On Justice Ministry

Hannah Wittmer
May 4, 2014

I was raised Catholic, and, though I never remember anyone using the phrases “Catholic Social Teaching” or “preferential option for the poor” – those ideas were planted and they had an impact. From a young age, I felt like it was my life’s mission to do whatever I could possibly do to alleviate poverty and suffering in the world.

One of the things I wound up doing was work with an NGO in rural Guatemala working to provide scholarships for kids who couldn’t afford to go to school. A lot of kids in this community drop out of school after 6th grade, because it becomes more expensive to attend starting in 7th. My job was to interview the students and parents of students who had applied for a scholarship – which were based on need and motivation, and I was to screen for both. But the truth was, I was entering homes of families with a household income of $50 a month, where signs of wealth were possession of a 20-year-old bicycle, or concrete walls instead of wooden. ALL of these kids were in “need” of an education.

So the job of determining which among these kids were “most needy,” was really difficult. It left me wondering what more could be done – what was really preventing ALL of these 12 year olds from continuing their education? The root cause of the problem, I was pretty sure, was not shortage of white women from the United States interviewing students to determine who was most in need of a scholarship.

So when a couple years later I saw the ad for the opening with DART in Lawrence, and I saw the words “justice,” and “addressing the root causes of community problems,”– this was exciting to me. For those of you who aren’t familiar with DART, it’s a network of local justice ministry organizations. We’re inspired by the call to do justice found in scripture, particularly Micah 6:8 “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your lord.” and Jesus echoes those same priorities in Matthew 23:23-24 when he calls Justice, mercy and faithfulness – these are the things required of us. These are, as Jesus puts it, the weightier matters of the law. Most congregations do a very good job of faithfulness, most do a good job with mercy, its less common to see congregations involved with doing justice – holding powerful institutions accountable for fairness. The reason for that is simple – doing justice requires having power, and one congregation acting alone doesn’t have the power to hold these economic and political systems accountable. So DART organizations look to be the vehicle for bringing together large numbers of congregations that, when working together, have the power to address the root causes of problems in their city. I’m basically an HR person for DART – my job is to recruit staff to work for the 20 local organizations.

When I first started working with DART, it was this idea of changing systems that I was solely excited about – being part of a group that was working to get new discipline programs in public schools to reduce out of school suspensions, holding hospitals accountable to ensure they’re properly teaching and encouraging new mothers to breastfeed thereby lowering infant mortality, putting a cap on the legal interest rate that payday lenders can charge.

This was “doing justice.” This was what was “required” of me. But it took me a while to fully realize and appreciate the implications of doing justice – that it requires having POWER, and that it creates very unique opportunities for UNITY, for bringing people together who otherwise would normally not be working together.

There are many places in scripture where the benefits of working together are lifted up. It seems we often choose, however, to work together with people who are very much like us. I know there are Interfaith dialogue groups, diversity retreats, and other places where diverse people gather in order to better understand each other, and talk about their different perspectives – that idea is something people are familiar with. And I know congregations at times work together for mercy ministries. But the thought of getting together with people who are very different from us – not for the purpose of discussing and understanding our differences, not to hand out toys at Christmas or sandwiches to hungry folks on a Saturday, but to seek to address the root causes of community problems– that idea is foreign to people.

I didn’t understand fully the extent to which this is the case until I had the opportunity to, in addition to my HR job, to start working on the side with a group of pastors in Topeka to explore the creation of a justice ministry organization in my hometown. Our first large meeting about this had close to 50 clergy come to learn about justice ministry. It was in the basement of an AME church, with clergy from Catholic, Missionary Baptist, American Baptist, AME, CME, United Methodist, Episcopal, Nazarene, Pentecostal, Mennonite, Lutheran, Presbyterian, COGIC, and nondenominational churches. The group was about half white clergy and half black clergy, with a translator doing simultaneous translating for a Hispanic pastor in the back of the room. During and after the meeting, people were amazed that so many diverse clergy would even be present in the same room together.

During that first meeting, one pastor commented in front of the group, “We can’t even agree on communion…we’ll never agree on this.” Later on, as the organization started to take form, people continued to ask me to clarify, “How will the issues be chosen? And how will we ever agree?”

As the comment about communion illustrated perfectly, so often we spend a lot of time focused on the things that we do differently, the labels that divide us. We think about the world as being segmented into different groups of people who do not have much in common: liberals/conservatives /Protestants/Catholics /Mustlims/Atheists/blue collar/white collar/ pro life/pro choice/ gun owner/evangelical/EastLawrence/West side/etc.

