A New “Peace” to the Puzzle

 

Hello! My name is Emmy Goering and I will be taking the place of Jesse Winter as the Peacebuilding and Policy Associate at the Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness. I graduated high school in May and I am taking this year to volunteer for the Brethren Volunteer Service. Growing up in the Church of the Brethren, the importance of peace and social justice was always stressed.  Through the church, my passion for peace and social justice grew and continues to bloom.

While serving as the Peacebuilding and Policy Associate, I will be spreading awareness and advocating for those who need it. I’m looking forward to advocating for social justice while upholding Brethren values on Capitol Hill.

During my time in BVS, I hope to learn new ways to take action for those in need and teach peace through the ways of Jesus.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.  –Proverbs 31:8-9

Blessings to all,

Emerson Goering

 

Report On Crisis in Puerto Rico

It may be surprising to some Church of the Brethren members that Puerto Rico, an Island and United Sates’ territory, is a complete church district. The island became a district in 2014, separating from the Atlantic Southeast District. The current District Executive is Jose Calleja Otero. Paul Parker, a member of the Washington City Church of the Brethren, has family in Puerto Rico and visits the country often. In the following paragraphs, he provides information to help us better understand the situation of our Puerto Rican Brethren:

Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States since 1898. It is an unincorporated territory; its people are U.S. citizens. Colonization has distorted the economic and political life of the country.

Politically: The “status question” has distorted politics. The three main parties are all defined by their position on status for the island: statehood, continuation of the Commonwealth, or independence. The status question of the island has been used by the political parties to mobilize voters and, effectively, to mask the parties’ failures to address the underlying economic problems of the island. Government has been plagued by cronyism, incompetence and corruption.

The commonwealth government was created in 1952, by act of U.S. Congress granting limited local control. Some believed it granted “limited sovereignty” to the island. However, ultimate authority and sovereignty always rested with the U.S. Congress. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling this spring affirmed that ultimate sovereignty abides with the Congress.

Economically: Agriculture has been greatly diminished. The sugar, coffee and tobacco industries have almost disappeared. The island imports about 75% of its food, at significant cost and outflow of wealth. All goods must be imported in expensive, U.S. flag vessels, raising the cost of living. Local industry and commerce have suffered from competition with domestic U.S. producers.

The economy of the island was supported by a Federal law that allowed companies that invested in the island to retain profits tax free, resulting in industrial investment. This law lapsed in 1998, and manufacturing began to close. After the Cold War ended, U.S. military bases closed. Tourism remains the mainstay of the economy. Many people are working hard to preserve the distinctive natural environment and cultural heritage of the island. However, with the 2008 recession, tourism, as well as other economic activity, suffered a major decline. Migration off the island, particularly of people of working ages and their children, soared due to lack of economic opportunity. Population sank from about 4.4 million to 3.4 million, and continues declining. For example, the number of doctors on the island has dropped from about 14,000 to 9,000. This reduced the tax base and left an aging population in need of greater social services. Sixty percent of the island’s children and forty percent of the total population live in poverty. Infrastructure is crumbling.

Faced with the “perfect storm” of dire economics, the Commonwealth, all of its independent agencies, and many institutions and businesses faced massive deficits and bankruptcies. Rather than raise taxes or cut services, political leaders of both of the major ruling parties resorted to deficit funding to pay operating expenses with debt. By 2015, the Commonwealth and its agencies had accumulated $68 billion in debt. Given the declining economy, the debt had become unpayable. The Commonwealth and its agencies were facing default in 2016. While some of this public debt is still held by local pension funds and retirees, a large amount has been bought up by speculators at great discount.

The Commonwealth was due to default on all debt payments on July 1, 2016. This would have allowed the speculators to sue in Federal court. The island faced possible court orders to pay the debt in preference to pension funds and social services. This would have created a massive social crisis.

The U.S. Congress acted in June to pass the “PROMESA” Act in order to prevent a social crisis. The Act was strongly supported by Jubilee, a multi-church organization devoted to debt relief for poor countries. The Church of the Brethren is a member of the coalition, and our Office of Public Witness, and its Latin American committee members, also independently supported the Act.

