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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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
"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."
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
"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
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."
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.
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
Sherer has also developed a friendship with a woman at
the local convenience store where she frequently stops on her way to
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."
# # #
*Smith is editor of the Wesleyan Christian Advocate, the newspaper of the North and South Georgia annual conferences.
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