Office of Public Witness interns, fellows vital to PC(USA) public policy ministry

Emerson National Hunger Fellows reflect on how Office prepared them as servant leaders

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Nora Leccese, who addresses domestic poverty and environmental issues for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness (OPW), first came to the office through the Emerson National Hunger Fellows Program, she expected to be there for only five months. But she immediately met people in the office and in the broader interfaith community who were willing to speak out on issues like racism, sexism and homophobia.

“They named these isms as root causes of poverty,” Leccese said. “Many of us felt a call to be active in the world and advocating for justice. I could see they wanted to help me and others answer that call.”

As an Emerson National Hungers Fellow, Leccese was encouraged to develop “even just a sliver of expertise” on a particular issue. She focused closely on coal exports and what Presbyterians in the Northwest were doing to advocate and sound an alarm regarding the impact coal trains had on their community. Leccese was already involved in the broader environmental justice movement, participating in marches for justice.

“I had this idea that if people in power saw you were angry about something, they’d want to change,” she said. “Working with Presbyterians, I saw that it was more of a conversation between our institutions that starts to move the levels of change.”

After her fellowship, Leccese was hired by OPW for a year in a temporary position, then moved into her role as the associate for domestic poverty and environmental justice issues. She was excited to mentor an Emerson National Hunger Fellow, Ray Chen, who came to the office in March. During his first three weeks, he made an impression on Leccese by helping her sharpen the church’s racial justice analysis on public education.

“He felt it would be a betrayal of our commitment to our most recently adopted confession — the Belhar Confession — not to make race central in our conversation about public education,” Leccese said.

While at the Office of Public Witness, Chen created a discernment guide for congregations contemplating how to offer sanctuary to people at risk for deportation. He is now working at a startup called Spendrise, a web-based platform that brings consumers and businesses together to create more sustainable, equitable business practices.

“On a professional level, I learned a lot [at OPW] about what it means to seek the change that is written about in the Bible that our faith calls us to,” Chen said.

As a Christian, there is a duty for us to seek justice, to look out for the most marginalized and to prioritize them in our faith.”

The Office of Public Witness trains servant leaders through its internship and fellowship program. Provided with growth and discernment opportunities, interns and fellows experience power — and the responsibility that comes with it. They are vital to the church’s public policy ministry and witness.

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