While a compromise between many parties, the Act has several main provisions: the Act bars any lawsuits by creditors for up to 20 months; it creates a Financial Control Board (called the “Junta” in Puerto Rico); it authorizes the Board to investigate and oversee the finances of the island; and authorizes the Board to negotiate debt reduction with the creditors. It aims to create breathing room to deal with the problem, to reestablish the credibility of the government’s financial management, and to renegotiate the debt in a manner that recognizes the social and economic needs of the populace.

While the “Junta” is resented by many, there seems to be a loss of faith in local officials and a reluctant acceptance of the necessity of the Board if it gives priority to the wellbeing of the populace over the creditors.

What are we to do as Christians and a church? First we must pray, and lobby Congress, that the Board acts to preserve the social wellbeing of the people of Puerto Rico. This is, however, only the immediate need.

A recent certified audit of the Commonwealth finances by the accounting firm of KPMA clearly stated that the island’s governmental and financial structure is simply unsustainable. Beyond debt payment, there is not enough revenue to maintain services, rebuild infrastructure, refund depleted pensions and promote economic development.

Many on the island feel that the current crisis has forcefully demonstrated the need to resolve, once and for all, the status question. There is a growing consensus that the Commonwealth, as a colonial structure, is not working. As one sign read in a recent demonstration, “The problem is not the Junta, it’s the colony.” Resolution, many believe, will require statehood or independence, both of which will require action by the US government.

Again, what are we to do as Christian’s and a church? To improve economic conditions, we must pray for and lobby Congress for the following: an end to the law requiring imports in U.S. shipping; payments for Medicare/Medicaid that equal those in the states; greater aid to education; laws to promote outside investment in the island; oversight of the Financial Control Board. Ultimately, if the island seeks statehood or Independence, we must support that decision and lobby Congress to grant statehood, or financial aid to ease a transition to independence.

In the meanwhile, come on down! The island and its people are as lovely as ever.

In Christ’s Peace,
Paul Parker and Stephanie Robinson

Stephanie works with the Office of Public Witness covering Latin America and is from the Oak Grove Church of the Brethren. Paul is part of the Washington City Church of the Brethren who has family in Puerto Rico and travels there extensively.

Our Stateless Brethren

 

A pastor for the Church of the Brethren in the Dominican Republic has witnessed the confusion and devastation spurred by the statelessness crisis that the Office of Public Witness wrote about in the previous blog. Battling a high court ruling can seem nearly impossible, but mitigating its impact by helping those affected is how he has been approaching the situation.

Brothers and sisters in this denomination, especially members living in bateyes and including young people and children, have been deprived of state documents, leading to an uncertain future. Brethren have helped one another travel to obtain, fill out, and return paperwork to regain citizenship, a process that many do not have the finances, orientation, or even motivation to complete. The pastor says that speaking out against this situation is risky, not only for the stateless individuals, but even for himself as a pastor. Some government officials, judges and nationalists are suspicious and sometimes spiteful toward those who oppose the court ruling due to their bias against those born of Haitian decent.

For the coming year, research will be carried out to determine how many church members in the affected groups got their legal documents through the regularization plan and how to help the children of those who refused or somehow did not get them documents. Another project will also be under way to visit each church and determine the exact number of cases of statelessness and document the details of each.

At the Greensboro Annual Conference 2016, an insight session will be led by Dominican Brethren and is called “Iglesia de los Hermanos—Looking Forward and Looking Onward”. These leaders will share updates and discuss the vision of the church in the Dominican Republic, in light of this issue and others.

Read the stories of this population at http://stories.minorityrights.org/dominican-republic/.

Watch the trailer for the upcoming documentary “Our lives in transit” / “Vidas en tránsito” here!

With hope,

Christy Crouse
Peacebuilding and Policy Intern
Office of Public Witness
Washington, DC

Growing in the Garden

When gardeners from across the country come together for an intense weekend of discussions and visioning, incredible things can take shape. That is precisely what happened when five Going to the Garden partners came together with staff from the Global Food Crisis Fund and the Office of Public Witness for a retreat in Wisconsin earlier this month.

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Started in 2012, in the midst of a nation-wide drought, Going to the Garden has been a way for congregations throughout the ecumenical community to address local food security and hunger needs by providing one or two grants up to $1000 to start or supplement community gardens. As a collaboration between the Global Food Crisis Fund and the Office of Public Witness in Washington, DC, Going to the Garden has also sought ways to connect this local work with advocacy and addressing larger policy issues relating to food. Due to a decreased volume of grant applications, that portion of Going to the Garden was closed in early 2016, leaving a space to be filled with new ideas and plans to further the work of the program’s partners.

