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Bishops focus on building community with poor

1/22/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

By Alice Smith*

ATLANTA (UMNS) - When United Methodist bishops adopted their Initiative on Children and Poverty in 1996, the goal of reshaping the mostly middle-class U.S. church in response to children and the poor was a daunting one that proved unattainable over the short haul.

Four years later, the bishops realized they had made some progress. They had raised the consciousness of United Methodists, and churches had established ministries to children, mostly those already in their congregations.

Building on what had been accomplished, the bishops decided to extend the initiative another four years and focus primarily on developing relationships with the poor - being in community with them rather than viewing them as objects of charity.

"What we felt we needed to do was invite the church to be more aware of the 'least of these' who live among us and to focus this time on the poor, especially community with the poor," said Bishop Ann Sherer of the church's Missouri Area, chairperson of the Bishops' Initiative on Children and Poverty Task Force.

"We're good at ministries of compassion, such as clothing closets and food pantries," she continued. "What is harder for us is to look at systems that cause poverty, locally and globally, and begin to struggle together about what we need to do to create more opportunities for equity and justice and help people move into a more sustainable lifestyle."

The bishops' new document, "Community With Children and the Poor - A Guide for Congregational Study," was introduced at a training session Jan. 16-19 in Atlanta. The meeting brought together more than 100 people, including regional coordinators of the initiative.

A plenary session was planned around each of the six chapters in the document, including one on the state of poor children in the United States and the globalization of the economy, which has worsened the situation for poor people and decimated the struggling economies of developing countries.

Two United Methodist bishops from overseas - retired Bishop Daniel Arichea of the Philippines, who teaches at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., and Bishop Nkulu Ntanda Ntambo of the North Katanga Area, Democratic Republic of the Congo, pulled no punches in comparing the situations in their countries with the affluence of the United States.

Quoting Jesus, who said much is required from those who have much, Arichea said, "I don't want you to feel guilty, but I think it's good if you do. God have mercy on you, in terms of judgment, because you do have much."

He told how grants from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries have helped educate seminarians in the Philippines, where $1,000 will pay for a year's schooling. The grant amount was cut first to $15,000, then to $7,500, and next year it will be zero, as income from board investments has declined. Yet, he pointed out, the cost to attend seminary at Duke is $22,000 a year.

One project worthy of wider church support, he said, is MODE (Medical, Optical, Dental, Evangelism), whereby teams go into remote villages to provide holistic ministry. "The greatest needs in the villages are the needs of the children. It's the children who are suffering when poverty is there," he said.

Another way the church can help is by providing small loans to start businesses or cooperatives, he said, noting that a $30,000 grant from the Women's Division "went a long way and helped a lot of people."

Likewise, Ntambo detailed the dire situation in the Congo, which is extremely poor although the country is rich in resources. People live on one meal a day, or sometimes one meal in two days, he said, whereas Americans have four meals a day - breakfast, lunch, dinner and a bedtime snack.

The lifestyle Americans take for granted - electricity by flipping a switch, ease of transportation, clean water, access to education -- is nonexistent in his country, where even small items such as salt and soap are scarce.

"When people get sick, the only way of healing is prayer, for most people can work two to three days to buy aspirin," he said. "In America every cat and dog has its own clinic and dispensary."

He listed a number of factors that have created the Congo's situation - African traditionalism which keeps men and women in separate roles; the large number of children born to a family; tribalism; belief in sorcery and witchcraft; disease; war; corrupt leadership; the country's debt load; and colonialism that resulted in the massive pillaging of resources.

"Africa is humiliated, insulted, accused," he said. "Let the church speak out against injustice in the world and in the church. We need Jesus' system and method which are love, justice and peace."

Although the United States is extremely affluent in relation to the world's poorest countries, the fact of the matter is the gap between the rich and the poor in America is increasing, presenters pointed out. According to the Children's Defense Fund, statistics released last year by the U.S. Census Bureau show the number of children living in poverty increased in 2001 for the first time in eight years, from 11.6 million children to 11.7 million. Almost 75 percent of poor children live in working families.

If the minimum wage had increased since the 1960s at the same rate as the median U.S. household income, it would be $14 an hour today instead of $5.15, Sherer said. "The level of affluence of most United Methodists has steadily grown over the last 40 years, but for the poor life has gotten harder."

Forming relationships with the poor is key to understanding them, Sherer said. Such programs as the bishops' "Hope For the Children of Africa" appeal and United Methodist Volunteers in Mission offer such opportunities across cultural lines.

Building individual relationships is just as important, she said, noting that each bishop has been asked to establish a friendship with a poor person.

In Sherer's case, most of her personal efforts, as well as those of the Missouri Annual Conference, have related to Mozambique. Missouri churches provide every Mozambican church with at least $900 a year, which pays the pastor's salary, and in addition there have been reciprocal visits.

For the last three years, college students from Mozambique have lived in Sherer's home. "They remind me of my wastefulness with food, paper," she said. "They are just more careful because they live with a lot less. I have learned about my habits and been able to see my country from their eyes."

Sherer has also developed a friendship with a woman at the local convenience store where she frequently stops on her way to work.

Most United Methodists, she noted, do not have friendships with poor people. "Before we understand their challenges, we have to know who they are and what happens in their lives."
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*Smith is editor of the Wesleyan Christian Advocate, the newspaper of the North and South Georgia annual conferences.

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