2017 Eastern Washington Legislative Conference
Conference empowers participants with prayer, reflections, insights on issue
The Rev. Walter Kendricks
The Rev. Gregg Sealey
In his opening prayer for the Eastern Washington Legislative Conference on Jan. 28, the Rev. Walter Kendricks of Morning Star Baptist Church reminded those gathered to do God’s will, that “pure, undefiled religion is to take care of the widow and orphan, to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves, to be the voice for those whose voices are neglected and to stand in unison for what is right.”
He prayed not only for the brokenhearted, lost, lonely, sick, shut in and those unjustly in prisons, but also for those “who would divide us by race, class and gender.”
He prayed for mercy, vision, understanding, patience, forgiveness and love “so we may serve and make this earth you created your kingdom.”
In theological reflections, the Rev. Gregg Sealey, the superintendent for the Inland District of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church, said that as he traveled to visit 47 congregations in area towns during the election season, he witnessed the divisions.
Driving into towns, he saw many Trump/Pence, “I’m with Her” and Bernie signs. He found much passion and much fear as election day arrived and passed.
“In post-election fall out, some were elated and some were devastated,” Gregg said.
The day after the election, he was in a small town in a church where many were elated, but some were devastated.
“It became clear we were not doing a good job of listening to one another. Then someone who was elated said, “We have not listened to them.”
That gave Gregg hope.
“Government has never and will never bring the realm of God into this world,” he said. “We as people of faith have a higher calling than what our government can deliver,” he said.
“Before we take responsibility and act together in faith, our theme for the day, we need to take time to reflect and listen to the still small voice of God within,” he said.
Gregg invited reading and reflecting on James 1:19-21, that calls people to “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. So get rid of the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the Word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls.”
“We should listen twice as much as we speak. It helps internalize the struggle of what is happening to others,” he said, recognizing room for “righteous anger,” because it is energy.
“The Word made flesh has power to change us,” Gregg said. “We are each vessels for the Word. To listen to God is to enter a holy conversation and be transformed by God’s Word.”
Panelists look at poverty and neighbors.
In a Panel on Poverty, Scott Cooper, director of parish social ministries with Catholic Charities Spokane, and Ashley Beck, senior research scientist with the Spokane Regional Health District, presented information on poverty from recent publications.
Scott showed a five-minute video on the Northwest Bishop’s pastoral letter on poverty, “Who Is My Neighbor?” It includes a three-session study guide.
One inspiration for the bishops’ pastoral letter is Pope Francis saying the church is for the poor and “we are to allow ourselves to be evangelized by them,” Scott said. “The Pope wants us to be a culture of encounter.”
The video shows the face of the poor in everyday people, the neighbors that people of faith are to love. Those neighbors include homeless people and immigrants, whose children may lose their parents.
“All God’s children have struggles in life. To have compassion, we need to know what a person has gone through,” said Scott, naming three issues causing poverty: unaddressed and under addressed mental illness, substance abuse and adverse childhood experiences.
“All of those are hard to prevent completely. There will always be some poverty and some response needed,” he said.
To develop the letter, the bishops held listening sessions throughout the state. Clients told their stories and struggles.
After describing who the poor are, the pastoral letter defines the roles and responsibilities of the faith community and the government “to alleviate the suffering that has become epidemic in every city, town and community in our state,” the bishops wrote.
“We are to learn from those living in poverty. How do we encounter and accompany those who do not share in the state’s economic wealth? How will we be challenged by what we learn, hear and see?” Scott asked.
The faith community, he said, is called to reflection and recognition of “who our neighbors are,” to respond as a faith community and to act in partnership with government.
The letter asserts that “our relationship with God brings us into relationship with every other person. As sisters and brothers of the poor and marginalized, we journey with them as they seek solutions to their problems, address their challenges and take their place in our communities,” said Scott.
“We in faith communities are just part of the answer,” he said. “We are to work in partnership with governments on all levels to ensure adequate funding of social services.”
It means challenging public officials to care about the common good.
“Governments have a role in hashing out policies,” Scott said. “We pledge to bring our voices to hold representatives accountable, so we need to be in healthy relationships with them. We need to pray and then to act in the public arena.”
Ashley Beck, the senior research scientist with the Spokane Public Health District (SRHD), related health with poverty.
She presented statistics compiled in 2015 by the Spokane Regional Health District.
She said in Washington one in 17 are at 50 percent of the federal poverty level—in deep poverty—while one in 12 in Spokane County are at that level.