Through group discussions with the garden partners over the course of the weekend and with inspiration from visiting Growing Power, a large and dynamic urban farm in Milwaukee, the theme of wanting to be more strongly involved in local advocacy around issues of community hunger and food security was frequent. One of the original goals of Going to the Garden has been to engage the denomination in larger, nationally-focused, advocacy pieces, but finding and maintaining interest in working on this has been difficult. The conversations from the retreat showed that many of the gardeners are already involved in their own advocacy work but are doing it on local levels in ways that affect their communities directly.

From all of this visioning, a plan to establish a Garden Advocate program emerged. While the gathered group reflected that they were already doing positive local advocacy work, it was noted that having someone who is capable of giving greater attention to such work would strengthen what is being done. Through the Global Food Crisis Fund, several Going to the Garden partners will be able to apply for funding to support someone in their community with interest in this work to act as a Garden Advocate on their behalf. This person will be able to engage in local advocacy work being done around issues of hunger or creation care while also working closely with the Office of Public Witness to connect on larger national issues on the same theme.

It is the hope that the creation of a Garden Advocate program will strengthen the capacity of these gardens to be able to help hungry neighbors while also working for larger systemic change to ensure everyone in our communities and our country no longer has to worry about being hungry.

Virtual Ghosts: An Update on Statelessness in the DR

 

“With the stroke of a pen, authorities in the Dominican Republic have effectively wiped four generations of Dominicans off the map. Without nationality, tens of thousands of people have become virtual ghosts, who face serious obstacles in accessing basic services in the country,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International. Here at the Office of Public Witness, these words propel us to act, raising awareness and engaging in efforts to help alleviate a dire situation. This reality faces a large population in the Dominican Republic (DR), where the Church of the Brethren has a significant presence. Deprived of the basic right of legal nationality, the DR’s stateless community lacks the paperwork to attend schools, work at a formal jobs, get married, and have opportunities that many people would see as inherent to a normal life. Since Nathan Hosler’s trip to the DR in 2014 and to the Haitian side of the border in 2015, the situation surrounding statelessness in the region merits a current report.

Context:
President of the DR since 2012, Danilo Medina, just won reelection in the 2016 presidential race. Although Medina’s administration has made some sweeping developments, such as creating 2,500 new schools and maintaining one of Latin America’s fastest growing economies, the painful situation for thousands of Dominicans of Haitian decent who were “repatriated” to Haiti has not improved under his administration. Following the 2010 constitutional change that eliminated citizenship to those born to migrants in the DR, the DR’s highest constitutional court passed decision 168-13 in September of 2013 that retroactively stripped the citizenship from all of those born to undocumented immigrants since 1929, mostly of Haitian decent.

This action left a population of approximately 200,000 people stateless. Following this, international alarms sounded. The United Nations, human rights organizations, and others cried out against the unjust racial bias inflicted upon those of Haitian decent born in the DR, rendering them with neither Dominican nor Haitian citizenship. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) published a press release urging the Dominican Republic not to deport thousands of stateless people “whose citizenship was thrown into question by a 2013 ruling.” The Church of the Brethren also joined the voices in objection to this decision that affected our church community as well.

What has been done?
Succumbing to international pressure, the Medina administration created a naturalization program that expired in February of 2015. Many affected individuals did not learn about the program in time to apply until after it had already expired. Following this, a regularization plan that expired in June 2015 allowed individuals to register with the government. Since then, the Dominican government claims it has granted more than 250,000 previously undocumented migrants temporary visas and reinstated citizenship to 55,000 of the Dominicans born to migrants. However, this leaves a multitude of individuals who did not register. “Most people here were afraid to register,” Pérez said. “They didn’t understand the process or thought they would be deported.” Medina and his government consider the plan a success, not recognizing that many were unable to register.

The Church of the Brethren donated $16,000 and worked with the church in the DR to assist affected individuals through this regularization process. The documentation and trips to the government offices proved a significant financial burden to those trying to attain citizenship.

