Monday, July 23, 2012

Advocacy Training Needed

Presbyterians Know Mission but Little About Advocacy

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:26)

"Justice-centered advocacy work calls nations,
powers, and principalities to account on behalf of
God’s people for the sake of God in the world."
I am grateful for the privilege to have served the PC(USA) as the Director of the OPW for the past two years. The greatest aspect of my work is meeting Presbyterians who are both passionate and committed to the work of justice. My travels have taken me to 44 presbyteries and numerous congregations to preach, train, organize, and introduce persons to the work of advocacy. Oftentimes, Presbyterians will raise the question “why should the Church have an office in Washington, DC?” Or, “Why is the church involved in politics?” I discover upon further inquiry that many Presbyterians are not familiar with the term advocate or the work of advocacy as an aspect of our Christian calling to serve Jesus Christ.

In John 14:26, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible uses the word “advocate” to describe the Holy Spirit.[i] The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) indicates that the word “advocate” comes from two Latin words “ad” and “vocare” meaning “called or summoned to another.” More specifically, the OED continues, “advocate” means, “called or summoned to plead another’s cause in court.” In this text, Jesus reminds us that God sent us an Advocate, One called to plead our case in the court of judgment. The Spirit is an Advocate. Therefore, we, who are filled with the Spirit, are called to a similar task as we work for the coming Kingdom of God. In our discipleship, we stand between humanity’s brokenness and the need for redemption through the lives we lead for Jesus Christ in the world. It must be noted that we do not serve as redemptive voices because of our righteousness. Instead, we serve by God’s grace.

The writer of I John writes “my little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (I John 2:1b). The word advocate in this passage comes from the Greek word paraklηoς (paraklētŏs – par-ak-lay-tos), meaning an intercessor or consoler. The writer reminds us of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, which relieves us of our sin, in order to assist us in living in the light. He reminds us of the importance of earnestly confessing our sins, which causes God’s justice to prevail (I John 1:9). In short, justice is sought through speaking truth to power in love.

Justice-centered advocacy work calls nations, powers, and principalities to account on behalf of God’s people for the sake of God in the world. This prophetic work is often misunderstood, but is linked to the work of faith as a preventative measure against unjust powers that deal out human pain. These powers include, but are not limited to political, church, governmental, and corporate entities. On the other hand, mission is our response to the consequence of human pain. Through mission, food is provided for the hungry; clothing for the naked; and visitations are made to the sick and imprisoned. As we, in the OPW, act in the tradition of the prophets, we encourage you to learn more about the work of advocacy that your denomination is doing with Presbyterians, as well as ecumenical and interfaith advocates.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of the Washington Report to Presbyterians. To download the entire newsletter, click here.

[i] In previous Revised Standard translations, the word was translated “Counselor.”

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Stand With Presbyterian Women: Take Action for Peace and Justice

The Office of Public Witness continues to provide immediate advocacy opportunities in the interactive PW Live exhibit at the Churchwide Gathering of Presbyterian Women in Orlando, FL.

As the members of Presbyterian Women learn about and take action on important issues of peace and justice, we invite you to add your voice to theirs by taking action now on these important issues:
  • Take Action to Prevent Violence Against Women: On April 26, the Senate passed a bill (S. 1925) to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) with bipartisan support. This bill strengthened protections for all victims, including immigrant women, Native women, and gay and lesbian victims. Unfortunately, the House of Representatives passed a version of this bill that turns back the clock on VAWA. The House bill lacks several of the protections included by the Senate - in fact, some of the differences in the House bill would actually increase the risk faced by some womenCongress needs to send to the President for his signature a real VAWA, with all of the provisions in S. 1925, that serves all victims and contains no rollbacks to the current VAWA. As more and more legislation is stalled due to Congressional gridlock, we need Congressional leaders to hear our strong and united message once and for all: your work on VAWA is not over. Ask your members of Congress today to solve any procedural challenges and pass an inclusive VAWA.
  • It's Time for Just and Comprehensive Immigration Reform: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) Office of Public Witness was heartened by the announcement last month that President Obama signed Executive Order halting deportations of undocumented youth in the U.S. who would qualify for the DREAM Act, as it was passed by the House in 2011. DHS will begin a process for granting "deferred action" to these youth. Eligible individuals – including but not limited to those who are currently in deportation proceedings – will be allowed to remain and work in the U.S. The Administration’s action last month is an encouraging step forward toward needed reform, but it is not enough. DREAMers, who are our coworkers and neighbors, need stability, safety, and a permanent path to citizenship, which only Congress can provide. Tell Congress to follow the President’s lead, to pass the DREAM Act, and to take this important step towards just and comprehensive immigration reform.
The Office of Public Witness invites you to stand with Presbyterian Women as they advocate for these important peace and justice issues by taking action today, and to join us in praying for the participants and leaders at the Churchwide Gathering.

