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.

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.


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.

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


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.


Advocating for Change Through a Soup Kitchen

On an average day, I spend my time in an office—sending emails, reading updates about relevant hunger-focused legislation, and planning the future of Going to the Garden, but some days give me the opportunity to have firsthand experiences that overlap with my work. The Office of Public Witness is based out of the Washington City Church of the Brethren, and the Brethren Nutrition Program soup kitchen is also located in the church, and that means that I am sometimes called on to help in the kitchen on busy days or if the kitchen needs more  on volunteers.

Earlier this week, the kitchen was in short supply on volunteers, so I was asked to help cook, serve, and clean up lunch. In my work, it’s easy to get caught up on the statistics surrounding hunger. I know that 1 in 6 Americans face hunger and that nearly 46 million people receive SNAP benefits, and I know that low-income communities of color are more likely to face food insecurity than any other population in the United States. However, knowing all of these facts is still not enough to get the full picture of how hunger affects our society. Volunteering in the soup kitchen gives me the opportunity to see the faces of hunger.

By serving and eating with the guests, I’m able to hear people’s stories of how they’ve come to be at the soup kitchen. I met the older adult couple who eat their lunch at the kitchen in order to save money to pay their other expenses. I met the guest-turned-volunteer who still eats at the kitchen but who also regularly helps with meal preparation and cleanup as a way to give back. I met some who are just temporarily down on their luck and others who are facing insurmountable odds that are keeping them in systemic poverty.

Often, it is easy to think that going on visits to Capitol Hill to share our faith values with lawmakers does enough by asking for their support for legislation that bolsters hunger programs like SNAP. This work certainly is invaluable, but being able to put our faith and beliefs into service is an equally important part of the equation. By working in a soup kitchen, even for a day, it is possible to become more connected to our cause.

In Christ’s Peace,

Katie Furrow
Food, Hunger, and Gardening Associate
Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness and
Global Food Crisis Fund


Food Week of Action and World Food Day

This week marks the observance of Food Week of Action. Throughout this time, individuals and churches are able to celebrate the good work being done to establish food security and food sovereignty around the world while also recognizing a call to action to collectively move forward in this work. According to the Presbyterian Mission Agency, this week is “an opportunity for Christians and others around the world to act together for food justice and food sovereignty. It is a special time to raise awareness about farming approaches that help individuals and communities develop resiliency and combat poverty.  We are called also to examine our food choices and call for policy changes that will ensure the right to food for everyone.”

Through the Food Week of Action and World Food Day resources co-sponsored by the Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness, groups can engage in discussion on a variety of topics from the importance of healthy soils to farm worker solidarity. Other actions include such things as joining the Zero Hunger Challenge from the United Nations or becoming involved in a local community garden or farm. For more information about the week, as well as other worship and action resources, please visit the webpage for the event.

If you are interested in getting your hands in the dirt over this week, consider making a visit to a nearby Going to the Garden congregation. For those interested in becoming more involved in Going to the Garden and other ways you can engage hunger-related issues, please visit or e-mail

Ruth the Farmworker

A sermon from the Washington City Church of the Brethren on September 6, 2015

By: Katie Furrow

Ruth 2:1-13

This weekend marks the celebration of Labor Day. Admittedly, until just recently, I had no real knowledge on what the purpose of Labor Day is or why we celebrate it, so, like any good Millennial, I went to the Internet: According to the US Department of Labor, Labor Day “is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers” which celebrates the “contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” It’s a very American ideal: celebrating the hard work that we’ve put into our jobs which creates economic success for ourselves and our families and maybe even for our country as a whole.

However, as people across the country tomorrow find themselves celebrating with cookouts and generally enjoying a day off from work or school, millions of our country’s laborers who work in agriculture have little to celebrate. These men, women, and even children—since current labor laws allow children to work in agriculture as early as age 12—feed our families every day, yet they face untold hardships in their own lives ranging from wage theft to work-induced health problems to living situations that are far below any standard that should be acceptable anywhere, especially in a place as wealthy as the US.

