Targeting U.S. poverty

Meet needs with domestic mission, economic development, hope
March 31, 2008

Episcopalians have learned a great deal about the Millennium Development Goals in the last couple of years. These goals that work toward an earthly vision of the Reign of God have captured our imagination and mission efforts as a church. The goals move toward the great vision of Isaiah that Jesus claims as his own mission: to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and bring peace to the city and country. We are doing excellent work as a church in raising awareness of this kind of mission as a gospel imperative. However, the MDGs focus on overseas mission work in developing countries. They do not address poverty in the United States or the reality of equivalent conditions in some parts of our local communities.

Part of the challenge has to do with the multi-national character of The Episcopal Church, which includes some of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere: the dioceses of Haiti, Honduras, and Dominican Republic, and some that are scarcely better off, in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia. Dioceses in those countries are an intensely appropriate focus of our MDG-related mission work.

We also have within the United States and its territories significant areas of poverty that rival conditions in parts of the developing world. As members of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (the formal, legal name of The Episcopal Church), our mission efforts are meant to go in both geographic directions.

Our inner cities, rural communities, Indian reservations, and areas in U.S. territories like Guam (part of the Church in Micronesia), Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico suffer from the miseries and indignities of poverty like subhuman living conditions, poor nutrition, an absence of health care, domestic and public violence, limited educational and employment opportunities, environmental pollution, and, beyond all else, hopelessness. Our mission work includes bringing good news to people in these places, yet we lack a coherent awareness of and strategy for engagement with issues of domestic poverty.

I have asked a number of leaders in domestic mission work to gather for two days in May to help us begin to develop such a strategy. I hope that you will look for news from that Summit on Domestic Poverty in the days and months following. My hope is that we might begin to engage domestic mission work with fervor equal to what we bring to the MDGs.

What can you do? Ask the members of your congregation to talk about the conditions of life for the poor in your community. Invite someone who works to alleviate that kind of suffering to speak to a parish forum. Encourage your worship planners and preachers to consider how local poverty might be reflected in the prayers and sermons you hear. Join the Episcopal Public Policy Network and learn how you can advocate for public policy that responds to the suffering of the poor in this country. Work with ecumenical partners in your community to attend to that suffering. And pray -- pray in the silence of your heart, pray in your congregation as it gathers, and pray in the way that is urged on us in the parable of the widow and the unjust judge.

Go out and get acquainted with the reality of poverty: volunteer at a soup kitchen; make lunches for the homeless, as I saw Sunday school children doing at a New York City parish recently; have a conversation with a family being housed by Family Promise (Interfaith Hospitality Network); help a family find an affordable apartment as they seek to leave temporary housing, as I saw a nun doing on St. Croix (Virgin Islands) on Ash Wednesday; help rebuild homes in New Orleans or the Mississippi Gulf Coast, as
many, many Episcopalians have been doing these last two years and more; be a Big Sister or Big Brother to a youngster who is trying to grow up whole in the midst of enormous challenges; build a Habitat house; tutor a child; and meet Jesus in everyone, of every economic class and color and housing status.