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Working in the world: New England Episcopalians at the intersection of theology and advocacy

Working in the world: New England Episcopalians at the intersection of theology and advocacy

Passion for social justice in Maine clergy and congregations has resulted in the creation of the Maine Episcopal Network for Justice (MENJ), supported by grant money, bringing together secular and faith-based people and organizations, and some significant work over the past year under MENJ’s executive director, John Hennessy. From Episcopal News Service:

In late 2014, however, questions like, “How do we engage Episcopalians in our congregations to get involved in advocacy?” and “How do we determine which issues to direct our focus?” led Diocesan Council to create a Public Policy Steering Group. Among the members invited to serve was John Hennessy, a parishioner at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland. Hennessy spent 20 years at the State House in Augusta as a lobbyist for progressive causes, and had recently returned to private consulting after five years as the policy director for Maine AARP.

An enthusiastic but stretched-thin volunteer base and “a chance call to the Rev. Chuck Wynder, the Episcopal Church’s officer for social justice and advocacy engagement” nudged the steering group forward. Support from the Diocese of Maine including a grant landed by Hennessy made the formation of MENJ possible, and its work has been within the church and outside of it since then:

Over the last year, Hennessy has visited more than a dozen Maine congregations, hosted an over-subscribed training session at St. Luke’s Cathedral, conducted workshops at diocesan training events, advocated with legislators in Augusta, and supported the work of two statewide referendums: one to raise the minimum wage for Maine workers, which passed in November; and one to close background-check loopholes in gun laws, which did not.

MENJ also partnered with the diocesan Compensation Committee to develop a resolution that passed at Maine’s Convention in October to raise the minimum wage for lay employees, including church child care workers, to $12 an hour in 2017. The intent is to continue to raise the minimum each year until it reaches the Living Wage standard of $15 an hour in 2020.

“We’re excited about several upcoming events in the coming year,” said Hennessy. “We will join with interfaith, ecumenical, and community partners to host a two-day Advocacy Days session in March. The first day we will offer training and the second participants will visit the State House to meet with their legislators. Because we have several congregations with groups of young people interested in social justice issues, we will do church-based training for them this winter so they will only miss one day of school.” A plan to take a group of young people to Washington, D.C. to meet with members of Maine’s congressional delegation is also in the works.

Episcopal bishops in Vermont and New Hampshire and the New England Lutheran Synod have all been invited to be a part of MENJ’s work, and collaboration has already begun:

On Dec. 3, Bishop Robert Hirschfeld of New Hampshire and the Rev. Calvin Sanborn, rector of St. George’s, York Harbor, Maine, gathered with about 50 other Episcopalians at St. Thomas’, Dover, New Hampshire, to discuss the theological basis for advocacy in the public square. “Advocacy: Speaking Our Faith” was the first training co-hosted by MENJ and the Diocese of New Hampshire.

Videos from that training can be found here.

The theology behind the work: compassion. In Hirschfeld’s words:

“Compassion is something we experience suddenly when we recognize we have gone to the deepest level of humanity with somebody who is in need, somebody who is not like us. It’s out of that abundant compassion that Jesus is impelled to act, that we are impelled to act. We believe this church is not just a town meeting with hymns…but that we are actually the Body of Christ, and that we are God’s hands and feet in the world.”

Photo: New Hampshire Bishop Robert Hirschfeld and the Reverend Calvin Sanborn of Maine; photo by Heidi Shott, who wrote the ENS story.

 

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