Farm workers play a prominent role in all of our lives. After all, where would we get our always available, conveniently affordable food from? Despite this, though, they are an abused portion of our society. Through the frequently used piece-work system for wages, most workers find themselves toiling in the field for at least eight hours a day, earning money only for what they produce. For instance, in Florida, workers are paid 85 cents for every 90 pound box of oranges they can pick. If they work at an average pace, that would end up being less than $7 per hour to be made for picking thousands of pounds of oranges. I don’t know about you, but if I were in that situation, I would work as hard as I could with as few stops for water or anything else in order to maximize my profit. And that’s a real problem when you’re in a place like Florida with high temperatures and exposure to the elements while doing physically exhausting work; people are basically being forced to trade their health for their wage.

An ongoing struggle for both men and women is the heavy use of pesticides in the fields. The chemicals that we must always be sure to wash off of our fruits and veggies frequently surround farm workers as the wind carries it into their breathing space from other fields, from improper handling of the chemicals due to a lack of proper safety training, or as they are made to return to work prematurely soon after their field has been sprayed—all in the name of quick profit. This can lead to health problems for anyone who works around the chemicals from general illness to cases of cancer.

Women in this role are often greeted with extra challenges. Beyond facing the equal struggles of men in the field as they fight for fair wages and safe working environments, many women are also expected to maintain the role of mother and caretaker, and consequently must lose out on precious paychecks in order to take care of their families. Or they sometimes never even receive paychecks as their employer illegally pays them through their husband’s paycheck—saving the company money they would have to pay on Social Security or other benefits while simultaneously keeping the woman from having any autonomy or legal rights. And exposure to those pesticides that I just mentioned can lead to infertility, difficult pregnancies, or birth defects.

Even more painful to consider, though, is the treatment of female farm workers at the hands of their employers. One survey from the National Farm Worker Ministry reported that 90 percent of female farm workers identified sexual harassment as a major problem in their workplace. There are countless stories of women from throughout the industry and across the country who have endured a host of sexual violence in order to keep their jobs, to be paid a fair wage, or in the case of women who are working illegally in the country, out of fear that they will be reported to immigration authorities if they don’t comply with their supervisor’s actions. And all of these things often add up to keep these women from ever reporting these crimes to the police. These women live with a constant fear of harassment or sexual violence simply for trying to do their job and to make ends meet.

It would seem like this is an issue of the modern era, only becoming a problem since the United States farm industry has taken off, requiring millions of people to tend and harvest the fields. However, mistreatment of workers is nothing new, and our scripture, in part, highlights the potential for this in Biblical times. But it also signifies the hope of what a good employer can look like.

The story of Ruth is a familiar one: Ruth is the daughter-in-law of a woman named Naomi, and within the first few verses of the first book, Ruth, Naomi, and Naomi’s other daughter-in-law have all come to find themselves widowed. Being widowed women in this time meant that their rights were incredibly limited as their value was tied to the men in their lives—husbands, fathers, or sons. Recognizing this, Naomi releases her daughters-in-law to return to their families to seek out a new start while Naomi herself plans to return to her native home of Israel from where she is living in Moab. One daughter goes, but Ruth stays, vowing her loyalty and love to Naomi.

They make their way to Israel, and it is there that Ruth declares she will go out, looking for work as a way to support herself and Naomi. It’s the harvest time, so Ruth finds herself in the fields that belong to Boaz, a “prominent rich man” from the community, who (spoiler alert) is both a relative of Naomi and Ruth’s future husband.

When Boaz arrives to his field, it is immediately obvious that he both respects and is respected by his workers as he greets them with a blessing. Boaz makes sure that his workers are taken care of by providing them with food and drink while they work, and it is even later revealed that during part of the harvest, he works right alongside with them.