 Current situation and action:
Without family or social networks in Haiti, many stateless individuals are in makeshift camps along the DR-Haiti border. The International Organization for migration estimates about 20,000 official deportations have been carried out, while approximately 60,000 individuals have fled to Haiti on their own in fear of persecution, violence, or deportation. By the end of 2016, an estimated 120,000 individuals will cross over to Haiti. Camps are still swelling near the border, and tensions are rising. “Everyone here is more afraid of aggression from Dominican citizens than aggression from the government,” said one migrant. The Church of the Brethren has visited the border area, offering prayer and medical assistance. About 25 other organizations are working in the camps to provide various forms of assistance.

On behalf of the Church of the Brethren, the Office of Public Witness sent a letter signed by other faith-based organizations to Ambassador Brewster in Santo Domingo, DR, urging him to push for the creation of protocols for deportation that respect human rights, support those affected through documentation guidance and appeals processes, and the restoration of nationality to those affected. The Office of Public Witness continues to work with other organizations such as Church World Service to monitor and respond to this situation.

Christy Crouse
Peacebuilding and Policy Intern
Office of Public Witness
Washington, DC

Value and Values: Perspectives on Israel and Puerto Rico

How we spend our money shows what we think is important. In the past few years, the U.S. government has struggled to pass a budget, but some fiscal decisions are easier to make than others. With the support of Congress, the Administration has discussed expanding U.S. funds to Israel to further expand Israel’s already excessive military edge. While Israel is a major U.S. ally in the Middle East, policymakers have failed to make progress on a more pressing fiscal issue that directly affects U.S. citizens: the debt crisis in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s expansive debt has crippled its economy and forced many citizens to leave the island territory.

What does it say about our country that efforts to bolster Israel’s military receive high praise, while Congressional efforts to offer financial support for Puerto Rico continue to stall? While these two issues are wholly separate in both their justifications and mechanisms for receiving U.S. support, juxtaposing these two cases reveals misplaced priorities in the American agenda relevant to people of faith.

After receiving a widely-supported letter from the U.S. Senate, the Administration has stated that it aims to enhance Israel’s annual $3 billion military aid package to nearly $4 billion. Since Israel became a nation in 1946, U.S. military aid to Israel has exceeded $130 billion, which is nearly half of all military aid sent to the Middle East in that same time period. With such sustained support, Israel clearly meets any arbitrary threshold for defense, making an increase in Israel’s superlative aid excessive and irresponsible.

Israel has proved its military independence in defense expenditures and by its arms manufacturing industry that exports to 130 countries, including the U.S. and U.K. Israel’s arms trade is problematic in itself since many of Israel’s arms exports contribute to conflicts in places such as the Ivory Coast and South Sudan. The question of military support for Israel consequently goes beyond a matter of fiscal responsibility to one of moral responsibility. Does Israel need our support? Does it even deserve it?

The Puerto Rico’s debt crisis poses another moral problem, though one exacerbated by U.S. inaction rather than direct financial endorsement. The Puerto Rican government is currently $72 billion in debt and has a $2 billion debt payment to make by June 1. In addition to irresponsible governing, Puerto Rico’s special designation as a U.S. territory helped create the current crisis. Puerto Rican statehood is debated even among its citizens, but without many state protections, financial loopholes enabled large corporations and hedge funds to lend money to the Puerto Rican government at irresistible rates. In the wake of aggressive lending and borrowing, Puerto Rico’s debt ballooned out of control.

The Puerto Rican government and several members of Congress have pushed legislation to help lessen the impact of Puerto Rico’s debt on its struggling population. The proposed aid to Puerto Rico is frequently couched as a bailout, but unlike financial assistance to Israel, the current debate is not about distributing U.S. taxpayer money. Rather, the current legislation has the modest goal of providing debt relief to Puerto Rico by granting it municipal bankruptcy protection, a privilege held by all U.S. states but not the Puerto Rican territory.

Bankruptcy protection would restructure debt payments to ensure the well-being of the 3.5 million Puerto Rican people, about 45% of whom live in poverty because of this financial crisis. Without this protection, Puerto Rico could be required to further defund essential emergency services and continue to raise taxes in order to meet payment deadlines. Sales taxes in Puerto Rico already sit at a soaring 11.5% and thousands have left the island to escape an economy that leaves many overqualified and unsupported. Efforts to pass helpful legislation to aid Puerto Rico continue to falter, begging the question: Do we have our priorities right?

