Program helps interns like 'Captain Planet' make impact
Mar. 7, 2006
NOTE: Audio and photographs are available at http://umns.umc.org.
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) - Erick Veliz - sometimes known as Captain Planet - doesn't look like a superhero at first glance.
Talk to him for a while and you begin to believe he probably could save the world if given a little more time. After all, he's only 23.
Veliz, a native of La Paz, Bolivia, is working for the Tennessee Fair Housing Council. In his spare time, he is helping establish English as a Second Language classes at his local church, the United Methodist (Nashville) Hispanic Fellowship; working for Amnesty International USA; and looking for any opportunity to advance his three top priorities: working for the rights of indigenous people, promoting equal rights for women and stopping torture.
His passion for human rights grew stronger and more focused after he spent two months in the 2005 Ethnic Young Adult internship program sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Church and Society in Washington.
The internship has been sponsored by the board for the last 20 years and has at least 200 participants who either now lead the church in some capacity or influence society in their vocations, says the Rev. Neal Christie, a board executive. The program is open to young adults ages 18-22 representing the five ethnic caucuses of the United Methodist Church - Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American and Pacific Islander. Deadline for applying for the 2006 program is March 15.
Interns live together and are assigned to work in organizations addressing social justice concerns. The work is supplemented by evening intern-led devotions, Friday seminars on topics of timely social justice concern, area field trips and Sunday worship in area United Methodist churches.
"Most internships in D.C. are very European-American. You can see that just by looking out the window of 100 Maryland Ave.," Christie says, referring to the address of the United Methodist Building at Capitol Hill. "To my knowledge, this is one internship that in its own small way has had a lasting impact on an intentionally multi-racial group of young people gathered from across the country to work not just on mercy but to do advocacy with the Hill and the United Methodist Building at the center."
Details on the internship are available by contacting Christie at email@example.com or (202) 488-5611.
Veliz already had experience working for human rights and social justice when he became one of 13 young adults in the 2005 program. There he earned his nickname, Captain Planet.
"Everyone was interested and they became more active once they were in the program," he says of the other interns, "but I was already passionate about it."
While a senior in college, Veliz took time out to work and stay with farm workers in Immokalee, Fla., where they labored in the scorching sun picking tomatoes for $3 an hour. Then he traveled with their union leader to Washington to persuade members of Congress to improve the farmers' conditions.
In 2004, the United Methodist Church joined in a boycott of Taco Bell, which had originated three years earlier because the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers and others believed the restaurant chain was not addressing issues of alleged worker exploitation by its tomato suppliers. The boycott ended in 2005 with an agreement between the coalition and Taco Bell.
The United Methodist Church's stand on human rights is one of the reasons Veliz became a member and loves the church.
"I don't just want to talk about human rights, I don't just want to complain, I want to do something," says Veliz who grew up as a Catholic in Bolivia. "I saw that the United Methodist Church was very active in promoting justice and did it with a true love and interest for people."
Veliz says he feels fulfilled by the work he is doing with the Fair Housing Council. The council works to enforce the Fair Housing Act, passed after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He handles complaints from the community and trains volunteers.
"I am working on a fair housing academy, which will be workshops to help professionals that work with minorities, people with disabilities, women and others about fair housing violations," he says.
"I feel fulfilled working in communities; I don't want to be a policy nerd who just sits at a computer constantly tracking policies."
The greatest thing
Before attending the internship program at the board, Veliz says he wasn't sure many other Christians were as passionate as he was about human rights and social justice.
"I know so many people who went on mission trips to Brazil or Mexico and forgot that they were real people; it was like going to a museum," he says. "They come back with pictures of themselves with little Brazilian kids, hugging a Venezuelan girl and say, 'Look at how compassionate I am,' but as soon as they are back home, they are buying $100 bags that were probably made by those same children.
"Working at the Board of Church and Society gave me a lot of hope," he says.
When asked about his long-term goals, he pauses to think. "The greatest thing would be to work within communities of faith and provide that link to human rights.
"The empowerment that I was given by the Board of Church and Society was to see the worth, the possibilities and the options that we can do as groups of faith," he says. "They talk about human rights and quote Jesus Christ at the same time. As Christians, we should all do that."
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
United Methodist News Service Photos and stories also available at: http://umns.umc.org