From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Bishops focus on building community with poor

From "NewsDesk" <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Wed, 22 Jan 2003 14:44:07 -0600

Jan. 22, 2003 News media contact: Linda Green7(615)742-54707Nashville, Tenn. 

By Alice Smith*

ATLANTA (UMNS) - When United Methodist bishops adopted their Initiative on
Children and Poverty in 1996, the goal of reshaping the mostly middle-class
U.S. church in response to children and the poor was a daunting one that
proved unattainable over the short haul.

Four years later, the bishops realized they had made some progress. They had
raised the consciousness of United Methodists, and churches had established
ministries to children, mostly those already in their congregations.

Building on what had been accomplished, the bishops decided to extend the
initiative another four years and focus primarily on developing relationships
with the poor - being in community with them rather than viewing them as
objects of charity.

"What we felt we needed to do was invite the church to be more aware of the
'least of these' who live among us and to focus this time on the poor,
especially community with the poor," said Bishop Ann Sherer of the church's
Missouri Area, chairperson of the Bishops' Initiative on Children and Poverty
Task Force. 

"We're good at ministries of compassion, such as clothing closets and food
pantries," she continued. "What is harder for us is to look at systems that
cause poverty, locally and globally, and begin to struggle together about
what we need to do to create more opportunities for equity and justice and
help people move into a more sustainable lifestyle."

The bishops' new document, "Community With Children and the Poor - A Guide
for Congregational Study," was introduced at a training session Jan. 16-19 in
Atlanta. The meeting brought together more than 100 people, including
regional coordinators of the initiative.

A plenary session was planned around each of the six chapters in the
document, including one on the state of poor children in the United States
and the globalization of the economy, which has worsened the situation for
poor people and decimated the struggling economies of developing countries.

Two United Methodist bishops from overseas - retired Bishop Daniel Arichea of
the Philippines, who teaches at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., and
Bishop Nkulu Ntanda Ntambo of the North Katanga Area, Democratic Republic of
the Congo, pulled no punches in comparing the situations in their countries
with the affluence of the United States.

Quoting Jesus, who said much is required from those who have much, Arichea
said, "I don't want you to feel guilty, but I think it's good if you do. God
have mercy on you, in terms of judgment, because you do have much."

He told how grants from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries have
helped educate seminarians in the Philippines, where $1,000 will pay for a
year's schooling. The grant amount was cut first to $15,000, then to $7,500,
and next year it will be zero, as income from board investments has declined.
Yet, he pointed out, the cost to attend seminary at Duke is $22,000 a year.

One project worthy of wider church support, he said, is MODE (Medical,
Optical, Dental, Evangelism), whereby teams go into remote villages to
provide holistic ministry. "The greatest needs in the villages are the needs
of the children.  It's the children who are suffering when poverty is there,"
he said.

Another way the church can help is by providing small loans to start
businesses or cooperatives, he said, noting that a $30,000 grant from the
Women's Division "went a long way and helped a lot of people."

Likewise, Ntambo detailed the dire situation in the Congo, which is extremely
poor although the country is rich in resources.  People live on one meal a
day, or sometimes one meal in two days, he said, whereas Americans have four
meals a day - breakfast, lunch, dinner and a bedtime snack.

The lifestyle Americans take for granted - electricity by flipping a switch,
ease of transportation, clean water, access to education  -- is nonexistent
in his country, where even small items such as salt and soap are scarce.

"When people get sick, the only way of healing is prayer, for most people can
work two to three days to buy aspirin," he said.  "In America every cat and
dog has its own clinic and dispensary."

He listed a number of factors that have created the Congo's situation -
African traditionalism which keeps men and women in separate roles; the large
number of children born to a family; tribalism; belief in sorcery and
witchcraft; disease; war; corrupt leadership; the country's debt load; and
colonialism that resulted in the massive pillaging of resources.

"Africa is humiliated, insulted, accused," he said.  "Let the church speak
out against injustice in the world and in the church.  We need Jesus' system
and method which are love, justice and peace."

Although the United States is extremely affluent in relation to the world's
poorest countries, the fact of the matter is the gap between the rich and the
poor in America is increasing, presenters pointed out.	According to the
Children's Defense Fund, statistics released last year by the U.S. Census
Bureau show the number of children living in poverty increased in 2001 for
the first time in eight years, from 11.6 million children to 11.7 million.
Almost 75 percent of poor children live in working families.

If the minimum wage had increased since the 1960s at the same rate as the
median U.S. household income, it would be $14 an hour today instead of $5.15,
Sherer said. "The level of affluence of most United Methodists has steadily
grown over the last 40 years, but for the poor life has gotten harder."

Forming relationships with the poor is key to understanding them, Sherer
said. Such programs as the bishops' "Hope For the Children of Africa" appeal
and United Methodist Volunteers in Mission offer such opportunities across
cultural lines.

Building individual relationships is just as important, she said, noting that
each bishop has been asked to establish a friendship with a poor person.

In Sherer's case, most of her personal efforts, as well as those of the
Missouri Annual Conference, have related to Mozambique. Missouri churches
provide every Mozambican church with at least $900 a year, which pays the
pastor's salary, and in addition there have been reciprocal visits.

For the last three years, college students from Mozambique have lived in
Sherer's home. "They remind me of my wastefulness with food, paper," she
said. "They are just more careful because they live with a lot less. I have
learned about my habits and been able to see my country from their eyes."  

Sherer has also developed a friendship with a woman at the local convenience
store where she frequently stops on her way to work.

Most United Methodists, she noted, do not have friendships with poor people.
"Before we understand their challenges, we have to know who they are and what
happens in their lives."
# # #
*Smith is editor of the Wesleyan Christian Advocate, the newspaper of the
North and South Georgia annual conferences.

United Methodist News Service
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