While military aid to Israel uses taxpayer money to further equip the most militarized nation in the Middle East, debt relief to Puerto Rico addresses the immediate need of struggling U.S. taxpayers. Too frequently it seems our fiscal sense is disconnected from common sense. Our country was founded on the self-evident truths that everyone is created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights. In a world filled with money and potential profit, however, these rights often become mere footnotes in discussions about dividends and economic growth. U.S. arms manufacturers receive good business from Israel because of military aid, while Puerto Rico doesn’t seem to have much to offer.

As Brethren, we tout our tagline “Peacefully, Simply, Together” but often forget its implications. We are called to be peaceful, acting from a place of love and support. We are called to live simply, to walk with God rather than join the rat race. Finally, we are called together to be strengthened as a community of faith. These three pillars rest on the recognition that every person is a precious creation made in the image of God. This belief undergirds our work through Global Mission and Service and within our own communities. It is a foundation for witness that gives us a prophetic voice.

Recalling that our political system is founded on the equal rights of everyone to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we must use our prophetic voice to remind those with power that such rights cannot be ignored, that each person has inherent value deeper and more beautiful than market value, that military excess works against the pursuit of peace and simplicity. Our elected officials must be reminded that they serve the People, especially the citizens of Puerto Rico.

Today, the Office of Public Witness joined several other faith-based organizations in denouncing U.S. military aid and arms trade in the Middle East, including Israel. The Office also works with Jubilee USA, an organization focused on providing debt relief. Check out their website for more information about Puerto Rico and how you can get involved.

In Christ’s Peace,

Jesse Winter
Peacebuilding and Policy Associate
Office of Public Witness
Washington, DC

Caring for Caribou

This sermon was given by Katie Furrow as a way to celebrate Earth Day Sunday at the Washington City Church of the Brethren in Washington, DC. It is based around Genesis 1:20-31.

“The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” For the Gwich’in people, this place is the coastal plains of Northern Alaska. The coastal plains are home to the breeding grounds of countless migratory bird species, polar bears, and the Porcupine Caribou which plays a significant role in the lives of the Gwich’in as a means of sustenance and spirituality. When one learns of the role of the coastal plains in regard to the breeding and calving grounds for all of these animals, it is hard to dispute that is anything less than divine Creation at work—it is a space that is temperate enough for mothers and newborns to have proper nutrients from vegetation but not so warm to allow breeding of the hoards of mosquitoes that will descend upon the area in warmer months as a nuisance to everything that has blood, and the plains are often safer from predators allowing newborns to grow well. It is truly sacred ground.

Fortunately, the value and importance of this land as a sacred space that creates new life and helps species and cultures flourish has been known for some time, and in 1960, legislation was passed protecting over 19 million acres of this area, creating the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And even just last January, President Obama proposed to designate over 12 million acres of the refuge as wilderness, further protecting it.

However, some would consider the coastal plains and the refuge sacred for other reasons. You see, this place where life begins is also where United States-owned oil reserves begin.

According to the US Geological Survey, there are approximately “896 million barrels of conventional, undiscovered oil,” located underneath the coastal plains and many individuals, corporations, and members of the government have been clamoring to drill there since the mid-1970s despite the location’s status as a wilderness refuge. While the monetary profits of such drilling are certain, the reality is that the oil that comes from the refuge would provide only 1 to 2 percent of the oil that the United States consumes each day—in that knowledge, one must consider if it is truly worth it.

Drilling in this delicate habitat would irreparably change the landscape of the environment—altering migration patterns and threatening survival rates of newborns animals and entire species, for that matter. Unfortunately, this is a pattern that we have seen too often throughout human history; we are many times willing to forego the protection of Creation and all that is in if for the “betterment” of human society, or so we think.

Scientists are actually calling this period of time the sixth extinction crisis in geological history, and according to the World Wildlife Fund, the current rate of species loss is between 1000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. It is nearly indisputable that there is one species causing this to happen. Who guessed humans? Well, you would be correct.

We find ourselves as the most dangerous predator to other species on the planet; we are superior, and our needs far outweigh the needs of creation. Or so we far too often like to think. This is not the life that we were called to, though, as our scripture today shows us.