What is more striking, though, is how he treats Ruth upon realizing she is following behind his workers, gleaning in the field. Ruth is an outsider in every sense of the word; she is not his employee, she is a widowed woman, she is a foreigner in Israel. This combination could be dangerous for Ruth; she is vulnerable both legally and physically. Boaz could have taken this opportunity to exploit Ruth and to harm her, to use her body and her presence as a trade to let her glean the fields or to even hover a false promise of protection over her head.

But the beauty in this moment is that Boaz didn’t do this! He recognized Ruth’s need and worked to fulfill it well beyond her expectation. Ruth wanted the opportunity to glean the field after his workers passed through harvesting; all she wanted were whatever leftovers were to be had. She was willing to work hard for this, as Boaz’s workers noted that she had not rested at any point over the day following behind them. Boaz agrees to let her pick from what is left in the field, later in the chapter, he also tells his workers to let her take from the good harvest as well. And he offers her food and water as she needs it. And he tells her that he has told the men working to leave her alone, protecting her from the exploitation that could come from any other source.

Instead of taking advantage of her, Boaz did the complete opposite to empower Ruth in her work in order to make sure she had the best possible chance at providing for herself and Naomi. Boaz was a perfect example of how a boss should treat those in his employment. However, many farm owners and supervisors today haven’t taken this story to heart, and the consequence of that are the unfair labor standards that I alluded to earlier.

It is very unlikely that any of us will ever become the owners or supervisors of farms of any size and we will never have to make the choice of whether or not to pay our workers fair wages or to treat them unjustly. But this doesn’t get us off the hook so quickly. Through our purchasing power, we can either choose to support or deny such inequality. By consciously choosing to say “I will purchase things that have an ethical and fair source” we can combat this system. Sometimes, we may not be capable of this; for instance, as a full-time volunteer, I know that I certainly cannot always do so because I literally can’t afford it. But by even recognizing that our food system is imperfect and that we’ll strive to do just a little bit better next time, or by planting gardens that break the consumer cycle, or by petitioning industrial farms to make changes to their worker treatment, or by otherwise showing our brothers and sisters in the field that we care about them and are standing in solidarity with their struggle, we can subvert this system. We can show that it is of great value to us to make sure that they have been given everything that they need to be just as successful in this country and in their lives as we have been given.

As members of the Body of Christ, it is imperative that our choices and actions reflect our faith, and one of the biggest parts of that is standing for others when they have been beaten down so many times that they struggle to stand back up again. And farm workers have been beaten down in so many ways. We have been given an example of how to treat farm workers through Boaz, and while we may not be the ones directly providing paychecks, we can still take actions to build a more fair system and to help our brothers and sisters stand back up once again.

This weekend is a celebration of the hard work that we put in as a country to succeed as individuals, as families, and as a nation. Wouldn’t it be great to know that we can celebrate this with a clean conscious that everyone has been successful and that everyone is valued for the hard work that they’ve put in to this effort toward success? And maybe, if enough of us choose to recognize the need for change and take even one small, concrete step in making a difference, then each of those small steps will add up to one big, change-creating movement. At the end of this chapter in Ruth, once Ruth has returned home from a full day’s work with a lot of barley and Boaz’s blessing, Naomi proclaims, “Blessed is the man who took notice of you.” Not for our sake, but for the sake of our brothers and sisters working hard in the fields, let’s be the people who take notice. And then let’s be the people who get up and do something about it. Amen.

