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Iowa legislative advocate keeps church's view in public eye

1/6/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

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As the full-time legislative advocate for the United Methodist Church s Iowa Annual Conference, Lana Ross spends weekdays at the state capitol and weekends in local churches. Armed with the denomination s Social Principles, Book of Discipline, and General and annual conference positions, she fights to keep the church s views before state legislators. A UMNS photo courtesy of Lana Ross. Photo number 03-01, Accompanies UMNS #002, 1/6/03
Some days, Lana Ross feels like David facing Goliath.

As the legislative advocate for the United Methodist Church's Iowa Annual Conference, Ross faces many powerful opponents. Armed with the denomination's Social Principles, Book of Discipline, and General and annual conference positions, she fights to keep the church's views before state legislators.

One such opponent is the pro-gambling lobby. A gambling debate is under way in the state, she explains, and the gaming industry spends about $1 million in its lobbying efforts at the capitol.

"There are not very many advocates against gambling; if you put all our resources together, we might have $50,000," Ross says, laughing.

"We never lessen our advocacy on it. We know we are fighting a very difficult battle and our chances of winning are very, very slim, but our message never weakens," she says, with a hint of the determination that keeps her going back to the battlefield.

"Her work is crucial to the voice of the church and conference actually being heard in state and worldly affairs," says the Rev. Mike Orthel, chairperson of the conference board of church and society's Justice Advocacy Committee, which oversees the legislative advocacy program. "And I believe the church's voice speaks for the voiceless in our society."

As the full-time legislative advocate for the Iowa Conference, Ross spends weekdays at the state capitol and weekends in local churches. She has visited more than 100 churches since becoming the conference advocate in 2000.

"I like working with the local churches," she says. "I tell them if you read through the Social Principles, I guarantee, I promise, there is going to be something in there you don't agree with. But I guarantee and promise you there will be things in there you do agree with. We just have to be willing to work together where we agree, and when we don't, just let it go."

Ross feels God has called her to this ministry. Previously, she worked for Mid-Iowa Community Action, a nonprofit group serving low-income families. She learned about her current job in a letter the bishop sent to all annual conference members.

As soon as she read the letter, she knew the job was right for her. "I told myself, I am just going to pray about this for three days, and if I still feel this way, I will apply," she says.

"I had always heard people say they felt God called them to do this or that. I never really got it before, (but) now I know. Now I get it!"

People are starting to understand her ministry better, Ross says. "I think people always thought it was an either/or situation. You had to be either for this ministry or against it."

She admits she does not have 100 percent support from the annual conference. Orthel agrees the advocacy program always has opposition.

"At the 2002 annual conference, there were motions put forth to eliminate the position," he says. "This has happened before, and each time it is defeated and the position carries on. The faction that is behind this movement is small, but very vocal and organized. In the final vote, over three-fourths of the conference members supported the program."

Since taking the job in July 2000, Ross has experienced successes and failures.

One highlight was the adoption of a bill that extended the period of time welfare recipients had to apply for education funds. "It didn't cost the state anything, and because of my experience with low-income families, I could see the benefit that (an) extra 12 months would have in enabling many women to successfully complete their degree," she says.

"I was just in the right place at the right time," she says, as she describes asking a state representative to look at the bill that was on his desk. He ultimately brought the legislation up for debate, and it passed.

"That was pretty exciting," she says.

Another high point was her appointment to a 13-person task force to look at the state's energy policy.

"The governor asked if I would serve on that task force to be an advocate for low-income Iowans. He did that because of the church's longstanding commitment to being good stewards of the environment and our longstanding advocacy for low-income Iowans."

One of her biggest disappointments was the passage of the English-only bill. The United Methodist Church has a position on making English the "official language" of the United States. In part, it says, "We oppose the attempt to rob a person of his or her language as dehumanizing." (2000 Book of Resolutions, pp. 186-188)

She also has been disappointed by the deep budget cuts that have hurt the poor.

"You have to have a lot of perseverance, a lot of tenacity because it is a slow process," Ross says. "I am just exhausted at the end of the day and I feel like I haven't achieved much, but I know that is not true. Your wins are oftentimes very small."

The Justice Advocacy Committee knows her work can be draining. "We serve as emotional and spiritual support for her," Orthel says. "We seek to be a sounding board on which she can discuss her work and its joys and frustrations."

The conference has had a legislative advocacy program for 20 years. It began when two state legislators, who were members of the annual conference, petitioned for funds to have someone communicate resolutions to their colleagues at the capitol. It was a part-time position for many years. A few other conferences have full- or part-time advocates, including Mississippi, Baltimore-Washington, Missouri, Eastern Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Part of the program's funding comes from the conference board of church and society's budget. The Justice Advocacy Committee raises another $50,000 to $60,000 per year. Most of the funds come from a group of about 1,300 people who belong to the Justice Advocacy Network. Network members receive regular updates on bills and are called upon to contact their legislators when a particular piece of legislation is nearing a vote, Orthel says.

"We have had one very generous benefactor that has assisted this program in being full time as a memory to his father, a very socially active member of the conference," he says.

Orthel cites Micah 6:6-8 as the driving motivation behind his ministry. "Any ministry that does not embody justice, kindness, and humility seems to fall short of the calling of Jesus, in my opinion. And so, from my perspective, what we do as a church and as a conference ought to bring about justice in our world, treating it with kindness and humility as we carry out what seems to be our ordained dominion over creation," he says.

"The work of the advocate is really to be a communicator of these official positions of the church in the churches of the conferences and in the marketplace."

The most important quality of a legislative advocate is being a good listener and being willing to hear all sides of an issue, Ross says.

"People like to say we always side with the Democrats, always side with the liberal position. I have been in this job for two years, and that is absolutely not the truth. You have to be able to work with people you don't agree with all the time. You have to work with both parties."

Ross doesn't think she has all the answers, but she is not afraid to speak up and ask questions.

In a report to the annual conference she composed a "wish list" of issues important to the church that need attention. She would like to:

· Increase the tobacco tax.
· Repeal mandatory sentencing.
· Improve public school funding.
· Reform campaign financing.

Those goals bring big opponents, but for Lana Ross, the message never weakens.

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*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer.

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