But on a basic level, there are a lot of things we all want – We want our children, nieces, nephews, to get a good education that will prepare them for the future. We want to live in a community where kids don’t go to school hungry and the likelihood of a baby living through infancy does not depend on its skin color or zip code. Where someone who works 40 hours a week doesn’t get paid for just 20 of those hours. Where no one dies because they can’t see a doctor. Where job opportunities are readily available. Where people who need mental health treatment can get mental health treatment. And ensuring that those things happen –not just for some people, not just for the people we can minister to through mercy ministries and charities – but for the entire community. Ensuring that these things happen because our schools, hospitals, local economy, criminal justice system, and mental health systems are working properly – that is “doing justice.”

Sometimes one of the biggest barriers to working together is simply acknowledgment of these common causes. In Topeka, I was meeting with a small committee of pastors that were working on creating structure for this new organization which would become the Topeka Justice and Unity Ministry Project. And three of the pastors – a UMC pastor, Catholic priest, and Nazarene pastor – had churches within three blocks of one another. And they were all meeting for the first time that day at the Topeka JUMP meeting. Not that any of them were unfriendly people, or weren’t open to working outside their denomination – no, they just hadn’t ever had a common cause to bring them together.

Early in the book of Nehemiah, Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall around the city. Chapter 2 Verse 17-18 describe the decision to restore the wall: “Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.” I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said “Let us start building!” So they committed themselves to the common good.”

“So they committed themselves to the common good.”

In his book Transforming Power, Rev. Robert Linthicum describes what it means to spend that much time without walls around your city:

For 141 years, the Jewish people had tolerated the demolition of their walls. They had put up with the loss of protection against marching armies, the looting and pillaging by marauding bands, the raping of their wives and daughters, the burning and destruction of their homes and public buildings, the leveling of their temple. For 141 years, they were oppressed by the Babylonians and the Persians and were exploited by local tribes and even their own Jewish elite. They had believed that they were a nation of nobodies, a people marginalized by their religion and by their belief in an apparently dormant God. Because their city’s walls were broken down, the Jewish people accepted the abuse of the rest of the world, making them into second-class citizens. Yet, as Nehemiah demonstrated to them, the power to change their situation had lain in their own hands. At any time during those 141 years, they could have chosen to rebuild their walls!

Once the people committed themselves to the common good, they re-built it in 52 days.

In the past month, most of the 20 organizations in the DART network have had their large, annual assemblies – called a Nehemiah Assembly, where large numbers of people come together to seek solutions they agree need to be put in place. To give you just a few examples of places where large numbers of people have committed themselves to the common good, just in the past month: 1,500 people of faith of Miami came together to ask their school officials to reduce the number of students suspended out-of-school for minor offenses.

1,800 people of faith of Daytona Beach united to ask their police chief, sheriff, and superintendent to make sure kids who commit first time misdemeanors are charged with civil citations (instead of arrests), so they can keep their records clean and have a shot at future scholarship and job opportunities.

3,000 people of faith of Jacksonville, FL gathered to ask school officials to use an empirically proven reading curriculum for low-performing elementary schools, and to ask city officials to take part in a collaboration to bring more worker-owned cooperatives to northwest Jacksonville, bringing not just jobs but wealth to the city.

2,500 people of faith in Pinellas County, Florida got together to ask their county commissioners to allocate $5.9 million for indigent dental care.

The answer to each one of these asks was “yes”.

The reason the answer was yes, is because those organized bodies of people had set aside their differences and committed themselves to the common good.

I don’t mean to imply that people can or should agree with one another all the time on everything. Of course that will never happen. We’re not going to all agree on all issues.

But, if we can’t set aside our differences in order to work together on the things we DO agree on, then we are being neglectful.

If we can’t set aside our differences on the issue of gay rights or prayer in schools, in order to come together around the things we can agree on in large numbers and can find concrete solutions for – to ensure that children are learning to read, and ex-offenders can find jobs, and people can get dental care, then we are allowing those problems to persist.

The other reason those gathered assemblies heard “yes” in the past month, is because by gathering together around their common cause, they put themselves in a position of power.

And this is the second idea that took me a while to understand. This work isn’t just about solving problems. It’s not about figuring out how to help the greatest number of people, which is what I’d originally thought I was signing up for. Fundamentally, it is about changing the way that decisions in a community get made. So that people of faith have a say in the decisions that get made about our community. So that our values of love and fairness and justice are reflected in those decisions. And that involves having power.