“The data helps us see who is impacted by poverty. Nearly one in five families with children live at or below 100 percent of the poverty level. Forty percent are single mothers,” she said.
The Catholic bishops call for awareness of the cost of meeting basic needs for food, housing, utilities, transportation, childcare, health care and personal household expenses. A family of four in Spokane County needs more than $3,600 a month—an income at 180 percent of the poverty level.
“We miss people who are low income and don’t qualify for services,” Ashley said. “Where are there gaps in services? One in three county households do not have enough income to support their basic needs.
Ashley said about 50 percent of the population pay more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing. Of households earning $25,000 to $30,000, 92 percent pay 50 percent or more on housing.
The Spokane Regional Health District report, “Odds Against Tomorrow,” reveals health stakes related to inequities. As income and education rise, health improves and chronic illnesses drop.
Poverty and education levels are interrelated. As health improves, poverty goes down and education rises.
“We also see differences by neighborhood,” Ashley said. “For example, teen pregnancy is 24 times higher in the highest-poverty neighborhood than the lowest-poverty neighborhood.
“What’s going on in that neighborhood?” Ashley said.
A SRHD report on quality of life and life expectancy in Spokane shows differences based on zip code.
“There is an 18-year difference in life expectancy between the highest- and lowest-income zip codes,” Ashley said. “What’s going on in those areas that contributes to the difference?”
Homelessness also reflects levels of poverty, she added. In the regional health district, there were 3,000 homeless youth in schools in 2014. The number is declining, but is still higher than earlier years.
To work on poverty, she suggests “going upstream from noticing the problems, behaviors and outcomes to seeing how beliefs influence policies.
There’s much work responding to poverty, housing and homelessness—what is happening “downstream,” she said, “but we also want the community to move ‘upstream’ to see how beliefs of people in power, individuals and the community influence policies, practices and procedures.”
Ashley pointed to inequity based on race, ethnicity and gender.
“How can we do things upstream to prevent behaviors and outcomes downstream? How can we reach children early in life?” Ashley asked.
|Neal Schindler, Ashley Beck and Julie Honekamp share experiences.|
Neal Schindler, director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services (SAJFS) since 2014, read the pastoral letter through the lens of that program and Jewish values that are behind providing the services.
One passage stood out: “I couldn’t understand how someone who came from where I come from could be homeless.”
With clients of middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds, Neal finds that one turn of events can mean they are in a socio-economic place they never anticipated being.
“Because there’s a stereotype that to be Jewish means to be relatively affluent, there is an added sense of shame when clients find themselves needing services they used to donate to provide,” Neal said. “It’s hard to ask for and receive help. Beyond practical aspects of poverty, there’s a blow to identity from an internalized stigma about the poor being at fault.
“People who live in poverty work hard to survive,” he said. “It requires persistence and can be demoralizing.”
While Jewish Family Services provides only a little help, people tell Neal it makes a difference.
“Despite our small size, even a small amount of food or help with an energy bill, plus our support and advocacy to help them navigate the bureaucracy, can make a difference with their morale, giving them hope. Even a little help matters,” he said.
For example, just knowing that not all landlords require applicant fees means people will look further to find housing rather than moving to a motel, which is less stable.
“Most families don’t know what options they have,” he said.
With his background in counseling, Neal finds that just being with families through hardship can be the most important thing for service providers to do.
Julie Honekamp said SNAP, the local community action agency, just celebrated its 50th anniversary of aiding people in poverty. In a year, SNAP serves 4,800 individuals—counted just once—in Spokane.
She said poverty comes primarily from housing costs and lack of living-wage jobs. “Why is there poverty?” she asked. People with disabilities, mental illness, substance abuse and criminal records have a hard time finding work and housing.
Julie and SNAP staff often go to sit in a branch office and listen to stories of clients so they can base help on people’s real needs.
Recently, she heard from one woman who had been unemployed just three weeks and couldn’t pay her energy bill of $400 in the cold snap.
Contrary to misperceptions, 60 percent of people who come to SNAP for help are employed, many working under 30 hours a week because employers want to avoid paying benefits required for full-time employees.
“They work hard and are resilient. They are our neighbors,” she said.
For service providers, Julie uses a metaphor of political yoga for how she “walks in the world.”
“I wake up sore and stiff. I need to listen to and stretch my muscles,” she said.
When she meets with someone who doesn’t see what she sees, she meets resistance, so she needs to listen to them and stretch their vision. “That’s political yoga,” she said.
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