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Bart GingerichOctober 11, 2012
On October 7-8, United Methodists gathered in Camp Hill, PA for the third annual Anti-Poverty Summit. The event, organized by United Methodist Advocacy in Pennsylvania director Steve Drachler, featured panelists and speakers from across the nation addressing the issue of American destitution and the church’s ministry to the poor. Included in the lineup was influential Ohio United Methodist pastor Michael Slaughter, who was joined by other powerful voices within the United Methodist Church. Pennsylvania Bishops Jeremiah Park and Peggy Johnson also attended.
Lorenza Andrade Smith, an activist for the homeless and illegal immigrants, offered the opening sermon. “To be kind is not to be a doormat,” she instructed, “We don’t need our personal holiness to be at odds with our social holiness.” Smith observed, “Law and justice are related, but they’re not always aligned.” She quoted from the Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth — the opposite of poverty is justice.”
From her history, Smith seems to see most political structures as being out of alignment. Her slideshow was filled with her attending civil protests, riding on a migrant train, and getting arrested by police. She was appointed by Bishop Jim Dorff of the Southwest Texas Annual Conference to a roving ministry with the homeless in the conference (especially San Antonio). Her latest escapade of sleeping on a park bench has led to quite the ordeal. She was told she could not stay in a local homeless shelter because her chalice and paten were “potential weapons.” After she refused to pay the city fine, she was sentenced to community service at the same shelter that refused her admittance, which she protested. Reports show that she did serve jail time; she hinted that she was still not welcome in San Antonio by the authorities.
Cass Community United Methodist Church senior pastor Faith Fowler shared insights from her experiences as a minister in inner city Detroit. The outspoken liberal’s congregation has run a continuous soup kitchen since 1931. The parish has since branched out into a vast multitude of social services that address nearly every need for impoverished urban areas. Fowler shared several inspirational stories from her eventful work. Despite her strong Social Gospel leanings, she seemed chastened by the actuality of politics and aid. She recounted how Americans responded to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina while Detroit languished in economic downturn. “It was then that I realized no one’s coming to help. The government isn’t coming; corporations aren’t coming. Churches do, but they don’t come to make the systemic change that’s needed to help.” These harsh realities force churches to seek the help of neighboring religious organizations, local governments, and nearby donors as well as think creatively to overcome problems. Fowler recalled how a prostitute affirmed a strong belief in the church’s ability to change people’s lives: “If prostitutes know the power of the church, then all the governments and corporations in the world don’t matter.”
Pastor Mike Slaughter of Ginghamsburg UMC near Dayton, Ohio discussed Methodist theology’s ability to address local and global poverty. “I’ve always been a huge fan of Methodist theology, but our methodology sucks,” he asserted. Slaughter explained how church members neglect the “the Jesus hermeneutic” in favor of party platforms: “They brought Jesus into their secular worldviews…If they were Republican, Jesus was Republican. If they were Democrat, Jesus was the ideal Democrat.” The Ginghamsburg visionary worried that Glenn Beck had become “the pope of Protestantism” and decried Beck’s condemnation of “social justice” focuses in church. Slaughter asserted that the Bible contains 2,400 verses on justice contrasted to the mere 4 on the new birth. He boasted that he preferred his congregants to be “biblically literate more than Fox News literate…I want them to be fundamentalist when it comes to the Bible.”
Slaughter then proceeded to investigate the portions of Scripture that describe Jesus’ messianic mission. He said that Isaiah 58 proves that “yes, God does care about healthcare.” He admitted that he lost 400 members when he preached that sermon. With regard to Isaiah 61, Slaughter urged, “If it is not good news for the poor, sisters and brothers, then it is not the Gospel."
“We don’t have a Gospel worldview. We have a moralistic worldview,” he complained.
Several presenters at the Anti-Poverty Summit played prominent roles during this summer’s General Conference in Tampa. For example, UM Advocacy’s Stephen Drachler served as a delegate. He took the floor to champion transparency and to condemn the relative secrecy associated with the restructuring the United Methodist connexion. He especially worried about the unknown authorship of the “Plan UMC” compromise. Meanwhile, Lorenza Smith was a featured speaker in the revisionist Love Your Neighbor (LYN) coalition’s “tabernacle.” Not only did LYN lobby for liberal political stances in economics and open immigration, but it also fought for official adoption of the LGBT agenda. Mike Slaughter joined Adam Hamilton on the delegate floor to propose an “agree to disagree” motion on homosexuality. Although the Book of Discipline revision failed, it did succeed in attracting support from American moderates. Similarly, Steve Drachler voiced even more open opposition to traditional Christian understandings of sexuality.
Panels throughout the weekend outlined plans for addressing poverty, filled with complaints as well as helpful insights. One particular board talked about the local ministries of United Methodist churches in Pennsylvania. Seeing the effectiveness and perseverance of committed Christians proved to be quite uplifting to the audience. Nevertheless, the platform was dominated by progressive voices, unlike last year’s more balanced approach. Drachler declared, “Hopefully we can leave this conference washed, prepared, and better equipped for those in need.”
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