Doing Justice: Loving neighbors, public officials

May 14, 2019 by

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Mennonites are good at service. That’s how we love our neighbors. We address direct human need: providing shelter, food, education. Sometimes we ask about policies and institutions that impact the needs of our neighbors. When this takes us into the political arena, we usually choose protest or maybe advocacy.

When Mennonites speak truth to power, we don’t generally expect to have an impact. We will always be a minority. We choose “faithfulness” over “effectiveness.” We shy away from thinking about the power we wield, and how to build power so that elected officials will take us seriously.

Jeff Walker presents a research report on incarceration in St. Joseph County. — Peter Ringenberg

Jeff Walker presents a research report on incarceration in St. Joseph County. — Peter Ringenberg

But while churches are working in soup kitchens and homeless shelters, the chamber of commerce and business interests are meeting with decision-makers. While people of faith are providing emergency aid for utilities or medical bills, payday lenders are knocking on the doors of state representatives.

While pastors are visiting immigrants in detention centers and people in county jails, the for-profit prison industry is making campaign donations and writing legislation.

I have come to believe that we must love our neighbors through direct service and by being at the table when policies, laws and funding priorities are decided.

In early spring, we brought together 500 people from our congregations and neighborhood groups. We were from a core group of eight congregations and one neighborhood group. We were black, brown and white; Catholic, Pentecostal, Baptist, Mennonite; Jewish, Christian, Muslim; people of good will. We invited the sheriff, a county commissioner, and the president of our city council.

The theme was “treatment, not incarceration.” After a faith reflection, we heard personal stories from impacted families and a research report that highlighted the situation in our county. Too many people are in jail because they have a substance abuse problem, mental health struggles or because they are poor. Our jail is the de-facto detox center for our county and the mental health provider for many of our families. This is not acceptable. We can do better! We must do better!

 

Nicole MacLaughlin, co-chair of Faith in St. Joe County, engages Sheriff Bill Redman and Common Council President Tim Scott. — Peter Ringenberg

Nicole MacLaughlin, co-chair of Faith in St. Joe County, engages Sheriff Bill Redman and Common Council President Tim Scott. — Peter Ringenberg

And then we asked the sheriff, county commissioner and city council president to work with us and other community partners to develop a plan to reduce incarceration and gun violence by 30 percent in the next three years using several proven jail diversion and violence reduction strategies. And to include funding in their 2020 budget! They each said “yes.”

For the gathered body, this was an exhilarating experience. Most of us had never been part of a group of ordinary people being taken seriously by public officials on issues that matter to us and our neighbors.

To be clear, this didn’t happen overnight. There were months of one-on-one relational meetings, clergy gatherings, research actions with elected officials, trainings, leadership assemblies and strategy team meetings. And the town hall is not the end of the story. We are meeting with the sheriff and others to make sure they are following up with concrete next steps. But it was an incredible experience of together making a difference. One black pastor said, “The Holy Spirit was with us.”

There are roughly 20 Mennonite congregations involved in these kinds of efforts across the country. This work brings many insights and questions — practical, theological, political, personal. In future blogs, I look forward to sharing learnings and reflecting out loud on some of the questions I’ve been pondering.

 

André Gingerich Stoner works as a “neighborhood networker” for the Near Northwest Neighborhood in South Bend, Ind., and as an organizing fellow for Faith in Indiana. He has served as a Mennonite pastor and on denominational staff. Future “Doing Justice” blogs will explore how communities of faith love their neighbors by organizing to address policies and funding priorities in their cities, counties and states.


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