Archives For Poverty

By Rev. Jessica Stonecypher

“The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it.”—Genesis 2:15

I’m a farmer. Well, really, I’m more of a community organizer seeking to bring people together around the idea of farming.

Jessica Stonecypher

It’s an endeavor that I’ve been dreaming of for many years and I’m excited to be actively participating in a growing movement around local foods and urban agriculture in my community. When I discerned my call to environmental ministry, I knew it would be a struggle. There simply aren’t many who can wrap their brains around how or why an ordained minister would devote her life to such a vocation. But as I’ve grown into my role as a deacon, I’ve learned that I would be miserable without engaging in the work that drew me to set-apart ministry in the first place.

As a result, I landed a grant-funded gig with Muskingum Soil and Water Conservation District. I was hired to work primarily in the Putnam neighborhood of Zanesville, Ohio, to create community gardens in an effort to alleviate food insecurity.

Putnam has been deemed a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning residents don’t easily have access to a grocery store. In addition to this injustice, the neighborhood also doesn’t have a laundromat or a pharmacy. It would be easy to conclude that the Putnam neighborhood has been neglected.

Even so, Putnam is a wonderful place. While it is deeply affected by poverty, food insecurity, and drug abuse, it is also a vibrant community where people are connected and most are striving to make it a better place. Non-profits, churches, businesses, and residents alike are working together to solve these problems. It’s simply amazing!

The place where I do much of my ministry is a local faith-based coffee shop called the Bridge Café. Yesterday, I stopped by to use the restroom and purchase an iced tea (it was a hot day in the garden). What happened during my visit provides a fitting snapshot of the ministry I madly love.

In just a few short minutes I encountered a group of fellow clergy meeting over lunch, two guests of my church’s homeless shelter, a local school administrator, a fellow community garden leader, and the owner of the coffee shop with whom I work closely on one of our garden projects. As a deacon, my love for the world and for my work in common places like gardens and coffee shops bring me the joy and energy I need to overcome the challenges of unconventional ministry.

I’ve learned that I would be miserable without engaging in the work that drew me to set apart ministry in the first place.

My work in connecting the church and the world is a tricky one that requires constant attention to what is appropriate for a clergy person who happens to work for the government. I am constantly thinking of new ways to go about it.

Some of this has been through preaching and teaching eco-theology as well as inviting parishioners into my work in the gardens. Just as exciting for me is the reality that living out my call to ministry is an act of affirmation and encouragement for lay members as they connect the church to the world in their own contexts. My hope is to offer others the freedom to think about ministry as a lifestyle rather than something one does only at church functions.

Community garden plots in the Putnam neighborhood.

Community garden plots in the Putnam neighborhood.

As I look to the future, I’ve been working hard to secure funding to continue my ministry after the grant period is complete in December 2017. This has required imagination and creativity about the future of my work. To date, my agency has applied for a United Way grant that would allow us to teach nutrition and gardening skills in Head Start classrooms and afterschool programs. We have also applied for a USDA Farm to School Grant in partnership with a local school district. Our largest grant application is through USA Today, which required the creation of a promotional video and a public voting period. We are now waiting to hear back about these grants in hopes that at least one of them will be awarded.

In the midst of all of the activity and hustle to make my ministry sustainable, I am learning the importance of relationships and trust in God. In a few short months I may be out of a job.

With that comes a great deal of anxiety. But it has also given me the opportunity to realize that God will not give up on me and most importantly God will not give up on the world. In return, I will not give up on my ministry as a deacon seeking to connect the church and the world around the issues of environmentalism and food justice.

Rev. Jessica Stonecypher, who will be ordained a deacon in full connection in the West Ohio Conference this spring, is Urban Agriculture Specialist at Muskingum Soil and Water Conservation District.

By Rev. Gregory D. Gross

On Nov. 2 I joined the latest Moral Mondays Illinois rally and action. Over 1,000 people gathered for a rally at the state building in downtown Chicago and marched through the streets of the Loop to the target of that Monday’s action, the Chicago Board of Trade.

Moral Mondays

Rev. Gregory Gross takes a stand for the poor in protest of a proposed Illinois state budget.