Favorited: Reflections on the Syrian Refugee Crisis

A sermon from Washington City Church of the Brethren on September 13, 2015

By: Nathan Hosler

James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37

The protests in Syria began while Jenn and I were doing peacebuilding work in Nigeria with the Church of the Brethren. Once a year we would come back to the United States so that Jenn’s permanent residency card stayed in good order. In June of 2011 we came home for the denominations Annual Conference but also attended a peacebuilding training. The courses are 10 day long intensives. These courses include people from all over the world who are engaged in peacebuilding related work. I remember very distinctly walking between buildings on day during lunch break. There was a guy, probably a little bit older than I was, walking and talking excitedly. He wasn’t in my class but I knew from introductions early in the week that he was Syrian. He was talking about the protests which I believe he was involved in. The government had just begun using violence against them but while urgent he also seemed optimistic. Probably 2 years later, and now working in the Office of Public Witness here in DC I saw him again–still moving about energetically but this time organizing a rally urging US military intervention. After years of ever expanding violence, atrocities, and millions displaced optimism feels long gone. Were the violence to end—completely—this weekend, the aftermath and destruction still feels nearly insurmountable.

On Thursday Jenn and I went to Calvary Baptist in Chinatown to hear Nadia Bolz-Weber speak. Nadia is known as a rather unexpected pastor with a higher than average tattoo count and an unlikely story of completely bottoming out before dramatically experiencing God’s grace. One thing she asserted was that Christians need to stop trying to make ourselves look like we have it together. We need to honestly face the violence of our world. This is what I am going to attempt.

Today we are going to read our scripture passages alongside the crisis of refugees coming out of Syria. When we live far away—and particularly if our job does is not related to international affairs—it is easy to forget that conflicts and disasters and the many years long consequences and recovery from these continue on. This week was one of those weeks when an ongoing war-caused humanitarian disaster broke through into the public space.  I won’t be remotely comprehensive. There are plenty of sources that are available and you have probably seen which can given more detailed analysis. What I’m going to attempt is a public theology or perhaps theological ethical take on our two scripture readings and this refugee crisis

Over the past two weeks the presence and intensity of the Syrian refugee crisis has increased—at least in the media. There were harrowing pictures of a drowned Syrian child on a beach, of parents desperately trying to get ashore off of leaking boats, of hundreds setting out on foot because they were not allowed to take a train. We witnessed policymakers make bold commitments (Merkel in Germany) and not so bold commitments from our own government. I heard of individual people bringing out food and water as people hiked rather than took a train while xenophobic and anti-Muslim rhetoric was vented.

The passage in James 2 begins, My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”(NRSV)

The New International Versions translates it “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.”(NIV)

Favoritism is obviously being challenged by Jesus. The writer continues on, giving an example of what this might look like. He is speaking within the context of gathering of the church and says if a rich person comes in and a poor person comes in and you treat the rich better then you have “made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts.” Though this is only the second chapter of a book that is decidedly practical and ethical in nature, poverty and riches have already been noted at several points. Given our passage and other contextual clues this is a context of a relatively poor church. In such a context connecting with a wealthy benefactor would be not only a bonus but a key to survival. This is a reflection of the patronage system of the day. Yet despite this, James adamantly condemns showing favoritism.

Children—as it is reported—have a strong sense of fairness, that is, at least when it affects them. In this passage the challenge to favoritism comes not from a general account of fairness but from Jesus–In fact the question is posed, with your favoritism do you really believe in Jesus? This isn’t a general “as Christians we really shouldn’t …” but are you really a Christian? Do you really follow and believe in Jesus? This is a not a preference toward not acting with favoritism based on economics but serious enough bring into question one’s relationship to God. It is not, however, a calculus based on net worth, total assets or dollars but of valuing certain persons or categories of persons over others. Though James is primarily referring, in this passage, to personal encounters with those entering the church it would also apply to allowing systemic favoritism (or the inverse—systemic oppression) to go unchallenged.

  1. First observation of the text is that favoritism is a big deal and the challenge to favoritism, or valuing some over others, is based on Jesus (or perhaps a claim that one is following Jesus). We see that even when it is important for economic viability of a community to show favoritism toward those with power that this is no excuse.

So I am claiming that James is claiming that belief and following the way of Jesus is incompatible with favoritism. How then do we understand the passage we read in the Gospel of Mark? In this passage Jesus is approached by a woman who begs that he heal her daughter. Jesus response is not what we would expect.

