A new office of public policy is being established between the Florida-Bahamas Synod and the Florida Council of Churches, thanks to a special grant from the synod council and encouragement from the ELCA Office of Advocacy. The grant helps to fulfill a decade-long desire in the bishop’s office. Funding for the public policy office is for 2019 and its work will be evaluated at the end of the year. The office will begin to generate regular communications by Easter. Bishop Suarez has appointed an Advocacy Team to work with the council of churches and provide direction for helping to strengthen congregation ministries that address the common good. Members of the Advocacy Team will provide monthly articles for the E-Spirit, providing examples and recommendations for realizing how we can be a “publicly engaged church” here in the Florida-Bahamas Synod. The first article is by the Rev. Dr. Russell Meyer, Executive Director of the Florida Council of Churches and Pastor of the Lutheran Urban Parish of Tampa.
Walking through the office hallways of the Florida Legislature dressed in my clerics regularly gets me greetings that conclude, “Thanks for being, here!” It’s a sign of how uncommon it is to see a pastor visiting our representatives and senators, especially when the visit is on behalf of “the least of these” or to encourage legislators to seek that which unites and strengthens our social bonds.
I was pulled into the ministry of advocacy while serving in Lakeland. Developing ecumenical relations and cooperative ministry has always been central to my personal vocation. So, I immediately accepted an invitation from John Calkins of the DART Center to join other local pastors in a new conversation around community organizing. Already, the local minister’s association was addressing racism in the city (the KKK rallied at the Publix 1994 across from the congregation a week after I arrived). It took a couple of years for us to launch the Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment (PEACE) that included Catholic, Pentecostal, Black and Mainline churches. In the process we improved race relations in the city.
Since that congregation helped create a faith-based community organization, many other ELCA congregations across the state have become now involved in community-organizing. Where faith organizing exists, public policy has become more compassionate. United faith voices matter locally and statewide. By showing how we arise above our organizational interests to speak for issues of the common good, we give elected leaders encouragement and empower them to do the same.
I understand why I receive the greeting, “Thanks for being here!”
Across the political spectrum there is a strong welcome for faith voices that speak to moral concerns and the common good and to help broaden policy conversations beyond the narrow interests that normally occupy the hallways of the legislature.
This is a twofold commitment.
Since its foundational social statement, “Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective” (1991), the ELCA has engaged publicly as a “community of moral deliberation”. We want to be a safe space to think through what is good and just. This is a twofold commitment. First, the gospel calls us to be in but not of the world, meaning in part that we bring God’s concern for the poor and powerless to the institutions of society. Yet, second, we recognize there is a variety of perspectives, sometimes in opposition, in how to meet the needs of the poor and powerless. Thus, we are committed to civility and recognizing the dignity of all persons engaged in deliberation.
The summary of “Church in Society” puts it this way: “God’s restless church is called to serve and advocate in response to such diverse social situations as disasters, poverty, discrimination, social policies and economic arrangements. The statement says the church should keep enough critical distance from society to act, when appropriate, like the prophets of Scripture. Prophets challenged the culture, exposed the power of sin and idolatry, and spoke out on behalf of the poor and powerless. Christians are committed to society for the sake of all, and this means they must be ready to speak for change.”
The Florida Legislature has completed its committee weeks where bills for consideration are drafted. On March 5, the Florida Legislature opens the 2019 legislative session. Over the next 60 days (skipping holidays), legislators must pass a budget and will consider a host of bills. Among the issues to which the church has spoken are immigration, equality, criminal justice reform, education, healthcare, and climate change. The public policy office intends to alert advocates on these and other relevant issues.
After the session concludes, workshops on advocacy will be offered in conferences and for congregations. Plans are also underway for holding a faith-rooted organizing retreat later in the year. In the near future, email invitations will go out to sign up for legislative alerts and advocacy tools. Please look for it. I hope your voice becomes part of the church’s chorus for the common good.