For over four months, we have been rallying, protesting, and acting while the state of Illinois has been without a budget since July 1. The Illinois General Assembly has passed a deficit budget, which the state’s new governor has vetoed because it is not a balanced budget. The General Assembly has suggested balancing the budget with additional revenue but has not yet approved any new taxes. The governor has refused to even discuss new revenue unless the General Assembly passes his pro-business legislation, which restricts union bargaining. In short, state bills aren’t being paid.

In the meantime, the most vulnerable in our state are suffering the consequences of all this political maneuvering. State programs serving those on the margins, like subsidized childcare program, have been cut. Social service agencies with state contracts aren’t being paid—if they still have contracts. The new governor had already ended other contracts that were awarded under the previous administration.

As a result, social service agencies providing services for Illinoisans have begun closing their doors, some permanently. The most vulnerable, those experiencing poverty, severe persistent mental illness, unstable housing, chronic disease, and homelessness, many of who are children and people of color, are bearing even more of the brunt of the state budget than they already are.

This summer a group of clergy and community activists began organizing Moral Mondays Illinois to draw attention to the budget impasse and to raise awareness of those most affected. Our movement is based on the Moral Mondays social justice movement that started in North Carolina as a response to actions of their state legislature. Moral Mondays Illinois has focused upon inequality in taxation and revenue for the state.

And so we rallied at the Chicago Board of Trade. The governor and others have said that there is no alternative to the state’s fiscal problems other than to make further cuts. They say there is nothing else that that can be done than to eliminate these vital services.

We went to the Board of Trade to say otherwise; to bring attention to other options. We chanted, we raised signs, we yelled. We gave voice to the voiceless. Services don’t need to be cut. Instead, the state can tax corporations and big banks that do business on the Chicago Board of Trade and Mercantile Exchange. We called for the governor and state legislature to support the “LaSalle Street Tax,” which would be a $1 to $2 tax on every transaction done at these entities. This translates to a .002% tax on these financial transactions, but could in turn generate an estimated $10 billion dollars for the state each year. Since the chairman of the Board of Trade had failed to respond to requests to meet with him, we went to him.

Once at the Board of Trade, I joined a group of 60 clergy and other community leaders in engaging in civil disobedience. We split up and covered all 25 doors leading in and out of the trade building. We then blocked them, stopping people from leaving or entering the Board of Trade. For over an hour, we shut it down to bring attention to this unjust system. Some people sat in the revolving doors. Others of us stood in front of the doors to stop others from trying to enter. When traders and others approached us seeking to enter the building, we explained that the building had been shut down in order to get corporations to pay their fair share through the LaSalle Street tax.

Moral Mondays 2

Rev. Gregory Gross sits in a police wagon after being arrested for blocking entrance to the Chicago Board of Trade, as part of a demonstration for justice for the poor.

Traders who were prevented from entering were not happy. I was pushed and shoved. Some taunted us to, “get a job” or “go back to your parents’ basement where you live.” One trader kicked in and shattered a glass door to get inside. A group of seminarians had hot soup thrown on them. The love of money makes people do shocking things. But we did not back down.

As a deacon, I am called to serve those on the margins of our society; to use my voice to advocate for those who have no voice; to use my whole self to call for justice. And yes, to call for a fair and just budget, for we know a budget shows what we prioritize. It is a moral document, and when it is immoral, we must speak up. Is this not what the incarnation calls us to do?

I stood my ground. I did not move. A trader asked me, “What makes this legal?” I said, “No one is saying our actions are legal. That’s what makes it civil disobedience.”

I stood my ground, chanting, until the Chicago Police officers told me I was under arrest. I was handcuffed and led to the paddy wagon. And as a police officer helped me into the back, he said, “Thank you for being here and doing this.” To which I replied, “Thank you for doing your job.” This was the common refrain throughout my twelve hours in police custody. As I was booked and processed, fingerprinted and mugshot, one by one the officers asked me what the protest was for and then thanked me for raising awareness.

I used my whole self to call for justice and compassion, even risking arrest. As I sat in my cell I wondered if it were worth it. But then I looked around at who else was being booked: all were young African American men and women. They are the ones who will continue to be most negatively impacted by our states policies. Just before midnight, I was released and given a court date for Dec. 21. What better time to stand before a judge for advocating for the forgotten: mere days before the celebration of the one who was told, “There’s no room for you here.”

