Beyond the ballot box

The election year rhetoric leaves some folks fuming and gasping for breath, furious with one candidate or another, or exhausted by the negativity and wanting it all to end. Some feel frustrated by the nation’s continuing inability to find common ground on complicated issues such as the economy and health care.

Some Presbyterians, however, do not lose heart — they remain committed to ministry on complex social issues, regardless of who is in office, and resist the notion held by some that politics and church should not mix. Often responding to needs in their own local communities, these Presbyterians breathe life into ministries directly concerned with sometimes divisive issues such as gun violence, poverty, immigration policy, homelessness and more, as a living expression of their faith.

beyondballotboxIn Wooster, Ohio, members of the small Westminster Presbyterian Church — which is located on the campus of Wooster College and has a long history of social justice work — periodically take Wooster students on a trip with BorderLinks, an educational program along the U.S.-Mexico border. Westminster also is part of an interdenominational group of churches that has responded to local concerns about labor practices in poultry processing plants and about racial profiling by law enforcement agencies. Members of the church also advocate for peace in the Middle East.

Why such involvements?

It’s an affirmation that every human being is a child of God and that if any member of our human family is hurting, all of us are hurting,” said Andries Coetzee, Westminster’s pastor. “It’s that collective suffering that motivates us to do something for the least of these.”

Immigration. In Greensboro, N.C., Guilford Park Presbyterian Church uses a bequest to provide resources for a special emphasis every other year — and this fall, the theme has been a series of events called “Voices of Immigration: Listening for Christ.” Children in the congregation have learned about hospitality and welcoming the stranger; adults have brought in desserts representing their ethnic heritage, recognizing that “we’re all immigrants somewhere in our history,” said Melanie Rodenbaugh, a lawyer who has led the committee planning the series.

The series has included Bible study and discussion of the book “Trails of Hope and Terror,” which features the stories of some who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border through the Sonoran Desert, and worship led by Rosa Miranda, who leads a new church development with Latino immigrants in Winston-Salem. The series culminates in late October with preaching from former General Assembly moderator John Fife, a Tucson minister who has worked for years to provide humanitarian relief for immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border and as an advocate for immigration reform.

Why is a congregation in the middle of North Carolina spending weeks talking about immigrants, the Bible and public policy?

We are not going to tell people who to vote for in the elections,” said Jeff Paschal, Guilford Park’s pastor. “We are going to talk about how the gospel speaks to public policy” and about how faith sometimes leads Christians to action.

We’re pretty much a suburban, mostly white, middle-class church,” Rodenbaugh said. But Greensboro, like many communities in the United States, is seeing demographic shifts, noticeable to those who work in the schools or hospitals or other public sector jobs. “You certainly notice in Greensboro most of the lawn care companies employ Hispanic crews,” she said. “Many of the painters and roofers are Hispanic.”

Through the study, “it’s been a tremendous surprise to realize the hardships under which many of these people live. That they can’t have a driver’s license, for example. That they are subject to arrest and deportation … They can literally be whisked off in the middle of the night.”

If nothing else, those in the Guilford Park congregation will now have more open eyes and open hearts about the immigrants in their own community, Rodenbaugh said. “It would be hard to ignore it again after learning so much about it.”

One of the Wooster students who made the BorderLinks trip last spring, Erika Takeo, wrote in her blog about the complexities the trip revealed to her of foreign trade policy, of violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, of the humanitarian work being done along both sides of the border. The Ohio group met with everyone from Homeland Security representatives to families who’d been recently deported.

Over and over again, I heard hopeful individuals tell their stories of migration and suffering that I do not believe any human being should have to endure,” Takeo wrote. “Over and over again, these individuals said that all they wanted was a job. A simple job. They did not want to get in anyone’s way, they just wanted to make a little money to send home and feed their families.”

Coetzee said a particularly powerful moment came when the group began to pray with one woman at a gathering spot just south of the border, “and as we started praying the circle just became bigger and bigger, with more migrants joining in.”

Homelessness. In Denver, Colorado, Central Presbyterian Church has hosted a shelter for homeless men in its basement for more than 20 years. The shelter, called New Genesis, is separately incorporated and has its own staff, and has opened a second shelter following the same model in Las Vegas. More than 100 men a night can stay in the shelter — working jobs, paying rent from their wages and doing their own cooking and chores, participating in 12-step programs and preparing to move into shared apartments.

Joyce Coville, a ruling elder at Central, has worked with New Genesis for years — and said it’s become even more valuable since some emergency shelters have cut the number of the beds they can fill. “I’ve often looked at this program and thought, ‘This should be used as a model at the national level.’ It really does change lives,” with a 60 to 70 percent success rate of getting men off the streets.

For the congregation, however, “it’s not without negatives.” Central is a downtown church in a beautiful old historic building, “so the cost of keeping up a building like that is terrible,” Coville said. With occupancy up in the shelter, the water bill is high — “and certainly we wouldn’t want to discourage the men from taking showers, because they’re working hard” and the men keep their living quarters “spic and span.”

Central also offers other outreach ministries — including a supervised visitation program, in which noncustodial parents who have been granted visitation by the courts can see their children in a neutral place (Sunday school rooms at the church) supervised by volunteers, which keeps the cost for the participating families down.

And through the years Coville has helped with a program that assists children in families living in motels along a stretch of road, paying for temporary shelter by the week or the month, crowded together in rooms that often are too hot or too cold and pest-infested, because they can’t afford anything else.

Coville values Central Presbyterian in part because of its commitment to get involved in the lives of people who might never come to church there. Now 63, she joined the church more than 20 years ago, after returning with her family from military duty in Germany (she worked as an Army nurse), and said she wanted her children “to have a church that does have a homeless shelter in the basement, to learn about what goes on in life other than what goes on in the suburbs.”

For her, church is all about building relationships of caring and respect, about putting faith into action. “If you gave me a Bible quiz, I’d flunk,” Coville said. “I really am drawn to the doing part.”