Friday, July 20, 2012

An Update and Reflection on Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons

In the past month, we have taken many steps forward toward ending prolonged solitary confinement in US prisons. Senate held the first ever hearing on solitary confinement, the General Assembly passed a resolution which recognized that solitary confinement can be a form of torture, and Illinois Governor Quinn proposed to close the Tamms Correctional Center, one of the first “supermax” prisons well-known for its use of solitary confinement. I'm Debbie Dyslin, the Office of Public Witness summer fellow working on torture-related issues. I’ve experienced many of these steps forward first-hand and I hope to convey to you some of the injustices that God has placed on my heart.

On June 19th, I attended the first ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement along with Rev. Dr. J Herbert Nelson, colleagues from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), and an array of other organizations. Over 250 people attended the hearing, filling the hearing room as well as an overflow room. This was also the first time that I’d attended a Senate hearing. The experience is still strikingly vivid in my mind, and I hope and pray that it does not fade. Below is a picture from the hearing, including several witnesses as well as Rev. Dr. J Herbert Nelson (infront of the opening of the replica solitary confinement cell).

Photo: Jonathan Ernst for The New York Times
Photo: Jonathan Ernst for The New York Times

“This is a historic occasion” I heard people around me say. “Long overdue”, many added. Waiting outside the hearing room, crowded against the wall, I had very little idea of what I might see and witness in the following hours.

In his opening statement, Senator Durbin (D-Ill.), the chairperson of the Senate subcommittee for the hearing, shared his experience of visiting the Tamms “supermax” prison and concluded with the plea, “if I had one request to my colleagues on this judiciary committee, it is to visit a prison. Do it frequently, see what it’s like.”

The topic of testimony varied from the living conditions of prisoners, statistics about the US criminal justice system, to the mental health impacts of solitary confinement. Odyssey Networks produced this six-minute video after the hearing.
  • The ACLU had built a replica of a solitary confinement cell in the hearing room. Dr. Craig Haney, Professor of Psychology at UC Santa Cruz, added “it is hard to describe in words what such a small space [not much larger than a king size bed] begins to look like, feel like, smell like, when someone is required to live virtually their entire life in it.”
  • Senators Al Franken (D-Minn) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill) noted that the US has 5% of the world’s population yet 25% of the world’s inmates and a vast majority of prisoners in long-term solitary confinement.
  • Anthony Graves, who spent over 18 years in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit, described his living conditions and the mental deterioration of his fellow inmates.
  • “I lived behind a steel door that had two small slits in it, the space replaced with iron mesh wire, which was dirty and filthy. Those slits were cut out to communicate with the officers that were right outside your door. There was a slot that's called a pan hole and that's how you would receive your food. I had to sit on my steel bunk like a trained dog while the officer delivered my food tray. He would take a steel crow bar and stick it into the metal lock on the pan hole, it would fall open, which then allowed the officer to place your tray in the slot. Afterward, he then steps back, which was the signal for me to get off the bunk and retrieve my food. This is no different from the way we train our pets.”
  • "Solitary confinement does one thing, it breaks a man's will to live and he ends up deteriorating. He's never the same person again."
The lack of exposure we have to instances of torture makes it all too easy for us not to care and not to act. With every picture and testimony that was shared at the hearing, the issue of solitary confinement became increasingly heart-breaking, personal, and real to me. When I arrived at home that night, I learned that a young man from my church community would soon be placed in solitary confinement.
There is hope. During the hearing, Commissioner Christopher Epps from the Mississippi Department of Corrections detailed how he worked with the National Institute of Corrections and the ACLU to reform the practices of the Mississippi State Penitentiary. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) has a national campaign to gather endorsements from people of faith of this statement calling for government officials across the country to take steps to end the use of prolonged solitary confinement as well as state-specific campaigns in CA, CO, IL, ME, NJ, NY, OR, PA, TX, and VA. NRCAT has also produced a 20 minute film “Solitary Confinement: Torture in Your Backyard” and other resources on solitary confinement for individual and congregational use.

In Mark 8:17-18, Jesus challenges his disciples, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” (NRSV). Those questions shape our response to what we have now seen, heard, and read about the injustice of prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. I encourage you to watch the videos mentioned earlier and consider signing the NRCAT Statement Against Prolongued Solitary Confinement and holding a film screening and discussion at your church using NRCAT resources.

Join the Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network, PHEWA, the Office of Public Witness, and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture as we seek justice for victims of prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.

A video recording of the hearing as well as witness testimonies and senator statements can be found on the Senate website. The video coverage begins at 16:33.