The Creation narrative is one of the most familiar books of the Bible, yet it still holds key lessons for us to learn (or relearn) today. It’s where it all started—quite literally “In the beginning…” God created the heavens and the earth, the seas and the land, day and night, and every living creature that swims, crawls, slithers, burrows, flies, and walks. God saw what God had created and declared all of it—every last bit of it, in its original and undefiled state, as good.

In the middle of all of that creating and declaring of goodness, humans were given a special role to fill as the keepers of everything that had come before; from the beginning, God made us stewards over all of Creation, and in that moment of divine decision making, once again, God thought that doing so was good. We have been given dominion over creation and all the creatures in it; we have been given this Earth as a source of sustenance, but the Earth has also been given us to tend and care for it.

Our friends from the Gwich’in tribe know the fine balance of this role well. Earlier, I spoke about how important the Porcupine caribou is to this group of people; throughout their history, they have been tied to the caribou through countless ways.

Princess Johnson, a Gwich’in leader, wrote in a recent blog post for Sojourners that “our communities still rely heavily on the Porcupine caribou herd for sustenance, as well as our culture and spiritual wellbeing. Our elders have taught us that our connection is sacred.” Without the caribou, they would lose not only a meal source but also a connection to their culture. It seems safe to say that the caribou, and consequently the coastal plains where they breed, are a lifeline for the Gwich’in.

Yet, in spite of this, or maybe because of it, they have very specific rules about how they will or will not interact with the animals. Even in seasons where caribou are scarce, they will not go into the coastal plains to hunt, despite knowing that the hunting would be easy and the reward would be great. The Gwich’in respect the need for the caribou to have a safe space to breed and raise their calves without fear of predation in order to maintain the herd, and they would rather choose to go without than to threaten the balance of their relationship; they are willing to forego the domination that they could have over the caribou in place of having a right relationship with Creation. They see and understand the sacredness of their relationship with the caribou and the land.

Given that Genesis is only the beginning of our story, it seems fitting that we see reminders of this role we were assigned to play throughout the rest of the Bible–from the Wisdom books in the Old Testament to Paul’s letters. One scripture that reinforces the importance of taking care of what has been given to us comes from Ecclesiates 3:19– “For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals.”

It’s made clear in those few sentences that we are tied much more closely to the animal kingdom than many of us would like to think. In God’s infinite wisdom, God made our planet into a finely woven and delicately balanced ecosystem. This connection reminds me of a game that we would often play with the kids at the summer camp where I worked through high school and college. Standing in a circle, one person would throw a ball of yarn across to someone else, holding on to their end of the string. This would continue until everyone in the circle had received and thrown the yarn, always holding on to their piece before throwing it.

In the end, what was created was a web, connecting each of us to the rest. If one person were to pull on their end of the string, it would cause a chain reaction forcing everyone else to lean in or loosen their hold. Or if another person dropped their end, the rest of the group would have to pick up the slack to keep the web together.

In this way, much like the yarn connected our group, we are all connected in Creation with one another. Anything that I can do, will affect Creation around me. Every time I drive a car or water the garden or throw away trash, I’m altering the environment; sometimes that’s a good thing as I watch the baby spinach plants grow right outside, a product of tender care, but sometimes what I do causes pollution or harm–to animals, to the earth, or even to other people. And sometimes I don’t even realize the impact of what I’m doing.

We live in a world where we are fairly far removed from seeing the results of our choices. Driving a car or using a plastic anything requires petroleum, which has to come from somewhere. It’s easy to fill up the gas tank or drink out of a water bottle and not consider the line of production that it took to get to me. Without seeing how the coastal plains will be damaged, and the caribou herds being driven out, and the Gwich’in losing a part of their heritage, it makes it a lot easier to drop the ball on being a good steward to the earth. And God sees what is being done, and knows that it is not good.

On the sixth day, God created humankind and put us in charge. While we’ve veered off course, often choosing domination over creation instead of serving and tending to it, it is not too late–for us or for the earth. We can take simple steps every day to be stewards, whether that’s just taking the time to learn more about the impacts that our choices make, like where our food comes from or how the things we buy impact the earth, or if it means taking concrete steps like choosing to walk or bike more or even just turning off the water while we brush our teeth. Little steps add up to make big changes.