Having payday lending institutions that are legally able to charge 400% interest on a payday loan–that is a problem. But the broader problem is that the people who are suffering because of getting trapped in a cycle of debt due to these loans, and the people who have loved one trapped in a cycle of debt, and the people who’ve never taken out a payday loan in their lives but feel that it is morally outrageous and a violation of their values – typically all of these folks are powerless to do anything about this problem.

Poor performing public schools, high infant mortality rates, lack of public transportation, unemployment–these are clearly problems.

But the broader problem is one of powerlessness. People directly affected by these problems, and people who feel that the existence of these problems violates their values, most of the time are powerless to do much.

Nehemiah, in chapter 5, provides an example of how large numbers of individuals, when united behind a common cause, can have power. Power is defined as “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.”

The “great assembly” that Nehemiah called had power. They clearly influenced the behavior of the moneylenders, who certainly were not about to give back all they had taken from the people on their own.

Some people have mixed feelings about the idea of power. They think about the saying that “power corrupts.” The quote actually says that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The people called together in Nehemiah’s time weren’t seeking absolute power, but rather power to influence the moneylenders on this issue. Justice ministry organizations are likewise not seeking absolute power, but they are seeking some power. Some ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.

To give an example of how Nehemiah-like power is used to bring about justice in modern times: In 2008, leaders of a justice ministry organization in Louisville – Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together (also known as CLOUT) identified that there were over 13,000 children in Louisville who were eligible for KCHIP – the Kentucky Children’s Health Insurance Program, but who were not enrolled.

In looking into why this was happening, CLOUT leaders realized that the under-enrollment of kids in KCHIP was largely created by decisions made by state legislators to make it more difficult for children to enroll, and easier for them to be dropped.

There had been efforts to restrict outreach activity–state workers who had been assigned to work at local hospitals and health clinics to help sign up families for KCHIP – these state workers were pulled. Local health department officials had received calls instructing them to throw away all promotional materials – plastic cups, notepads, advertising KCHIP. They wanted fewer people finding out about this program. Most troubling was the fact that enrolling in KCHIP required a face to face interview.

Kentucky was one of only TWO states in the country that had not switched to an application via mail or internet. Which meant that parents would have to take usually an entire day off of work to wait in a social service office for an appointment. This is especially nonsensical if you consider that, while Medicaid covers health insurance for the poorest of the poor, KCHIP is designed to cover children of the working poor. Asking folks to take a day off of work was a sure way to keep enrollment numbers low.

Just as Nehemiah was “very angry” when he heard the outcry of the people of Jerusalem, CLOUT’s leaders were angry when they heard there were 13,000 kids in their city who should have health insurance through a state program but do not.

After doing research into this problem, they met with the deputy secretary for the Kentucky cabinet for health and family services and told him of their concerns. They asked him to remove these barriers which were causing low enrollment of kids in KCHIP. His response was a common one “I can’t do that.

We just don’t have money for it. We’re running a deficit as it is.”

They invited him to attend their annual Nehemiah Assembly, and gave him the date. He told them he’d come, but the answer would be the same. There simply wasn’t money.

The night of this event, the deputy secretary came. CLOUT had gathered 800 members who supported removing these barriers to KCHIP enrollment. They had also gathered 11 allies – judges, nonprofit leaders, officials from the local health department – they asked, in succession, each of these community

leaders whether they supported their cause. Each said yes. The twelfth person in line was the deputy secretary. And, after previously telling a small group of CLOUT leaders that there was not money in the budget to do this, his response that night was “Absolutely.” (and, I’m told, a fist pump, as the crowd cheered his response.”)

Not only did he say ‘yes’ that night, he followed through. As a result, not only were barriers lifted in Louisville, they were removed statewide. In the first three years following this action, an additional 60,000 children in Kentucky were enrolled in KCHIP who would not otherwise have been enrolled.

Something that was easily dismissed in conversation with a small group of CLOUT leaders as being too expensive, it suddenly became doable in front of 800 well organized CLOUT leaders. This is the type of power Rev. Martin Luther King Jr was describing in his message entitled, “Where do we go from here?” given on August 16, 1967:

“What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. (Yes) Power at its best [applause], power at its best is love (Yes) implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. (Speak) And this is what we must see as we move on.”