The 220th General Assembly (2012) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.):

1.     Calls upon the fifty states and the federal government to follow the example of Maine, Colorado, and Mississippi in significantly limiting the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement, and to limit a prisoner’s duration of solitary confinement, and to instead offer alternatives that address the mental health needs of prisoners, offer skill building opportunities such as anger management, job training, and educational classes that effectively contribute both to prisoners’ rehabilitation and to their successful transition back into society.
2.     Joins in the call of U.S. faith leaders to urge the president to sign and the Senate to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture in order to reduce risk of torture and abuse in U.S. prisons.
3.     Urges presbyteries, congregations, and individual Presbyterians to participate with the Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network, and presbyteries may also wish to participate in the work of PHEWA, on the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to significantly limit the use of solitary confinement.

Save the Date: Advocacy Training Weekend

Presbyterians and Economic Justice: Compassion, Peace, and Justice Training Day 2012

On Friday, March 23, 2012, more than 200 people gathered at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church to get energized and educated about the ministries of Compassion, Peace and Justice (CPJ). Director Sara Lisherness brought greetings, and the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson brought the word. Organizers from across the denomination and its ministries shared best practices, new ideas, and useful information about organizing in the life of the church for justice.

The day’s theme was "Presbyterians and Economic Justice," we spent the day asking questions about what economic justice is and how to organize and achieve it for all people. Participants were educated in workshops on food sovereignty, trade justice, budget priorities, simple living, global development, the economic crisis, and much more!


This article originally appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of the Washington Report to Presbyterians. To download the entire newsletter, click here.

Is THIS the Fast I Seek? Ecumenical Advocacy Days 2012


In this era of economic and political urgency, as critical decisions are being made about U.S. federal budget priorities and as national elections are fast approaching, Ecumenical Advocacy Days (EAD) asked, "Is This the Fast I Seek?"

At the 10th annual EAD, March 23-26, 2012, in Washington, DC, we explored economy, livelihood and our national priorities through the lens of Isaiah 58. Nearly 200 Presbyterians joined close to one thousand Christians in seeking a global economy and a national budget that would break the yokes of injustice, poverty, hunger and unemployment throughout the world — heeding Isaiah's call to become "repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in."

The event culminated on the 26th when participants met with their members of Congress to insist on a Faithful Budget that "defends people struggling to live in dignity by funding programs that protect vulnerable populations here and abroad."

Presbyterians took time together on Saturday evening to fellowship and rejoice in our collective commitment to the prophetic witness of the church. The PC(USA) Office of Public Witness hosted about 100 Presbyterians on the Virginia’s Jewel vessel to enjoy a dinner and dancing cruise down the Potomac River at the height of D.C.’s historic Cherry Blossom Festival.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of the Washington Report to Presbyterians. To download the entire newsletter, click here.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Join Presbyterian Women in Taking Action for Peace and Justice

The triennial Churchwide Gathering of Presbyterian Women convened yesterday in Orlando, Florida. Office of Public Witness Director J. Herbert Nelson and Fellow Blair Moorhead are among the nearly 2,000 participants at the Gathering, which is exploring the theme "River of Hope." As participants in the Gathering learn about a range of peace and justice issues - from providing access to clean water to ending violence against women - the Office of Public Witness has teamed up with Presbyterian Women to provide immediate advocacy opportunities in the interactive PW Live exhibit.

As the members of Presbyterian Women learn about and take action on important issues of peace and justice, we invite you to add your voice to theirs by taking action now on these important issues:
  • Speak Out for Peace in the Sudan: Despite the secession of South Sudan from the north, President Omar al-Bashir continues to terrorize the Sudanese people, bombing villages and blockading humanitarian aid from entering targeted areas. The military attacks have displaced civilians, preventing crop production and placing 500,000 people at the risk of starvation. The Sudan Peace, Security, and Accountability Act of 2012 (H.R. 4169) seeks to end Bashir’s campaign of violence and help the Sudanese people. The law would increase engagement with other stakeholders with influence in Sudan; provide assistance to afflicted areas in the country; create tough sanctions to target any person or entity that assists in any way with the exercise of serious human rights violations, including interfering with humanitarian aid, permitting impunity, or providing money, goods or military equipment to the government of Sudan; and would create benchmarks for ending sanctions should the Sudanese government choose to end the violence against its own people and seek peace. Take action now to urge your Representative to support HR 4169.
  • Water for the World: The need for adequate drinking water and sanitation remains great. Eighty percent of sickness in the developing world, and the deaths of 4,500 children daily, trace back to contaminated water and inadequate sanitation. Diarrheal dehydration caused by these diseases kills more children than AIDS, malaria and TB combined. In 2005, Congress passed the Water for the Poor Act, which made safe drinking water and sanitation official U.S. foreign policy priorities. To build on this success, a bipartisan group of leaders in the House has introduced the Water for the World Act of 2012 (HR3658). This new legislation would place high-level water leadership at USAID and the State Department, ensure that a significant portion of field personnel have water and sanitation experience, and set a goal of bringing sustainable, safe drinking water and sanitation to 100 million people over the next six years. Contact your Representative urging him or her to co-sponsor the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act.
The Office of Public Witness invites you to stand with Presbyterian Women as they advocate for these important peace and justice issues by taking action today, and to join us in praying for the participants and leaders at the Churchwide Gathering.