God saw what God made, and knew that it was good. If we each took a little more time out of our days to see the good in creation, we would probably end up with a greater appreciation and a greater caring for what is around us. By choosing to see the divine spark that all of us–people, animals, and even plants–were created with, we would not so quickly take the easy path of destruction or harm. I know it is a lot harder for me to take the lazy way of unsustainable choices or to want to see the end of certain species (mosquitoes) when I remember that we all belong to God.

Perhaps the best thought comes from one Gwich’in leader. When asked how to say “wilderness” in the Gwich’in language, she responded that there is no word for that, but that the closest phrase is to “leave it the way the Creator made.” Whether we are looking to drill in far away places for nonrenewable oil or to make changes in our own communities that would hurt God’s creation, we should take this lesson with us. Let us work as best we can to leave it as God created. And it will be declared good. Amen.

Currently, the Office is Public Witness is working with an ecumenical coalition to bring attention to the importance of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to our leaders in Washington, DC. One way that you can become involved is to sign and share this petition calling on the President and Congress to permanently protect this sacred land, keeping it beautiful and well-preserved for many more generations.

In Christ’s Peace,

Katie Furrow
Food, Hunger, and Gardening Associate
Office of Public Witness & Global Food Crisis Fund
Washington, DC

 

Lifting Every Voice: Ecumenical Advocacy Days 2016

This past weekend the Office of Public Witness participated in Ecumenical Advocacy Days, a conference of people of faith from around the country.  We worshiped and attended workshops together on the theme of “Lift Every Voice! – Racism, Class & Power.”  The weekend began powerfully as Rev. Dr. William Barber implored us to prophesy, to call out injustice in the world, and to demand policies that recognize that God’s image in everyone.  That call to unite as a moral voice for justice continued to frame the weekend as we delved more deeply into the issues of voting rights and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. The event concluded on Monday as together we met with our congressional representatives.

OPW’s work sometimes feels isolated, but the expressions of solidarity and love in word, song, and action expressed this weekend left us all feeling revitalized and empowered.  As we stood and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” we knew that we were surrounded by a powerful and determined community. Though we returned to our daily work this week, we have EAD powerfully reminds us  that our work represents deep sentiments shared by many throughout the country.

Yet this empowerment brings many challenges.  As all of the speakers reminded us, we are called continually to be perturbed by injustice, to wrestle with our faith, and to not stay silent.  On Saturday night we had the privilege of meeting with the other Brethren, Mennonite, and Friends in attendance.  Members of a Mennonite church in Cleveland, Ohio had many members graciously shared their experiences as a predominately African-American congregation.  As we think about how every voice can be lifted on the national level, they called us to begin by considering whose voices are not being heard in our own congregations.

As we consider the importance of lifting every voice, the personal stories such as the one’s shared by our sisters from Cleveland are essential.  Everyone is created in the image of God and thus any work for justice must necessarily be personal, connected to the realities of all people’s lives.  Perhaps that is the greatest message that we had to bring to our legislators this Monday. Justice is personal; when not all voices can be heard singing its refrains, we are silencing God’s beloved.

Thus,

 “Lift every voice and sing,

Till earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;”

May you too be energized and uplifted for your work and your journey with God.

In Christ’s Peace,

Sara White
Intern
Office of Public Witness
Washington, DC

If you are interested in learning more about the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, or view additional material from the conference, visit advocacydays.org.

Brethren Collaborate on Nigeria Research

As part of the Church of the Brethren’s work on Nigeria through Global Mission and Service, Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS), the Office of Public Witness, and students at Elizabethtown College have partnered to begin data collection and analysis of Boko Haram violence in northeastern Nigeria. The Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN) has a strong presence in the northeast, an area terrorized by Boko Haram. Because of the Brethren presence in northeast Nigeria, the Church is in a unique position to shed light on the impact of Boko Haram’s violence, especially as it targets Christian communities in the northeast. 

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Using data gathered by Dr. Rebecca Dali, Center for Caring, Empowerment, and  Peace Initiative (CCEPI), BVSers John and Pat Krabacher initiated organizing Dr. Rebecca’s raw data last year to display the 9745 killed by Boko Haram in the northeast in a “Wall of Healing” seen at Annual Conference 2015. Pat Krabacher is updating the “Wall” data with the latest data from CCEPI and integrating short stories of victims into new visual data displays with assistance from Justin North (CoB Columbus, OH).  