Rev. Gregory D. Gross is the chair of the Order of Deacons in the Northern Illinois Conference. He was elected clergy delegate to the 2012 and 2016 General Conferences. His primary appointment is as the community health manager at The Night Ministry, a social service agency that seeks to provide housing, healthcare and human connection to those experiencing poverty, housing instability or homelessness in Chicago. His charge conference is Berry United Methodist Church in Chicago.

By Rev. Amelia Boomershine

Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom of God. One time he asked a rhetorical question: What is the kingdom of God like?

He answered with the parable of the mustard seed. So we named our emerging ministry project “Seeds of Grace.” The Seeds of Grace team leads a weekly Circle of the Word program called “Sacred Stories” for women at the Montgomery County (Ohio) Jail in downtown Dayton. In these Circles I experience the kingdom of God when stories of a deeply personal nature are shared in the safe place that our Sacred Stories Circle becomes as we creatively engage biblical stories.

Amelia Boomershine

Amelia Boomershine

We had a full room for our first Circle of this past summer: three of us from Grace United Methodist Church (Dayton) and eleven from the jail. The two suggestions for connecting to the story of “Hagar Conceives a Son” (Gen. 16:1-6) were invitations to tell about “someone you know who couldn’t have a baby, or a time you were treated with contempt.” I started with a story about a friend who couldn’t have a baby. Then all but one of the others chose to speak on that connection. Every situation described was unique, including recognition that sometimes the issue is with the man and a story to illustrate. The woman who chose the contempt theme shared an experience much like that of Sarah and Hagar. Some of the stories were sad; some had happy endings; all were poignant.

In these times of sharing I sometimes feel like Jesus reaching out to touch a leper, getting in touch with deep sorrow, pain, shame.

Monday Morning Prayer Group supports Circle of the Word participants through prayer.

Monday Morning Prayer Group supports Circle of the Word participants through prayer.

But I am not Jesus, and initially was not sure I could shoulder the burden of these troubles in a helpful and healthy way. As Gregory Boyle asks in his book on ministry with gangbangers in L.A., “How do those who ‘sit in darkness’ find the light? How does one hang in there with folks, patiently taking from the wreck of a lifetime of internalized shame, a sense that God finds them (us) wholly acceptable?” I’m convinced that internalizing certain stories from the Bible in a creative, safe atmosphere is one approach to answering these questions.

Another approach developed as I considered how church members might participate in the Seeds of Grace project besides those who join me as Circlekeepers in the jail. Out of this came the prayer card activity. At the close of each Circle the women are invited to write prayer requests or just their names on an index card, if they would like Grace’s Monday morning prayer group to pray for them. Most accept the invitation and write with sincerity and concentration. Sometimes they write their own prayers or express gratitude for the prayer group. Occasionally a request will be dictated to a Circlekeeper if writing is too much of a challenge.

After reading and praying with the cards myself, I pass them on to the Grace prayer group. On Monday morning prayer group participants begin their hour of prayer by reading aloud each prayer card. They conclude the reading of each card with, “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.” The person who reads the card will take it home and pray over it daily during the week. The prayer group has been doing this ministry for over a year—every week Sacred Stories Circle is held. It is a boundary-crossing spiritual experience for members of the prayer group, as well as for those of us physically going into the jail. Several Circlekeepers are also in the prayer group.

Grace’s senior pastor, Rev. Sherry L. Gale, is a member of the prayer group and has observed how the cards have impacted it: “Through the prayer ministry for the women, our Grace prayer group has connected with a world outside themselves. This connection has brought a growth in the prayer group participants’ understanding and experience of God’s love and God’s people.” For myself, I have learned as never before the importance of local church spiritual practice. I am grateful to have been shown a way to mobilize that practice in response to the needs of women in the jail.

Rev. Amelia Cooper Boomershine is appointed to GoTell Communications, Inc., and Grace United Methodist Church (Dayton, Ohio). Seeds of Grace received an Emerging Ministries grant through the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry for projects developed by deacons. Visit Circle of the Word to follow the Sacred Stories jail ministry and to learn how to start one in your community.