25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir,  even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

How do we account for Jesus initial response to the woman?

If my assertion that in James favoritism is challenged by Jesus rather than a more general account of justice or fairness rang true to you, the passage in Mark likely caused you to pause–likely created some discomfort. Jesus is approached by a woman asking for help for her daughter and Jesus responds in a way that sounds blatantly racist–or at least bigoted against a different religion or region.

Interpreters may take several approaches which I will note. I note these to help understand this passage but also as a mini lesson on hermeneutics (and perhaps theological method).

We could say that this is simply a case of cultural, religious, and racial biases of Jesus’ community shining through. In another Gospel, we read of Jesus as a boy and that he “grew in wisdom”. This is an assertion that though Jesus is the Messiah, Immanuel—God with us—that there was still some sort of natural progression. Since of course Jesus was from a community with a culture and history, part of this growth would include the assumptions of this community. Since, as all of us who have gotten older at any point can attest, we continue to grow and learn throughout our lives this rather offensive comment from Jesus is simply a case of his continued bias showing through but then his being challenged and changing.

It may be the case that Jesus was corrected in this simple exchange but it seems unlikely to me given the verses immediately before this event. In the first portion of this chapter Jesus explicitly challenges the assumptions and practices of the religious leaders around what is considered clean and unclean. When the religious leaders criticized his disciples for eating with hands that were not ritually clean Jesus said, “’Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!”

 So, though Jesus’ response to the woman is surprising from him, it is a continuation of his challenging policies and beliefs of exclusion—and in James of favoritism.

If I have managed to convince you that that favoritism is a big deal and the challenge to favoritism, or valuing some over others, is based on Jesus the question still remains—How does this relate concretely to Syrian refugees? Well, an obvious and abstract answer is that we should not treat Syrian refugees any differently that we would want to be treated if we needed to flee during a civil war that dragged Canada and Mexico into the chaos. The second answer is that we should push our government to enact policies that adequately support refugees which would include more than the scant 10,000 Obama just promised to accept. Or by supporting the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign that works against anti-Muslim rhetoric aimed at Syrian refugees. This is of course critical and should be done. This is also is the sort of thing my office works on. This is important but, honestly, doesn’t take a whole lot of personal sacrifice.

In 2010 we went to the CoB’s National Youth Conference. While in line to register behind the General Secretary Stan Noffsinger I mistook Jarrod McKenna (who has long dread locks) for Shaine Claiborne (who also had long dread locks at the time). I don’t know what I said—I think it was some sort of joke or semi-snarky comment (which may have been a little dangerous for someone I didn’t know)—but we ended up talking with Jarrod and then spending a good part of the next few days with him. Jarrod is from Australia and became very active in direct action protests against the asylum seekers policy of Australia. While involved in these protests he and his wife Teresa felt that they needed to directly support refugees in getting into the hard to enter rental market of Perth. Long story short, they raised or borrowed enough money to buy and renovate an abandoned Pentecostal church turned meth-lab. This became known as the First Home Project. Now Teresa, Jarrod, and their son Tyson live in a building which has expanded to several buildings and houses and rents to refugee families who otherwise would struggle to get into the rental market. While this may sound kind of glamorous Jarrod notes that this isn’t really the case. He says, “Homework lessons change lives. Driving lessons change lives. Helping somebody with their CV changes lives. Having a cup of tea with someone changes lives. And it’s not sexy, and it’s not spectacular, and it’s not going to make a Facebook update, but it’s real.”


