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Ministry in the halls of power


PC(USA) provides ‘witness to our faith’ in D.C. and at the U.N.

By Sue Washburn | Presbyterians Today

Jimmie Hawkins speaks outside the U.S. Capitol

Jimmie Hawkins, director of the Office of Public Witness, believes it is ‘our job to witness our faith’ in public and to work to better the lives of all. Photo courtesy of the Office of Public Witness

Faith is not just personal; it’s political.

Our leaders pass laws about how we treat one another, laws about money and finances, laws about how our resources are allocated and more. The Bible addresses these issues as well in Scriptures like the Ten Commandments, the parable of the sheep and the goats, Sabbath rules and Jesus’ advice to the rich young ruler to sell his possessions and give to the poor. To say the Bible and Jesus are not political is to deny their influence and relevance to our lives in the 21st century.

 While some Presbyterians prefer to keep their political views private, the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations are outward expressions of how the Presbyterian faith interacts with power. The offices take decisions made at General Assemblies and advocate on behalf of the denomination in two of the most influential cities on the planet — Washington, D.C., and New York City.

As the director of the Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., Jimmie Hawkins gets on a train at 6 a.m. each weekday and heads into the nation’s capital. On the way, he catches up on the latest news and updates his calendar accordingly. Some days his work involves being arrested for protesting policies that hurt people, some days he meets with elected officials about gun control or other issues, and other days he trains church members on how to be advocates for God’s justice with their local leaders.

Hawkins and the other staff in Washington, D.C., are part of a coalition of 65 faith-based organizations that work together to witness to their faith in the halls of power.

Together, when their theology aligns, ecumenical groups work to lobby members of Congress, plan events and suggest policies in line with Jesus’ teachings. And, as a Christian, Hawkins has no reservations about being politically active.

“God is sovereign and God is over all, including politics,” Hawkins said. “There is a disconnect if we separate what is happening in the world from what is happening in the church. Our job is to witness to our faith in the public square to help create a more just world.”

Two hundred miles away in New York City, Ryan Smith heads the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations. Smith, director of the office and the PC(USA)’s representative to the United Nations, says Presbyterians have a history of participating in politics.

“We trace our history to John Calvin advocating for the improvement of sewer systems in Geneva in the 16th century. In Jesus’ ministry, he flipped the tables in the Temple. We carry on these traditions of challenging an unjust status quo as exemplified by Jesus and Calvin,” Smith said.

Diversity of opinions

The challenge of ecumenical and interfaith political work is that although many Christians agree on the biblical principles to love one another and to care for the poor, they may not agree on how it should be done. Some believe it should be done at the individual level with neighbors helping neighbors. Others think churches or other nonprofits should care for the poor, while others believe it is the government’s responsibility to ensure each person’s well-being.

Nora Leccese

Nora Leccese, associate for domestic poverty and environmental issues in the Office of Public Witness, works with organizations like Bread for the World to end systemic poverty. Photo courtesy of the Office of Public Witness

Nora Leccese, associate for domestic poverty and environmental issues in the Office of Public Witness, says the office’s advocacy work involves people they agree with and people they don’t.

At times the denomination works independently; at other times, it works in partnership among many.The work occurs in front of cameras and behind the scenes.

“Advocacy isn’t just about going to protests. Just having conversations with people who think differently is advocacy, too,” she said.

Leccese came to the Office of Public Witness after working with a food nonprofit. Through government policies, she hopes to help change the way people live.

“Charity is important, but we don’t want to just provide charity. We work to change policies so that people don’t need charity,” Leccese said.

Partnerships work

Working partnerships are important at both the Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations. Much of the work done at the United Nations is done in coalition with other denominations and groups. Although members of the PC(USA) make up just .02 percent of the world’s population, working with other denominations and nongovernmental organizations broadens the global influence the denomination can have.

“There is an African proverb that says, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together,’ ” Smith said.

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 to advocate for God’s justice. Photo by Sue Washburn

The Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations allows the Presbyterian voice to be heard by a world audience and contributes to the global agenda. Smith’s ministry includes attending conferences, making statements and taking part in advocacy and networking.

“We work on some of the world’s most complex challenges,” Smith said. And the work is global in scope, addressing such issues as migrants and refugees, Middle East peace, climate change and human trafficking.

Keeping children out of armed conflicts is one of the issues the ministry has addressed in the Red Hand Campaign. UNICEF estimates as many as 300,000 children are involved in armed conflicts around the world.

The Red Hand Campaign encouraged PC(USA) congregations to send cutouts of red hands to the Ministry at the United Nations, which then delivered them to the U.N. offices of countries that have not signed and/or ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. The red hands came with a letter urging those leaders to sign and ratify the Optional Protocol and reminded them that “Children should be children, not soldiers.”

“One of the best things about the red hands campaign is that it allowed ordinary Presbyterians to be directly involved in our work at the U.N.,” said Simon Doong, a Young Adult Volunteer at the Ministry at the United Nations.

The Ministry at the United Nations also hosts a monthly open house for Presbyterians to learn more about the different topics the ministry addresses.

Doong says that while it’s best to work for God’s justice in person, Christians have new ways of working for justice — online tools.

“Advocacy can be as simple as sharing a hashtag or coordinating gatherings with people on social media,” Doong said. “With the rise of social media, we all have more of a voice.”

Sue Washburn is the pastor of Reunion Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, and a freelance writer.

Learn more

Each spring, hundreds of members of the PC(USA) learn how to take their faith into the world of politics. Compassion, Peace & Justice Training Day brings Presbyterians together in Washington, D.C., to engage in issues of national and international interest, encouraging faithful responses to political challenges like migration, gender and sexuality issues, racial divisions, human trafficking, poverty and climate change. The training day is sponsored by the PC(USA) and is followed by Ecumenical Advocacy Days, a yearly gathering of the ecumenical Christian community that culminates in a visit to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers. In addition to the yearly training, both the Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations partner with local churches year-round on a variety of issues. Here are some ways you can participate:

► Follow the offices on Facebook, Twitter and other social media
@PCUSAWashington and @PresbyterianMinistryUN

► Sign up for email newsletters and alerts on justice and peace ministries

► Create a Grassroots Advocacy Team with the Office of Public Witness

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