Midwives of justice

Jan 29, 2020 by

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One Friday afternoon, five of us met around a table: four representatives of our neighborhood organization and the South Bend, Ind., mayor’s deputy chief of staff. Those of us from the neighborhood had been working together for more than a year to address the issue of lead poisoning.

New data had been released 15 months earlier. We learned more than 30 percent of neighborhood children tested over a 10-year period had elevated blood lead levels. Before 1978, American paint companies were allowed to use lead in their paint, though European countries had banned the practice more than 30 years earlier.

Children in poverty are hit three times over. First, when they ingest lead dust in poorly maintained housing. Then, poor nutrition allows lead to infiltrate the body. Finally, too often, they suffer from a lack of an enriched environment that can help our amazing brains repair and recover.

Our neighborhood organization had gathered stories, held public meetings, done educational campaigns and pressed the city of South Bend to take stronger action. Now, 15 months and roughly 20 front page stories later, we were meeting with the mayor’s senior staff, asking him to take the next step to partner with a national agency that could bring best practices and resources to the fight against lead poisoning.

Around the table that Friday afternoon were leaders and staff from our neighborhood. We were three women and a man; two blacks and two whites. Some of us had formal education, some of us had life experience. One of us had a child who had elevated blood lead levels at one point. One of us had been on an intense journey through the trauma of violence and poverty. (She had recently been able to participate in a training sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee on trauma awareness and resilience.) Another struggled with health issues and had persistent trouble getting health care coverage. Several attended small neighborhood churches. None of us thought of ourselves as powerful movers and shakers.

In our meeting we shared our stories and the stories of neighbors about lead poisoning. We shared ideas for addressing this scourge. And then we made our request. There was some negotiating, then a pledge to move forward with us. We talked about how the mayor would make his commitment public at a large neighborhood gathering.

Two days later, in worship at Kern Road Mennonite Church, our congregation sang “God of the Bible” from Sing the Story. I had sung the song before, but this time, when we got to verse three, the words jumped out at me with new force.

“Those without status, those who are nothing,
You have made royal, gifted with rights,
Chosen as partners, midwives of justice,
Birthing new systems, lighting new lights.”

It was as if the writer had been in our meeting! I had tears in my eyes. Verse four further described the persistent engagement of neighbors over the past months:

“Not by your finger, not by your anger
Will our world order change in a day,
But by your people, fearless and faithful,
Small paper lanterns, lighting the way.”

I’ve often felt that Mennonites have a very highly developed menu of service options and a rich vocabulary for talking and thinking about peace witness. But we don’t quite know how to talk about justice. And we don’t have much experience building power to change structures and systems.

The hymn put our work around lead poisoning in a faith context that helped me connect the efforts in our small corner with God’s big justice/shalom project.

André Gingerich Stoner works as organizer in St. Joseph County for Faith in Indiana. He as served as a Mennonite pastor and on Mennonite Church USA denominational staff. His Doing Justice blogs at mennoworld.org 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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