By Carolyn Herkstroeter
Remember WWJD- “What Would Jesus Do”? How about WJDSJ- Would Jesus Do Social Justice?
Social Justice is about stepping out of the pews, out of our comfort zones. It is about advocating for safe, healthy communities, taking steps to eradicate poverty and exploitation, facing government bodies at all levels. It is about living our faith and transforming communities by acting on our values.
Yes, Jesus did do social justice. He tossed the money changers out of the Temple. He took on tax collectors and political leaders and insisted that caring for “the least of these” was a priority. Following Jesus’ example, many St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan congregations are stepping out together to take on similar issues through Faith Based Community Organizing.
Faith Based Community Organizing is getting people out of the pews! St. Louis based Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU) and MORE 2 (Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity) in the Kansas City area are ecumenical, inter-faith organizations whose congregational members believe in exercising their faith beyond church walls and who actively campaign for social justice.
The Reverend Susan Sneed, a St. Louis based organizer, works primarily with MCU CUCA, Churches United for Community Action (one of three congregational clusters that comprise MCU). She explains Missouri’s three-year plan for social justice action, “Rekindling our Faith” as follows:
“Our goals are to rekindle our congregations, rekindle our economy and rekindle our democracy. This is not about charity; it is about social justice.”
First as a lay person, later as clergy, Rev Sneed has been involved with the initial cluster, CUCA, since its inception in 1991. True to her commitment, Rev Snead spends more time in action than in her office.
“I am one of the luckiest pastors I know because I get to do exactly what I want to,” she said. Doing what she wants to involves trips to Jefferson City to fight for Medicare Expansion for underprivileged people; to Washington DC to demonstrate for rights for immigrant women and families.
She spends much of her time encouraging individuals and congregations to become involved in social justice issues which impact their communities and their neighbors.
“I want people to understand what organizing means and to get them interested,” she said. She emphasizes how social issues, such as foreclosure mediation, impact individuals and communities in many ways that tie people together. “For example, MCU congregations worked successfully with St. Louis county to pass legislation that established a foreclosure mediation program that saved 80 homes in its first 90 days.”
Community organizations like MCU and MORE 2 provide the voice for clergy and lay United Methodists, along with other Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations, to be heard on behalf of local, county and state issues, and to improve the lives of thousands of people.
In a 2010 MCU, lead by Linda Dopuch, headed a transportation action team in a successful campaign that lead to the passage of a sales tax that revived the endangered St. Louis Metro transit system serving suburban St. Louis. Saving Metro kept buses and trains running, enabling people to keep their only means of transportation to work and retain their jobs.
MORE 2 and MCU jointly supported the state issue, Persistence to Education, a fund for school districts to access in order to address high drop-out rates through early intervention. The Presumptive Eligibility legislation allowed nearly 90,000 children to access health care information provided by schools through the free/reduced lunch program. This action enabled immediate enrollment of children presumed eligible, with the process of confirming eligibility following enrollment. The cost to the state was $11 per child.
“That’s a small price to pay to ensure that a child sees a doctor when she first needs one, before it turns into a medical emergency,” said Rev. Sneed. “Triaminic and Tylenol only go so far before families are forced into an emergency room.”
In 2012 MCU and MORE2 joined forces with Jobs for Justice, Missouri Rural Crisis Centers, and other grass-roots non-profits in a campaign to create a ballot initiative to cap PayDay lending interest rates. Thousands of signatures, over twice the number needed, were collected. Unfortunately, the issue failed to make the ballot when PayDay loan industry lawyers exercised their extensive financial resources to challenge in minute detail the signatures, the petitions and even the process.
In spite of disappointment and defeat in this action against poverty, that effort in grass-roots organizing demonstrated the real power of uniting for social justice. Rev. Sneed describes this example of unified action as “an opportunity to fully participate—to see our values reflected in the community.”
“We can’t just stay home and yell at the TV or just sit in the pews and sing hymns,” she said. “We have to put our politics in context with our faith. ‘Politics’ is a set of relationships we use to create a specific way of life; to think about things that are important to us. Everyone is tied to a political belief which influences our decisions in supporting public life. We have to make the connection.
“How do we use our faith so that people impacted by these decisions may have quality of life? All the major denominations stress that we need to be aware of and civically involved because that is how we live day by day. We (congregations) need to educate people to make the connection. Through social justice actions, we have the opportunity to participate—to see our values reflected in the community.
“Faith is not about being easy and comfortable. We need to be challenged to act on our faith. Faith in action calls people to step out of their comfort zones. You can’t just do the easy stuff. You have to do the hard stuff. If I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me, I better be ready to act.”
Participating in faith-based organizing enables congregations to change lives, to lend support to those who are economically and socially depressed; to network with like-minded organizations. Sometimes the issue is about redevelopment—perhaps turning a wasteland into a productive living space. It is about maintaining viable, safe, environmentally friendly communities and providing opportunities. It is about economic, educational, and racial equality.
As Methodists, Social Justice is our heritage. John Wesley and William Wilberforce had a passion for Social Justice. Jesus did do Social Justice. Through organizations like MORE2 and MCU, our congregations are given a means to step beyond the church walls and act for Social Justice for our brothers and sisters in Christ.