As second critical piece of James is, that faith and works are inseparable. Belief and action must be joined.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters,[e] if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

At her talk this Thursday Nadia Bolz-Weber claimed of her congregation–“We are religious but not spiritual.” By this she sought to challenge the tendency to separate the spiritual from the bodily. Indeed the idea that faith and works (or actions) can be separated is even challenged. In the case of Abraham the act was the faith. In this passage the writer is challenging a tendency to isolate faith from works so that it is understood to be authentically from grace rather than earned. For many Brethren I wonder if the tendency is from the other side. That is, we know that we are supposed care about justice and service but occasionally we think that is it. Now, don’t get me wrong, all things being equal I would much prefer that someone be committed to justice and service rather than not, but, we do this because we follow Jesus. Not only are we to reject favoritism—or a prioritizing of on group over another—but we are to get around to doing something. Watching the news and feeling angry and sad and empathy is important but if we simply stop there we have come up short. I must admit that at first the prospect of writing a sermon amidst work and my studies was not quite what I wanted to be doing—however, when I realized that this could be a tiny part of addressing the actual suffering of actual people my perspective started to bend. When we come to church to here the Gospel we do not do this as some sort of obligation or strange entertainment but as part of our being molded as a people into radical Christ followers. Just a verse before James challenges favoritism we read “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.”

May our lives be so formed that we, in the way of Jesus, abandon favoritism living out our faith for the glory of God and for our neighbors good. Amen.

Nigeria: Office of Public Witness analysis and update

In July, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari arrived in the United States for his first Presidential visit to D.C. President Buhari’s visit came just seven weeks after an historic electoral victory over incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, which marked the nation’s first successful and peaceful transition of power from an incumbent to an opposition party.

This success took center stage as President Obama sat down with President Buhari on Monday to commend him on this achievement.  But looming over Buhari’s visit and his recent electoral victory, is Boko Haram’s renewed bloody campaign.

The visit included a series of several high-profile meetings with President Obama, senior members of the Obama Administration and Congressional leaders. Framing these dialogues is a surge in Boko Haram-related violence throughout Nigeria and into neighboring Chad and Cameroon despite increased presence and funding of multi-national security forces.

As such, much of the official visit and its media coverage has focused on the expansion of US-Nigeria military cooperation in countering Boko Haram. Yet this is only one piece of the puzzle.

There is, however, a great resource that continues to go ignored and untapped in countering violent extremism—namely the brave and resilient communities on the frontlines of the violence. And if we are to take a more holistic approach that addresses the underlying causes of terrorism, as asserted by President Obama and Buhari, then there should be a greater concerted effort to develop a strategy that ensures accountability of military forces to local communities and puts civil society leaders and peacebuilders at the center of countering violent extremism.

Even though displaced to Yola, Jos, Abuja and many places in between, the Church of the Brethren Nigeria (EYN) have already begun to rebuild. During these weeks the region has experienced increasing attacks from Boko Haram, which has left more than 625 more people dead since President Buhari’s inauguration. To be sure, they have felt the acute brutality of Boko Haram. Their hearts are still heavy from the loss of the 273 Chibok girls, most of whom were members of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN), taken by Boko Haram. Since 2009, more than 1350 women and children have been kidnapped, confirmed 10,000 EYN members killed, over 280,000 members displaced, and 70% of EYN churches burned or abandoned due to the conflict.

As the violence spread in the fall of 2014, EYN Liaison Officer, Markus Gamache, opened his home to displace family friends and others.  Soon 50 people were living in his 2-bedroom home located in Jos.  As the violence spread and the needs grew, Markus developed the vision for an interfaith camp to relocate both Muslim and Christian families while demonstrating how people of different faiths can live in peace.  Working with an interfaith group called Lifeline Compassionate Global Initiatives, Markus started with a plan to build 10 homes to help those living in his home.  By the spring of 2015 the list grew to 100 families, even as the construction on the first 62 homes, sanitation, water well and kitchens are completed.

When the EYN Church headquarters near Mubi where over run by Boko Haram in October 2014, displacing all national church leadership and the related Bible College staff and students, the loss and shock of the situation was more than overwhelming, we wondered if the Church would continue.  With support coming from the US Church of the Brethren, EYN leadership soon found new footing and created a crisis response team.  In an impressive show of resiliency and leadership the EYN team have provided relief to thousands through the remaining church structure of districts.  Under the inspired leadership of Reverend Dr. Samuel Dali, EYN president, construction is underway for care centers that will support those displaced from the current crisis and future violence in Nigeria.  The Church is not only helping serve those in need, it is imagining how to better serve beyond this crisis.  An impressive effort with displaced staff and only 30% of the Church body intact.

