social justice.  It is faith made publicly available. It is faith which eludes censorship, yet allows itself to be exposed to raw and sometimes violent criticism. It somehow moves back and forth across the line of legal and illegal, sanctioned and under sanction.  It is vulnerable and open to whatever interpretations, ideas and reactions it causes.

Social justice is a public faith witness which has the the power to break hearts and inspire people to moral elevation and awe. It paints compassion, grace and the irrational and extravagant love of Jesus on the canvas of the world.