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Young clergy drawn to social justice

 
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This is the ninth installment of a yearlong series that will follow newly appointed United Methodist clergy as they begin their ministry.

1:00 P.M. EST June 2, 2011 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)



The Rev. Brian Rossbert, right, directs a mission team of young people working on a home destroyed by 2010 floods in Nashville, Tenn. Both Brian and his wife, the Rev. Laura Rossbert, are active in their support of social justice. A UMNS file photo by Kathy Gilbert.
The Rev. Brian Rossbert, right, directs a mission team of young people working
on a home destroyed by 2010 floods in Nashville, Tenn. Both Brian and his wife,
the Rev. Laura Rossbert, are active in their support of social justice.
A UMNS file photo by Kathy Gilbert. View in Photo Gallery

The Revs. Brian and Laura Rossbert sometimes show up on the 5 p.m. news — on multiple channels.

It’s not because they are controversial or in any trouble; it is because social justice is basic to their faith and they don’t just sit on the sidelines. It’s not unusual to see either of them at a city council meeting or an organized protest.

Like many young clergy, one of the strong factors that drew the Rossberts to ministry in The United Methodist Church was the church’s Social Principles and its history of serving those living on the margins of society.

The couple has actively advocated abolishing the death penalty in Tennessee (and nationwide) and supported an ordinance to prohibit government contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in Nashville.

Brian Rossbert is assigned to two rural West Nashville churches in the Tennessee Annual (regional) Conference. As part of his appointment, he is volunteer coordinator for the West Nashville Flood Recovery Network.

Laura, a second-year Master of Divinity degree candidate at Vanderbilt University, serves as pastoral intern at East End United Methodist Church, Nashville.

Recently, Brian was among several young United Methodist pastors and students in the Vanderbilt Divinity School who wrote letters to their state representatives in support of two bills that would exclude mentally ill persons from execution in Tennessee.

‘I am very proud of this church’

Many young pastors lead their congregations in supporting ministries that help their communities.



The Rev. Shalom Agtarap, left, pastor of Ellensburg (Wash.) United Methodist Church, participates in an ecumenical vigil in support of those arrested in immigration-related violations. A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey.
The Rev. Shalom Agtarap, left, pastor of Ellensburg (Wash.) United Methodist Church, participates in an ecumenical vigil in support of those arrested in immigration-related violations.
A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey. View in Photo Gallery

Full inclusion and response to the nation’s broken immigration system are two issues especially important to the Rev. Shalom Agtarap, pastor of Ellensburg (Wash.) United Methodist Church.

The congregation recently responded to the needs of undocumented immigrants after Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in their town.

“I am very proud of this church. With uncertainties in hand, they continue to let their faith in Christ lead them through difficult issues,” she said.

“As a young woman of color, it is important for me to model reconciliation as a comprehensive approach; … full inclusion means all genders and orientations, racial and ethnic backgrounds, economic status and ability,” Agtarap added.

Justice beyond the church walls

“Pretty much all of my time is spent on social-justice issues both inside and outside of the church,” said the Rev. Stacey Harwell, a deacon and minister of community building, Centenary United Methodist Church, Macon, Ga.

Centenary does a lot of work with the homeless including providing transitional housing, serving breakfast each Sunday to about 120 and working on ways to serve the children.

“We partner with Firehouse Productions Inc., an artist’s collective that puts on a fantastic summer camp for children at no cost that helps young girls and boys build the ‘toolbox’ that is themselves. The camp is hosted by Centenary, and many Centenary folks donate time and resources to the project,” she said.

The Rev. Mara Bailey, university minister at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Neb., said social justice is of great interest to the students on her campus.

She serves on the Risk Taking Mission and Justice team of the United Methodist Nebraska Annual (regional) Conference, which provides funding for a variety of social-justice issues.

An internship funded by the team gives students a chance to advocate for issues important to them.

“This semester we had an intern working on immigration, another working on human trafficking, and a third focusing on children and poverty/educational support,” Bailey said.

Dialogue important

Both Harwell and Brian Rossbert said not every congregational member agrees with their positions on some of the hot-button issues, but they have made it a policy that everyone listens to each other.

“We don't always agree on everything, but we agree on a few things that are key: being open to dialogue, being civil in our discourse, allowing room for mystery, all while making sure that we are in intentional ministry with those in the margins,” Harwell said.

Agtarap said she makes it a point to offer everyone the same hospitality she offers guests in her home.

“I listen intently. I let them speak fully. And then I share why I'm passionate about an issue. I'm less concerned with labels and who's right or wrong. With this start, conversations are likely to take on a different tone than those shown in popular media.”

Agtarap said she uses two questions to guide her approach to life: "Have I done justice today? Have I grown in love for God and neighbor?

“The prophets and Gospels are summed up in these questions. I am not intimidated by any conversation, challenging issue or not, because of this scriptural basis. I also trust that God speaks through those around me, especially those who take opposing views.”

*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Showing 5 comments

  • Bob 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    God's people are NOT illegal
  • Bob 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Could this happen in this day and time? I pray not.Robert E. Hawkins, retired
  • Dale Shotts 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    I rejoice that young clergy are drawn to social justice action. This is a voice that has been neglected too long in the UMC. We have too long complied with cultural standards and joined the cultural rather than speaking gospel to the culture around us. Rev. Dale Shotts retired
  • James 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    What is it that the Methodist Church doesn't understand the word illegal? I'm all in favorite of helping people but let me assure you that there are plenty of America's that need help now and the church is spending time, money, volunteer hours to assist people who shouldn't be here in the first place. Let's help at home first. Did you look at what has happened in Europe to the Methodist Church because they have assisted the wrong people. The Methodist Church in England, where are founders were born is now down to 250K members and is thinking that to survive the must join the Church of England, the same is happening in America. Last but not least how many of those illegals are going to contribute there efforts to the Methodist Church. The last time I checked about 90% of Mexico is Catholic.
  • Gregory McLaughlin 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Writing in here from the Ellensburg Methodist Church. One important piece of all of this is that as Christians we are differentiating between compassion and political ideology. Pastor Shalom has been a great example in our community of a spiritual leader that does not back away from compassion even when the underlying issue has been politicized. The result is that we even have people with mixed views on social justice as political issues who have nevertheless participated in publics acts of compassion and humanitarian support. We as a congregation hope the church as a whole learns to follow this type of leadership whether that person who walks through Methodist doors is undocumented, gay, or a "tea-partier".

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