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A workaround for the cold shoulder


Advocacy offices in Washington and New York get the job done despite an unwelcoming White House

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Ryan Smith outside the United Nations building in New York

Ryan Smith, director of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations and the PC(USA)’s representative to the U.N., works with ecumenical partners and UN member nations to advocate for God’s justice. (Photo by Sue Washburn)

LOUISVILLE — Now that they’re both about three years into their work leading, respectively, the Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations in New York City, the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins and Ryan Smith say they’ve found ways to work around a White House that often doesn’t welcome their input.

“One thing I love about the UN is that the United States is just one of 193 equal members,” Smith said Thursday during a webinar hosted by the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board’s Outreach to the World Committee.  “We used to go to the U.S. on LGBT issues, but we can’t do that now. But we can go to South Africa, Brazil, Germany and other countries. Access to this administration is different, but there are plenty of workarounds within the UN system.”

“For us, it’s Members of Congress,” Hawkins said. “In the last Congress, 31 Members were Presbyterians, and we’ve intensified our efforts (during the current session) to meet as many as possible.”

Both Hawkins and Smith used the engaging 65-minute teleconference to discuss the advocacy efforts — both shy away from the word “lobby” — made on behalf of Presbyterians.


Jimmie Hawkins speaks outside the U.S. Capitol

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, director of the Office of Public Witness, said during a webinar Thursday he’s grateful that Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle continue to work with the advocacy office he leads. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Public Witness)

Hawkins and his staff of four, which will grow to five next month, work in a building across from the Supreme Court building. Staff is gearing up for Compassion, Peace & Justice Training Day and Ecumenical Advocacy Weekend April 5-8.

He said legislators from both major political parties “have been very open to meeting with us” when those who are being trained go see their representative or senator on Capitol Hill to advocate for issues important to them.

“Is it a group of constituents?” the legislator’s staff usually asks. When told it is, they’re generally waved right in, Hawkins said.

In addition to teaching Presbyterians the best ways to advocate for causes important to them, Hawkins and other staff members hold press conferences and workshops, preach sermons and participate in marches and demonstrations. They also work with State Department and other administration officials and support interns who work for a time in the Office of Public Witness.

But they never sit around making up policy.

“We defend and interpret the social witness policy of the General Assembly,” Hawkins said.

The Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations has famous neighbors on either side: The UN building itself, and UNICEF (the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) headquarters. In fact, Smith said, Trick or Treat for UNICEF was founded by a Presbyterian pastor — or, more accurately, by his wife.

As an accredited nongovernmental organization, the Presbyterian Ministry at the UN works with diplomats and other NGOs. Smith uses a Venn diagram to determine the focus of the work: if the PC(USA)’s General Assembly has talked about an isue, it’s on the UN agenda and partner churches are also talking about it, that’s the intersection where Smith and his staff channel their efforts.

An example, he said, is the crisis in Syria. The UN Security Council, the General Assembly and a PC(USA) partner, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, were working simultaneously to help put an end to the fighting in Syria.

“We asked the National Evangelical Synod, and they said speak and speak loudly,” Smith said. “When all three of those come together, that’s when we prioritize the issue.”

The Presbyterian Ministry at the UN has embraced the invitation for Presbyterians to become a Matthew 25 church, he said, with its focus on building congregational vitality, dismantling systemic poverty and eradicating structural racism. The UN ministry has partnered with the government of Denmark on prison reform. It’s encouraged Presbyterians to trace around their hand and send it to the Presbyterians’ UN office as part of the Red Hand Campaign, which fights the military conscription of children. “We’ve had some success,” Smith noted: Since the Red Hand Campaign started, 16 nations – but not the U.S. – have signed the treaty.

“One thing we say to the United Nations is, this may be new to you, but the church has been doing this work for centuries,” Smith said.

In a question-and-answer session following their presentations, Smith said the United States is cutting back its funding to nearly every UN program. The consequences include the lack of plumbing and electricity in places like Gaza, a reduction in the number of daily calories delivered by the World Food Programme and the paring of human rights monitors around the world.

“They tell the United Nations to be more efficient, and when things fail, they say, ‘See, you can’t do anything right. Look how inefficient you are.’ That doesn’t make any sense.”

Both men expressed gratitude for longstanding commitments Presbyterians have made for funding advocacy offices through unrestricted funds.

“We think people are seeing a greater need for these offices,” Hawkins said.

Added Smith: “Presbyterians are saying, ‘I trust the church to do what the church needs to do.’ Our offices are funded because the church has said we need to be in D.C. and we need to be in New York.”

To view the webinar, click here.

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