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‘An amazing place to learn’

Summer fellows put faith in action alongside the PC(USA) advocacy offices

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Clément Griffet via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Students from various parts of the country gained experience in public policy and social justice while recently serving as summer fellows for the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness (OPW) and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations (PMUN).

The fellows, who participated virtually because of the pandemic, spent roughly two months in the Washington, D.C.-based OPW and the New York-based PMUN, doing advocacy work and supportive tasks, such as research and writing.

“I enjoyed getting to learn about all the great work that the Office of Public Witness and the UN office do,” said Hayley Scheir, a senior at William & Mary who devoted most of her stint to domestic and environmental issues. “It was also great to get a feel for how things operate in D.C., even though the fellowship was virtual.”

The other fellows included Maggie Collins, who researched Indigenous history during her work with PMUN; Reilly Harrison, who focused on immigration; Danita Nelson, who devoted time to special projects, including liturgies, program planning, and outreach; Samuel E. Peal, who concentrated on domestic affairs; and Kristen Roehrig, whose emphasis was international policy.

This year marked the first time for PMUN to participate in the program, said Sue Rheem, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) representative to the UN.

“It was such a pleasure to interact with young Presbyterians who will become future leaders in the church and in society,” Rheem said. “They were all so enthusiastic and poised, ready to take on the challenges of our times.”

In fact, “watching and supporting them made me hopeful for the future of the church and the world,” Rheem said.

Kristen Roehrig

Kristen Roehrig, a law student at American University, spent much of her fellowship learning about Palestine and Israel, including the history of conflict between them as well as U.S. involvement in the region.

“I’m writing blog posts and articles and sending out Action Alerts that help Presbyterians get in touch with their congressional representatives and senators, and organizing advocacy meetings on Capitol Hill,” she said in a video recorded during her fellowship. The Office of Public Witness “is an amazing place to learn and I’m so thankful that I get to spend my summer listening, writing and advocating about an issue that is important to me and that’s important to the church.”

However, it wasn’t always easy. In fact, “it was challenging to work primarily on an issue that requires such a direct confrontation of human suffering,” Roehrig said in an email. “The realities of people’s lives in the West Bank, Gaza, and other occupied Palestinian territories (are) dire and advocacy around improving those conditions is urgent.”

The fellowships provide exposure to the operations of the federal government in Washington as well as the engagement of nations in global diplomacy to address the world’s most significant problems, said the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, director of OPW and PMUN.

The fellows “bring with them skill sets in writing, social media as well as a youthful passion for the work that can be quite inspirational,” Hawkins said. “The fellows gain new skills on how to do faith-based advocacy in civil society.”

Also, the fellows get a better understanding of the depth of PC(USA)’s advocacy work, Hawkins said.

The students “learn how the denomination has, for over half-a-century, worked to influence public policy and be present at global tables for the benefit of the world’s most vulnerable populations,” he said. “Many leave saying, ‘I had no idea my church was engaged in this level of social justice advocacy.’ They leave loving their church even more, with some considering theological education for the first time.”

Hayley Scheir

Commenting on video during her fellowship, Scheir said she was glad to find a position that fit so well with her past experience as an intern at her church and with her majors, political science and environmental policy.

“Even though all of us fellows this summer have been working virtually, it’s felt very connected with weekly meetings with the staff and getting to know the other fellows in our own meetings,” she said. “But then also being virtual, we have the chance to get on calls with other partner organizations or [coalitions], so I’m able to join in on talks about different environmental policies in a way that I wouldn’t have if we weren’t able to do a lot of this virtually.”

Scheir’s work included researching infrastructure legislation, setting up congressional meetings about a reparations bill (HR 40) and attending meetings and briefings with various faith groups focused on the environment.

“This fellowship gave me great experience working in an office environment, with the chance to make connections with the staff and the other fellows,” she said by email. “I also had the chance to experience the ups and downs of policymaking by following policies so closely through the fellowship. It was disappointing at first to see how slowly things can move, but it feels great when a policy finally makes it through.”

Maggie Collins

Collins, a rising junior at the University of Richmond, got to participate in several key UN events, such as the Generation Equality Forum, focusing on gender equality. That event took place in Paris but also online, making it possible for her to attend.

Collins also took part in the UN’s High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and did an independent project researching the role of the church on Indigenous Peoples, which she wrote about in the Washington Report.

“I really enjoyed being exposed to a wide variety of issues and topics to explore,” Collins said. “I also enjoyed that I was able to guide my fellowship towards topics that were of specific interest to me. I would have loved for this experience to be in person. However, it still worked quite well virtually.”

Collins said she sees the fellowship benefitting her down the road. “I will definitely use this experience as I look for future opportunities and I’m sure I will continue with similar work because of how positive this experience was,” she said. “I also will continue to look for ways to connect my faith to social justice work because OPW really showed me how strong of a connection there was between the two.”

Samuel Peal (Screenshot)

A fellow participant, Peal, worked on domestic issues, such as a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, health care and criminal justice. “Getting meetings with members of Congress about certain issues, that’s very exciting,” he said after a chapel service led by the fellows earlier this year. “Also, being able to write reports and Action Alerts about important issues that are very timely, that’s the most exciting part for me.”

Hawkins said OPW and PMUN benefit “from the opportunity to engage with young adults who are interested in the work of the church in the area of social justice.”

Also, the program is an opportunity for PC(USA) “to connect with young people who are eager to learn more about the ministries of their denomination,” he said. “They become more knowledgeable of the multiple ways in which the PC(USA) offers a wide array of ministries in its service to Christ by serving ‘the least of these.’

To learn more about fellowships at OPW and PMUN, go here.

The Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations are Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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