United voice on povertyBy Andre Gingerich Stoner
In an extremely polarized political season it was remarkable in mid-September to see the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches posting identical information on their websites related to the presidential campaign. I can’t ever remember seeing that before. The issue was poverty and hunger, and each website included a brief video statement from both presidential candidates.
For more than a year, church leaders have been working together through an initiative called Circle of Protection. The initiative advocates funding for programs vital to low-income families in the U.S. and people who suffer from hunger and disease in the world’s poorest countries.
“Though we may disagree on other issues,” the church leaders write, “we are united in our belief that God is especially concerned with the plight of poor and vulnerable people. Our churches are deeply involved in serving people in need.” They emphasize that God holds nations accountable for how they treat those Jesus called “the least of these” (Matt. 25:45).
In July, these church leaders sent letters to both President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney asking them to share video statements about what they would do for hungry and poor people in the U.S. and around the world. Both candidates submitted videos released at a September press conference by the Circle of Protection. Speakers at the event included representatives of the NAE, NCC, historic African-American churches and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Circle of Protection is composed of more than 65 heads of denominations, relief and development agencies, and other Christian organizations.
Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, signed the July letter because of the gospel mandate to advocate for the poor and the longstanding involvement of Mennonite congregations and service agencies on behalf of the poor and the hungry. Ron Byler, executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S., signed, as did Mennonite author and teacher Ron Sider, the president of Evangelicals for Social Action.
The relationships, trust and collaboration that made this initiative possible did not develop overnight. For more than 10 years, Christian leaders have been meeting through Christian Churches Together. MC USA delegates voted to join CCT in 2007.
In annual CCT meetings, bishops, presidents and moderators have been praying together, learning about each other and coming to respect and value each other. For roughly five years, CCT meetings have discussed the gospel call to serve the poor. These conversations helped navigate the ideological divisions between those who emphasize personal decisions as the solution to poverty and those who advocate for policy change and government programs.
Because CCT operates on the basis of consensus, it rarely takes positions. It focuses on building relationships and encouraging dialogue rather than organizing around issues. But without a doubt, the relationships and trust formed through CCT have helped make possible an unprecedented initiative like the Circle of Protection.
It is encouraging that Mennonites can be part of this kind of broad interchurch initiative addressing central gospel concerns. Even so, let us not be satisfied with just speaking in this way in the public arena. What gives this voice credibility is the ongoing relationships and work with those who are poor and hungry in our communities.
Andre Gingerich Stoner is director of interchurch relations and director of holistic witness for Mennonite Church USA.
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