Yet in the face of such tragedy, our faith and relationship with the Church of the Brethren US and the Swiss and German Mission 21 has united us, fortifying our resolve to live together in peace.  Indeed, over the last year, Church of the Brethren has raised $3.1 million dedicated to a five-year plan for crisis response in the affected areas. In our efforts, thousands are receiving food and shelter, EYN’s Peace program is providing trauma healing workshops for pastors, women’s groups, and lay leaders to help those suffering from spiritual and emotional trauma, and a special interfaith relocation project is building homes that will house more than 100 families or 800 people.

Through these efforts of response, recovery, and rebuilding we have strengthened our communities and connections with our Muslim kindred and brought hope to a people that have been brutalized.  Many times over the populations in the northeast have felt abandoned by their government and international community.

Improved diplomatic relations between the most populous country in Africa and the USA may help Nigeria fight its insurgency more effectively, but only to the extent that the relationship encourages a more holistic response to the Boko Haram insurgency–and not one focused exclusively on the battlefield.  This insurgency will only end when there are real and robust attempts to tackle what is at the root of Boko Haram’s insurgency: political and economic marginalization, corruption, inequality, and abuses committed by political elites and military personnel without recourse. While this visit might not yield any substantial initiatives or agreements in the short term, ideally this initial diplomatic visit could serve to more clearly define the long-term, shared work to be done eradicating the conditions that bring about groups like Boko Haram.

And while state diplomacy and cooperation is an important bulwark against terrorism, the responsiveness and flexibility of civil society cannot be underestimated as an integral part to the solution. Therefore, we encourage both Administrations to consider a more prominent role for civil society and religious organizations in developing a more holistic and regional approach to counter Boko Haram.

Office of Public Witness
Church of the Brethren
Washington, DC

The Glory of Gardening: The Hidden Promises of Community Gardening


Monday, June 15th
7:00pm ET

“The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul.” –Alfred Austin

Through the spring Going to the Garden webinar series, we have explored how to start community gardens and how environmental degradation affects conflicts. Join us for this final webinar of the series as we discuss the hidden benefits of community gardens including spiritual wellness, relationship building, and trauma healing.

Gardening is about more than plants and the hopeful harvest of fruits and vegetables that they promise. Gardens provide a space to bring people from all walks of life together, while also facilitating emotional healing and spiritual growth.

Interested participants will be eligible to receive 0.1 Continuing Education Units. If interested, please e-mail

To register for this webinar, please visit this link. Any questions can be directed to


 10325698_10152153201484195_9123992018347122133_nLaura Stone is a theologian and church musician who has most recently been studying at Boston University.  She will soon move back to Indiana, where she grew up, to be a hospital chaplain.  Laura has worked at Gould Farm, a working farm and therapeutic community for adults with mental illnesses, and at Waltham Fields Community Farms, a Boston CSA with an emphasis on urban food access, and through these (and through eating delicious local CSA produce!) has developed a keen interest in the practice and spiritual discipline of gardening and local food.

MTaylorMyeasha Taylor manages Perlman Place Farm of Civic Works Real Food, a 1.5 acre urban farm in Baltimore City through Civic Works Real Food Farm.  She is a native Washingtonian dedicated to growing fresh food in urban communities. She has grown food in Baltimore, D.C., and North Carolina.

tom_pic2Tom Benevento gives leadership to New Community Project’s Undoing Global Warming campaign based out of their Spring Village Ecology Center in Harrisonburg VA. Tom brings the expertise of a degree in Sustainable Systems, along with years of practical experience in the US and Central America.