At Elizabethtown College, a Church of the Brethren institution, Religious Studies and Interfaith Leadership Studies majors will supplement Dr. Dali’s data by gathering a comprehensive collection of existing news reports about Boko Haram. Advised by Assistant Professor Dr. Richard Newton, they are charting the role of geography, demography, and religion in the conflict. By capturing these two data sets, we hope this research can better represent the impact of Boko Haram violence which can be communicated to U.S. and international humanitarian aid organizations .

Nathan Hosler, Director of the Office of Public Witness, and BVS worker Jesse Winter will work to create a report of this data to be shared with church members and potential advocacy partners. Visual representations of preliminary data should be available through Global Mission and Service at Annual Conference in Greensboro, NC. As we look at the persisting crisis in Nigeria, now two years after Chibok and nearly seven years after the beginning of Boko Haram’s insurgency in 2009, we hope this partnership and analysis can help communicate the pain and suffering of our EYN and Muslim neighbors and bring about meaningful peacemaking initiatives.

In Christ’s peace,

Jesse Winter

Peacebuilding and Policy Associate

Office of Public Witness

Washington, DC

Drought and Food Security in Haiti

It has been over three years since Haitians have seen an average amount of rainfall in their country. This drought, currently being made worse as a result of El Niño weather patterns, is a prime example of climate related natural disasters which have plagued the country for the last decade and the resulting impacts they have made on poverty and hunger.

Due to the impacts of these natural disasters, such as drought, hurricanes, and earthquakes, Haitian markets have struggled to provide enough food at fair prices. Much of this stems from the markets being inundated with foreign food aid given after crises occur, often from the United States in the form of massive rice subsidies. By flooding Haiti with inexpensive American grains, the market value for Haitian products is severely undercut, making it difficult for Haitian farmers to grow and sell their rice. This destroys the farmers’ livelihoods while also creating a dependence on foreign aid. Soon after the devastating 2010 earthquake, one report noted that the country’s “agricultural production accounted for nearly half of gross domestic product in the 1970s. It now amounts to less than a third”[1]. This drop in domestic production has contributed to financial hardship throughout the country, often making it difficult for both farmers and the overall economy to get back on their feet after a disaster.

Poverty is ubiquitous in Haiti where three-quarters of Haitians live on less than $2 per day[2], and in parts of the country, food insecure households total over 40 percent “even in ‘good years”[3]. Due to the ongoing drought, farmers across the country are losing extensive amounts of their crop yield; some farmers had crop losses of up to 70 percent during the 2015 harvest. This loss, combined with a depreciation of Haitian currency, has led to a price increase for many foods like rice, maize, and beans; for families already struggling with spending most of their income on food, these increases could lead to greater rates of malnutrition as meals become less frequent.

According to Oxfam, “since 2000, climate changes have been observed: increased episodes of cyclones, as well as increased frequency and intensity of localized drought.” These changes have left Haiti vulnerable to the effects of flooding, drought, and destruction caused by storms. Further, such climate changes have led to such irregular weather patterns that planning for crop seasons has become difficult, and yields are often variable depending on the changing weather.

Haitian Brethren have been strongly affected by the ongoing drought, as many farmers experienced crop failures when the rains stopped suddenly last summer. Jeff Boshart, the manager of the Global Food Crisis Fund, recently visited Haiti and remarked on how he and his wife “helped plant some citrus trees over 20 years ago that had been fruiting but were now dead” as a result of the drought. Without the income from these lost crops, there is greater potential for hunger as well as a potential loss for children’s education given a loss of extra income to send them to school.

It is likely that this drought will continue for some time, and Haiti will continue to feel the effects through crop loss and resulting economic struggles. In response to this, the long-term impacts of any incoming foreign aid on Haitian farmers, as well as overall economy, must be considered. Haitian economist Fritz Jean has said “the crisis underscores the need for the country’s future leaders to take a holistic approach to supporting farmers”[4]. By working internally or supporting aid that empowers the Haitian people, a stronger approach to facing hunger can be taken.

[1] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/35608836/ns/world_news-americas/t/food-imports-hurt-struggling-haitian-farmers/#.VwPOf_krK00
[2] https://www.wfp.org/countries/haiti
[3] http://politicsofpoverty.oxfamamerica.org/2014/04/haiti-drought-opportunity-build-climate-change-resilience/
[4] http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/article59399683.html#storylink=cpy