A sharper focus on Presbyterian advocacy

PC(USA) Washington and United Nations offices combine to streamline advocacy efforts

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins speaks in front of the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill, where the Office of Public Witness offices are located. (2017 file photo)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — The Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations in New York and Office of Public Witness (OPW) on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., have been natural collaborators for years.

At events such as Big Tent in the summer of 2019, the office coordinators presented workshops together. Recently, the offices have collaborated on webinars illuminating international issues around the world, and they participate in a Colombia Theological Seminary Doctor of Ministry class that includes a week at the UN Office and a week at OPW. Behind the scenes, the offices have collaborated on advocacy pertaining to issues around the world.

Late last year, due to some personnel changes and economic realities of the COVID-19 era, the union of the offices became formal. The combined offices are now the Office of Public Witness/United Nations Office under the direction of the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, Associate Director of Advocacy for the Compassion, Peace & Justice (CPJ) ministries.

“I’m so blessed to be the director over both these offices,” Hawkins said. “It benefits the church. We’re really engaged in advocacy, trying to make a difference, trying to influence legislators, trying to have an influence at the UN.”

The change started in the early fall of last year with the departure of Ryan Smith, director of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations and Representative to the UN, to take a similar role at the World Council of Churches. That, combined with financial constraints brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a reassessment of how to staff and direct the UN office and advocacy work overall.

Hawkins, who was Coordinator of the Office of Public Witness, is now Associate Director of Advocacy in CPJ, overseeing OPW and the UN office. He will remain based in Washington. Sue Rheem, who was Mission Specialist for International Advocacy in the UN, is now the Presbyterian Representative to the United Nations, and Ivy Lopedito, who was an administrative assistant, will become a Mission Specialist.

“This makes our advocacy cleaner, clearer, more cohesive, more focused,” CPJ Director Sara Lisherness said. “It was hard to see Ryan go, but it also provided an opportunity to look at advocacy in a more holistic way. So, while we have fewer staff, I think the possibilities are more extensive.”

While the Presbyterian Mission Agency has deployed staff around the world, OPW and the UN Ministry are the only offices outside of the church’s home base in Louisville, Kentucky. Lisherness said one consideration in evaluating how to move forward following Smith’s departure was the expense of having and staffing an office in New York City. The church, she emphasized, is committed to maintaining a presence in New York, and with the UN, which the Presbyterian Church has been involved with since the UN’s founding in 1945. But given the change, they wanted to be thoughtful about how to pursue that goal.

Sue Rheem works in the offices of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations in 2019. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Rheem said, “I think we’re being good stewards of what we’ve been given as a church to be realistic about where we are as a church, in this moment, and … in the sense of our structure. We should not be blinded to think we need to do things as we’ve always done, but we are consolidating and we are uniting and using our resources in this time, when there is such economic hardship for people, responsibly and for greater impact.

“The work will continue. It’s just that the administrative piece is being handled somewhere else, and we’re actually strengthening what we’re doing by leveraging the advocacy efforts that are already going on.”

See a video of the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins and Sue Rheem discussing the work of their offices.

Advocacy of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) policy and positions with national and global decisionmakers is the primary role of both the UN and Washington offices. But they also interact with Presbyterians across the country and around the world through things such as the UN Ministry’s new Sunday School curriculum based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the annual CPJ Training Day, which had been in Washington until it went virtual last year and this coming year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hawkins and Rheem say Presbyterians will see other changes, such as OPW’s quarterly Washington Report to Presbyterians becoming a Washington and UN Report, and Action Alerts that have traditionally come from the Washington Office coming on behalf of the UN Ministry as well. In addition, the advocacy offices look to continue and add collaborations with other Presbyterian entities such as the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, which handles a lot of PC(USA) policy, and Presbyterian World Mission.

The change is still fairly new, and Rheem and Hawkins say the two office staffs have been having combined virtual meetings. Later this month they will have some visioning sessions for the newly combined ministries during a staff retreat.

“I am really excited and feel blessed to be working with Jimmie and OPW on this new chapter in the life of this ministry,” Rheem said. “We pray the church will pray for us for strength and wisdom.”

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