'Called to Serve' addresses urban, rural poverty connections, church as community anchor

April 28, 2010

Eight years ago St. Peter's Episcopal Church in rural Hillsdale, Michigan, began operating a free medical clinic for un- and under-insured and low-income people one night weekly.

"We had hoped it would be an urgent care clinic, but what we found was that people were coming in with chronic, complicated needs because they didn't have any access to health care," said Jill Pavka, the director of St. Peter's Free Clinic and a registered nurse, adding that in the first year the clinic served about 20 patients a week. Today it serves more than 60.

Pavka is one of 170 Episcopalians and others interested in social service gathered here April 28-30 for "Called to Serve: The Episcopal Church Responds to Domestic Poverty," a conference designed to explore the nature of domestic poverty and the church's role in addressing it.

The three-day conference, supported by Jubilee Ministries, Episcopal Community Services in America and National Episcopal Health Ministries is an opportunity for conference-goers to share ideas on how to better implement and strengthen programming through workshops and plenary sessions, and to build relationships locally, regionally and nationally by networking.

In the conference's second day, Charles W. Fluharty, president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, gave a talk titled "Poverty, Place and Public Policy: Re-thinking the Rural/Urban Dialect," and opened a dialogue about the church's role – as an institution – in addressing domestic poverty.

"If I look at rural America today I would really argue that the church is one of the few anchor institutions that is left and I would argue in urban areas that is also the case," he said. "I would argue that if God's church could unite rural and urban poverty people together to move God's kingdom forward domestic policy would look different in the United States. The church could do that."

Many of the factors that influence poverty, rural and urban, are intrinsically the same, Fluharty said. Under the Obama administration, federal policy has shifted to a place-based model, meaning that policies and programs draw from the resources and strengths existing in those places rather than implementing a standard approach.

"We've got to rethink what our core mission is,” Fluharty said. The people who went into that Dallas urban blight did not say we have to get these people out of this place; they said these people are doing great things, we have to lift them up."

He added, "'Jubilee' is a classic example of exactly that … it was so uplifting. It is an example of a place-based program that is phenomenal."

"Jubilee," a documentary about the 12-year relationship that transformed both an affluent Dallas parish and a high-crime neighborhood, produced by the Episcopal Church's Office of Communication, debuted at the conference April 28.

Fluharty referred to "Jubilee" as an effective church-community partnership throughout his talk, calling it a framework for integrating suburban and urban initiatives that serves as an advantage to both constituencies, their communities and the regional economy.

The recession will linger in rural areas and inner cities for at least the next decade, he said, and with federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds set to end next year, state and local budget deficits and an increasing need for human services, it will become even more necessary for rural and urban voices to unite and for churches to step up.

In the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, where Pam Crooks is the volunteer jubilee officer overseeing 11 centers, most of which operate in urban areas, the connection between urban and rural poverty resonated.

"I was really touched by the idea that these areas [rural areas] are areas of need," she said. "Maybe we can partner large suburban churches with rural churches … it may not happen overnight, but could be part of our plan."

Reaching out from the middle of nowhere

A town of 8,000 people (county population 40,000) with an unemployment rate of 20 percent, Hillsdale, home of the free clinic, sits near the Michigan-Ohio-Indiana-border, 70 miles from the nearest city. In the last few years, Pavka said, the region lost more than 2,000 jobs, most of them in manufacturing, but in the larger state, the problem goes unnoticed.

"We are out in the middle of nowhere," she said. "In Michigan it really is all about Detroit. There's really no recognition of how poor it is in our area."

St. Peter's Church donates the space for the free clinic, which operates on a $120,000 annual budget -- mostly private donations -- and more than two dozen volunteers.

In her keynote address April 28 opening the conference, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori talked about the role the Episcopal Church and its parishes, programs and organizations play in addressing and attempting to alleviate poverty.

In 2009, General Convention passed resolutions calling for the establishment of a program to address domestic poverty (A155) and commending the presiding bishop for convening the 2008 summit and calling on Executive Council to continuing efforts in the church to address domestic poverty in the next triennium (A140).

House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson, in an interview at the conference, said she sees to it that deputies are made aware of the church's advocacy work and encourages them to join the Episcopal Public Policy Network.

The Rev. Christopher Johnson, the Episcopal Church's officer of Jubilee Ministries, who also serves on the Board of Directors of Episcopal Community Services in America, said he hopes the conference gave attendees an opportunity to create space and strategize actionable next steps.

Partnership will address poverty in Native American communities

Coinciding with the conference, the Episcopal Church April 29 announced that it will partner with Colorado Springs-based White Bison, Inc. to develop a culturally oriented strategy for addressing domestic poverty within Native American communities.

"Working with White Bison is an honor for our church and our peoples," said Sarah Eagle Heart, the church's Native American and Indigenous Ministries officer, in a news release. "We are demonstrating healing, forgiveness and reconciliation through this partnership. We have the same goals of ensuring tribal cultural and spiritual preservation. By collaborating together, we can provide tools for communities to address issues such as the suicide rate, which is ten times the national average on some reservations. By combining our efforts, we can utilize the abundance present and bring transformation for the seventh generation of Native American peoples."

Eagle Heart participated in a panel discussion exploring the impact of poverty on cultural identity during the conference April 29.