Look for more opportunities to join the Presbyterian Women in advocacy on Saturday!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Farm Bill Passes in House Agricultural Committee

Earlier this month, the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA) declared that "protection of the environment is a vital part of the Christian faith." In this statement of stewardship, the Assembly asked that our advocacy efforts in the areas of agriculture and food supply be guided by the principles of:

"renewability, sustainability, resilience, minimized carbon emissions, participatory research and decision-making, revitalized rural communities, strong local food economies, security of food supply, ethical treatment of animals, and fair and dignified treatment of persons working throughout the food chain."

As the Farm Bill continues its journey through Congress, we remember these values and lift up important points from the House Agriculture Committee's decisions last week.

After the Senate passed the Farm Bill last month, the bill went through the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday. The committee voted 35-11 in favor of the Farm Bill and discussed over 100 amendments. Their action may move the Farm Bill one step closer to law, although it is still unknown if the Farm Bill will come before the House for debate before the September 30th expiration of the current farm bill.

We posted in detail about the Senate's Farm Bill, and will touch upon some of the same issues as they were decided by the House Agriculture Committee. You may remember that a bulk of the Farm Bill discussion and funding goes toward SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps). SNAP was a major part of the Agriculture Committee's discussions, and they resolved:
  • To cut $16.5 billion from SNAP, $12 billion more than the Senate voted to cut.
  • In good news,  an amendment to increase SNAP cuts to $30 billion was voted down.
  • To increase assistance to food banks through TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program). Five million dollars in TEFAP funding came from SNAP cuts.

The House Agriculture Committee also made changes to programs serving special populations of farmers. The Committee:
  • Supported an amendment to allow microloans to small farmers and beginning and young farmers.
  • Cut funding nearly in half for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, getting rid of the funds for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

Other issues of significance in the House Agricultural Committee's Bill include:
  • Conservation programs were consolidated, cutting the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) by $3 billion, that's $1 billion more in cuts than the Senate's proposal.
  • Rural development, cut by 64% in the Senate's Farm bill, is cut by 88% in the version passed by the House committee on Wednesday.
As you can see, the House Agriculture Committee's Farm Bill contains a mix of large cuts to vital programs as well as supports for America's farms and farmers. As we learn how the Farm Bill will move forward, we will keep you updated with ways to live into our values and to continue our faith community’s commitment to just food systems and stewardship of God's creation.

Ending For-Profit Prisons

OPW Joins Networks and Local Congregations in Opposing Prison Privatization

The men of Elmwood United Presbyterian Church in East Orange, New Jersey, used the Father’s Day weekend to launch efforts for ending privatized prisons. Elder Bill Brown attended the revamping of the PC(USA) Criminal Justice Network at Stony Point Conference Center in New York, and presented the challenge to the men of the Elmwood congregation.
Advocates for Criminal Justice Reform came together to study Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Brown, with the assistance of his pastor, the Reverend Robert L. Burkins, planned a Father’s Day gathering to discuss the impact of Prison Privatization on men in the African American community.
Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson announced the OPW's commitment to ending for-profit prisons.
The Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, PC(USA) Director for Public Witness, was invited to this event to explain the role of advocacy and to suggest action steps for opposing for-profit prisons. Nelson announced the OPW’s commitment to join the struggle with other PC(USA) groups, such as Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA) and Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, in an effort to end for-profit prisons in the United States.
The PC(USA) policy “Resolution Calling for the Abolition of For-Profit Prisons” was approved by the 215th General Assembly in 2003. In this document, the Assembly said:

The question of whether human beings should be incarcerated, of how they should be treated while in prison, of when they will be released, cannot be answered by whether or not these steps will create profit for a corporation.  In a humane society, in a democratic society, there are some things that can never be for sale, even and especially when they involve “one of the least of these followers of mine.”.
“In the Spirit of partnership with other denominational offices and congregations,” said Nelson, “we are hoping that our commitment to combat stockholder profiteering on the incarceration of men and women will be a step toward restorative justice and the biblical mandate to love our neighbor.”

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of the Washington Report to Presbyterians. To download the entire newsletter, click here.